Domain of Perfect Affection

Marianne Cotugno

Domain of Perfect Affection
by Robin Becker
University of Pittsburgh Press

On its cover, Robin Becker’s sixth collection features images of postage stamps for imagined countries created by Donald Evans (1945-1977), the American artist who died in a fire in the Netherlands. The postage stamps capture an extraordinary amount of imaginative detail and contain worlds in miniature, much like Becker’s poems. These postage stamps, like the poems, act as emissaries of foreign – yet seemingly familiar – lands. The collection’s title comes from Patricia Cronin’s 1999 work sculpture featuring models of horses similar to those collected by children arranged on a table. Domain of Perfect Affection also was the title for a well-regarded show of Cronin’s work from 1993 – 2003.

The thematic concerns of this volume are the concerns of earlier Becker collections: family and romantic relationships, sexuality, Jewish identity, history and the landscape. In her poetry, Becker provides a sense of the familiar, the palpable: for instance, a memorable classroom experience in “The Problem of Magnification” from Giacometti’s Dog (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1990); loneliness in the concluding poem of All-American Girl, “The Roast Chicken” (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996); or our anxieties about the unfamiliar in the witty “Why We Fear the Amish” from The Horse Fair (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000). It is this accessibility that makes her poetry so appealing with a broad range of readers, both experienced and inexperienced.

Yet it is the poet’s eye that allows a reader to see the complexity and richness of these seemingly familiar moments. In Becker’s poetry, what seem like personal time- and place-bound vignettes are often gateways to revelations about larger concerns. In the poem “A Pasture of My Palm,” a childhood act of stealing a porcelain horse becomes something more as the speaker reflects:

In his office I stood, wept, but even
then I was really crying for the cheap
horse back in the glass case, my mother,
my foolish and punishable desires,
the future taking shape: corral, stampede.

Here, Becker moves from a child’s immediate sense of regret about a loss object to a prophetic vision of her future and emerging sexual identity.

Becker’s poems open up in a similar manner when the reader encounters history through the personal. In the volume’s opening poem, “The New Egypt,” she parallels her father’s advice and with the experience of the Jewish exodus from Egypt and their centuries-long search for a homeland.

The larger implications of Becker’s poems are even more delicately drawn in poems that encounter a history that is not her own. In his column, “Poet’s Choice” (The Washington Post, July 16, 2006), former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky praises Becker’s “comic timing, her ultimate sincerity, and, above all, her respectful close attention [that] make her poem, like Cowper’s [“Epitaph on a Hare”], a winning demonstration of how to express feeling through elements of a life that isn’t literally or exactly one’s own.” In her new collection the prismatic quality that Pinsky notes is evident in “Manifest Destinies,” a found poem that lineates sentences from The Journals of Lewis and Clark, Becker captures the personal in history outside of her own experience, revealing the subtleties cultural conflict:

The beating punishment of one of our men
this day alarmed the Indian Chief very much
When He cried aloud I explained the Cause
of the punishment and the necessity of it
His nation never whipped even their children from birth.

One poem in the collection, “The Miniaturists,” draws the reader back to the volume’s cover. Written in memory of Evans, this poem elegizes both Evans and the end of a relationship:

Over dinner, we enjoyed watercolors of Mangiare,
for which he named cities
after Italian dishes and created the region called Pasta,

composed of twenty five provinces, commemorated
on festive stamps
to philatelic standards, properly perforated.

Becker’s interest in Evans highlights her frequent attention to the dynamic relationship of image and text, which she most recently explored in Venetian Blue, the chapbook she created as a response to her time in the Visiting Artists Program at the Frick Art and Historical Center.

Two poems from Venetian Blue, “Head of an Angel” and “Simple Dark,” reappear in Domain of Perfect Affection. In the chapbook, each poem is juxtaposed with an image on the facing page: “Head of an Angel” alongside its namesake, an Albrecht’s Dürer drawing (the type of paper on which the drawing was made provides the chapbook’s title), and “Simple Dark” alongside Lambert Doomer’s “Village Street With a Barn.” In the former the speaker poses a suggestion as to the meaning elements of Dürer’s drawing such as the face’s “upturned eyes”; “Simple Dark” plays with light and shadow just as the painting itself does. But it is the reprinting, unillustrated, of these poems in Doman of Perfect Affection that allows the reader to focus on Becker’s language and form. Without the images as reference, the reader is free to embrace the rejection of the search for the artist’s intent and the celebration of the speaker’s satisfaction with her identity in “Head of an Angel” as the poem opens: “I’ve given up trying to decide / what Dürer intended and accept myself / for what I am—androgynous, sublime.” Freed from its accompanying image, “Simple Dark” also speaks to the moment of self-discovery:

To fall in
With the simple dark,

to finger the wooden hinge,
lock, hook, abraded stalls:
this feeling your way

in the bar a first
knowledge, where thought roams,
a barn cat.

As in earlier volumes, Becker demonstrates her dexterity with poetic form. She bookends the collection with sonnets and includes a much rarer form, the pantoum, around which she frames her “Birds of Prey.” The pantoum form, with its repeating lines, seems the perfect vehicle for describing and interrogating the persistence of life in an ever-changing – and ever more hostile – world:

The cream breast of the hawk glides overhead.
Titmice scatter seeds by the coal bin.
O lay me down in the sleep of the dead.
In Pennsylvania hills, developers steal in.

The collection ends with the poem “The Wild Heart” on a note of hope: “Today I put my faith in our natural gifts— / good humor, good friends, the nick-of-time— / in your wild heart that inclines toward mine.”

Smartish Pace
Smartish Pace