Chill and Critique

Leaves of Class by Kit Robinson. Chax Press, 2017. 80 pp, poetry.

In other hands, Kit Robinson’s Leaves of Class might have been a tirade on the social inequalities present in the United States, a poetic album of personal experiences based on wealth and occupation. While not strident in this way — the mood of the book lies somewhere on the scale of chill between “kick back” and “take ten” — Robinson’s book of poems does grapple with these questions, in its way. What are “leaves of class”? All the texts and objects that mark our reality, that repeat in our daily lives, that go about constructing who we are. Robinson collects throwaway phrases on everything from pop to athletics and casually arranges them into poems, organized around his “I”. He also notes objects, such as the 17 Reasons billboard on Mission and 17th in San Francisco, which he likely passes everyday, and to which he insistently returns.

There is a recognizable specter of cultural Marxism behind this project, aesthetically presented as it is. “History branded, strapped, shipped / Who do you trust to tell you what really happened, what’s really happening? / The fact of the matter isn’t.” No explanation then — but lots of noting things down. The soft power of tech companies and their corporatist aesthetic get some half-hearted ribbing. At one point Robinson references how the San Francisco Bay has become Oracle Bay, in reference to the recently renamed Oracle Arena in Oakland. None of this is parody; it’s just the state of affairs.

But Robinson has no interest in pamphlet poetry, even if he constantly references capitalism and even has a “Poem for Occupy” (actually a poem about how he wanted to write a poem for Occupy but couldn’t). Capitalism seems to interest him less as an economic system that requires practical dismantling than as a mental complex of signs and symbols that distracts from the simple, important things. Capitalism disorients: “What in the end are mountains, rivers, earth, human beings, animals, and houses? / You turn the channel to view a life-size bust of Immanuel Kant draped in Mardi Gras beads, fuzzy dice, gold rope and kelp.” It does not prioritize love: “the word valuosity does not exist in the language of x’s and o’s”.

For Robinson, the flaw of the “system” as is seems to be that it makes simplicity difficult. In some respects, a desire for simplicity maps onto the text. The first poem is a thank you note, an art form in itself. The phrases Robinson likes to capture tend to be chatty and colloquial, drawn from everyday conversation or from music, particularly in Spanish. Written down, these phrases at first look like a “word sizzle”, but on second read reveal to be a careful cataloguing. Robinson doesn’t do mash-ups, but he’s a careful observer; his poems read like lists of notable things he’s read or heard throughout his day.

The kind of simplicity Robinson seems to want, a philosophy of chill, is something like Zen Buddhism, and indeed Robinson is a practitioner. One of his poems, “Shikantaza,” refers to a state of absolute stillness or “precise sitting,” a mental calm while observing the universe. Robinson refers multiple times to Bashō, whose philosophy and literary style he admires as well as to Zen Masters of the Sōtō school Shunryū Suzuki and Dōgen Zenji.

Leaves of Class is a clear wink at the old salt-and-pepper poet, and the book is similarly interested in the personal and universal, the relationship between individual experience and collective whole. Whitman becomes a sort of master, not as a Zen Buddhist but as a guru for thinking about the mutually fulfilling relationship between self and society.

But perhaps there’s a way the book can also make one think of another kind of “class,” in terms of school. With phrases like “the planet is getting hotter and so are you” and “the iceberg is approaching Shaq,” Robinson is asking questions about a different set of priorities and a different kind of education, one in which we treat one another and the planet well. Like a yearbook, this can be read as a collection of what’s happened in the life of a person and his peers — no longer gawky adolescents but now searching adults. A yearbook doesn’t usually continue this late into life, and it tends to be focused on images. Robinson’s composes a kind of yearbook of verbal experience, dextrous formulations or kitsch utterances repeated so often that they’re worth capturing.

Robinson was born in Illinois in 1949 and grew up in Ohio, but he’s been living in the San Francisco Bay Area since he graduated college. His poetry is saturated with references to the Bay, from public transportation to sports teams to local landmarks. His work can be grouped with that of other “California poets” in its weird mix of reaction against capitalism, embrace of capitalism’s benefits, spiritualism, technology, informality and pop culture.

In Robinson’s poems, computer language is pervasive, perhaps a result of his personal experience. Like many poets, Robinson has held a lot of non-literary jobs; his page on the Poetic Labour Project reads: “Kit Robinson worked as a cab driver, teacher’s aide, mail clerk, poet-in-the-schools, legal proofreader and jury trial reporter before beginning a three-decade career as a corporate communications professional.” One of his poems, “Error Message,” is a list of phrases with some kind of linguistic glitch. This could go on endlessly, like a virus, “always more where came from.” Another, “Scope Creep,” plays with management terminology referring to uncontrolled change in a project’s scope. It can seem wink wink, nod nod — until this façade of knowing about technology drops away into a kind of sheer incredulity. “Egad! I’m composing on screen!”

What Robinson seems to be looking for is a curious, timeless, approachable informality, one that is not totally trite yet does not reject the banal, one that is open to influences of all kinds. “We wonder what’s happening. Same-o same-o? Roll up vernacular shirt sleeves / Check it out.” In a sort of manifesto, he rebuts a rhetorical challenge: “‘Across time?’ Why not? The conversational demi-monde of the New Narrative, the hyper-attentive devotees of Language Writing, the monk poets of old Japan, the decadents of ancient Rome.” These are the worlds with which he wants to affiliate, in his own unique key of California chill: “yeah / it’s all good,” “relax and go with it,” “keep on keeping on, yo.”