‘The Whirlwind of Stories Behind Her Teeth’: Horror and Humanity in Nina Belen Robins’ ‘The Supermarket Diaries’ and ‘A Bed with My Name On It’
The first time I met Nina Belen Robins, she was reading poems at an open mic in Suffern, New York. Equal parts funny, heart-wrenching, shocking, and bold, Belen Robins’ poetry was and remains evocative, entertaining, and relatable. I was grateful to see her perform and to witness first hand just how much her poetry can truly touch people’s lives. I was also grateful to read her first two books, Supermarket Diaries and A Bed with My Name On It, and to be able to take a closer look at the beauty and candor of her writing.
Her first book, Supermarket Diaries, does not disappoint. The poems are a series of vignettes and character studies, analyzing her interactions with supermarket customers as a cashier with the same humor and candor found in all her poems. What struck me most in this book was the ability to find something extraordinary in the familiar, as well as the incredible intimacy of her writing, an intimacy not often afforded to retail workers. Familiar to anyone who has worked in the service industry is the oasis of the sympathetic customer, the individual who sees past your name tag and your corporate-issued smock and into the human being behind the cash register. Poems such as “Steven’s Mother” and “Tarzan” even tackle complicated difficulties of identity, observing how the complexities of our internal self-image affects our interactions with the greater world. What these poems are capable of doing is what so much literature struggles with: they confront the humanity of strangers and of the self head on, and don’t turn away from what they see.
Belen Robins’ second book, A Bed with My Name On It, offers a different angle from which to view the author’s experiences. Reader’s first received a glimpse of Belen Robins’ history of institutionalization in the poem “Shopping Day for the Group Home” in Supermarket Diaries, and in this collection she holds nothing back in detailing her long struggles with mental illness and institutionalization. From the impressionistic poem “Beginnings,” Belen Robins continues to use character as the central, driving force of her poems, focusing on the interactions of individuals and the desperation for real, human connection. The omnipresent “staff” of the institutions, dehumanizing and impersonal, are contrasted with the just as ubiquitous “we” — the community brought together by their mutual experiences in such institutions. Belen Robins’ vivid use of imagery, her astute observations of individual character, and her unparalleled honesty make this collection truly breathtaking to read.
In both of these books, Belen Robins offers the reader a powerfully emotional look at the importance of human connection, the power of community, and the ability of recognizing and honoring humanity wherever it may be found. On a more personal note, she also offered me an outlet for my own grief, both from the dehumanizing nature of service labor and the rejection faced by many of us who struggle with mental health issues. The proper word, I think, is still gratitude — for Belen Robins’ talent, her perseverance, her honesty, and, more than anything, her poems.
Nina Belen Robins books — Supermarket Diaries, A Bed with My Name On It, as well as her new book, T. Gondii — — are all available for purchase on Amazon.
Charlie Orlando Leppert is a queer writer, library staff member, and student from northern New Jersey. His work focuses queerness, the complexity of American identity, mental health, and resisting conformity. His passion lies in communities of art activism, exploring the ways in which art and writing can help us all live happier, healthier lives while deconstructing systems of oppression. You can learn more about him at charlieleppertpoetry.com or @charlie_orlando on Instagram.