The conventional definition of the hoard is of something that is treasured and closely guarded, but often kept secret. In that way, the poems in Jaime Robles’ Hoard propose a phenomenology of disclosure. The concrete grounding, the ostensible subject, of this poetry are the ancient treasure hoards—specifically the Hoxne hoard—of Roman Britain. The material, then, if obliquely, tells stories about lives that are largely lost to history. The stories, as Robles reads them, are most often about desire: mythic, erotic, elemental. After all, what we record in story is part of our treasure, a way of framing our deepest longing and aspiration. Dug up, we examine goods and their tarnish, the way parts have shifted in their earthen grave over time. The story they disclose is inevitably incomplete, the trove scattered or broken. Still, treasure is treasure because it resonates over time: its value shifts but endures. Disclosed as artifact or as poem, the historical becomes contemporary, becomes timeless.
Hoard offers the reader extremely elegant, sculptural poems that nonetheless convey all the contradiction and ambivalence that is implied in any treasured thing. Elsewhere Robles has noted that writing, “no matter how obscure, is a form of action. The act of writing assuages and reconstructs the silences that […] build within my mind.” Robles’ lyric interpolations into those silences effectively reanimate and reconstruct dark space and lacunae. The further risk these poems take is to make an emotional commitment to a narrative that is highly speculative, both because the relics of hoards have a limited ability to express their origins and meanings, and because the humans who endow treasure with meaning are so very whimsical themselves. Robles has noted Martha Nussbaum’s sense that emotions are cognitive acts akin to thought. By her willingness to embrace the affective as holding genuine meaning within this poetry, Robles further opens them up as ethical vehicles. Where history would seek to define its record and objects dispassionately, Robles suffuses her “findings” with the commitments—those pleasures and sorrows—of lived experience. Empathy then becomes another form of disclosure as the poet shapes a language that is jointly that of narrator, reader, and subject: “It is easier for you to unravel them, speaking, as you do,/their language.” (8)
The tensions between past and present, speaker and subject, between lover and beloved, between trove and detritus shift continually throughout Hoard, and these shifting relations (as well as the way they necessarily blur) endow the collection with a sense of narrativity. Yet this is narrative off balance, never quite sure of its history or its players:
And because there are two of you,
time shutters open, just as now removes itself to then,
shedding on its way details—
patterns of light, and story-telling, absurd and restless. (50)
Robles sets up this indeterminacy with elegant and knowledgeable use of form. One can see this, for example, in the poem “Gold Body Chain for a Small Woman” in which several different formal modalities are simultaneously at play. The poem includes descriptive language that is almost technical: “Drop the long X of woven chain/across the clavicle’s horizontal bones: an ornament marks the junction/with stones—four-petalled stones front and back, roped:/such discs serve as calculations of the heart’s orbit.” (24) This dispassionate language is set off with the language of eros: “His voice follows as precisely as a finger the chain/that paths under her arms.” (28) The intersection of measured description and passion is made further complex by the horizontal lines that inscribe the lower half of the page. Thus the poem operates on two horizons—the narratives that rise above the line, and the lyric fragments that sink below it. Those subterranean lines are rich in auditory pleasure; indeed, Robles has made them dense with the alliterations characteristic of Old English poetry:
three threaded thick seeming and
four fingered into a fulcrum each
strand strung a single terminal (25)
The lyric intensities of these partially excavated fragments push back amid the calmly descriptive and the speculatively narrative. They aver presence but challenge certainty. The same kind of ambiguity haunts the apt reference to Persephone in an earlier poem: “Like Persephone, I have left my mother behind./You, with your precision, would claim that she has left me,//but her death was neither her choice nor mine.” (13) What is manifest, what is disclosed, is like desire—partial, ambiguous, a product of what one wants as much as what one can prove to be so. It is Robles’ gift as a poet that enables her to temper the otherwise absolute horizon of lost and found, loss and fulfillment.
I want to further suggest that the ethics of empathy are also alive in this poetry, as evidenced by Robles’ attention to the natural landscape. The poems of Hoard, after all, are concerned with what’s been interred, what carries on a secret life below ground. These ambivalent treasures claim seasonal and ritual cycles. Robles often embodies her landscapes in such a way as to make the human continuous with the natural:
Because the deep earth is vital as skin—
clay clinging to clay
small animals and fingers of gravity
moving beneath its liquid surface (29)
This arresting imagery does not merely personify the landscape; it would not be as effective if it did. Rather, this imagery makes way for a radical inclusivity that reinterprets ancient human relationships to the natural world for contemporary humans who now live in dire jeopardy because they cannot understand that—ashes to ashes and dust to dust—all life is continuous. It’s not that Robles is articulating an ecopoetics per se, but that her amorous narratives and excavations disclose the rejuvenating, eerie unions that come about when the poet turns to startling recognitions: “their eyelids, thin and veined, fringed/at the edge, lashes knit, lying like wet leaves across two sets/of eyes.”(57)
In Hoard, Jaime Robles brings a precise and knowing grace to the task of learning what treasure is and how it might best be opened, in all its vulnerability, to those who surrender to desire. These poems subtly stop time to enact the contact that makes all our most intimate archeologies meaningful and, ultimately, enduring:
The silence between syllables hangs like a question mark
and, so, touch between us melts into a brief deferral of motion. (76)
Hoard is available from Shearsman Books
Elizabeth Robinson is the author, most recently, of the poetry collections Three Novels (Omnidawn) and Counterpart (Ahsahta). Her recent mixed genre book, On Ghosts, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. She is a co-editor of Instance Press and the litterery periodical pallaksch.pallaksch.