REVIEW: IF YOU DISCOVER A FIRE — SHAUN ROBINSON (BRICK BOOKS)

Walk around long enough in unfamiliar terrain, and you’ll end up going in a circle. Studies prove it: Wandering, minus points of reference, will have you chasing your own tail.

Stick around in that unfamiliar terrain—settle into a new neighbourhood, say—and you’ll pick out landmarks. Soon, you’ll look back on that first day you wandered in a circle and say, “Of course.”

As in, “Of course I went in a circle—I took a left at the laundromat and another left at the vape store and then I skirted the side of the park the pond is on.” As in, of course you realized, at some point, you’d crossed your own path. Following the route you did, you could not have ended up anywhere else.

Shaun Robinson’s poems are really good at giving readers that “of course” moment. If You Discover a Fire is full of them. You start in one place—a forest on fire, a restaurant where you’re stacking individual creamers into a tower, falling in love wearing colorful pants—and by the end, you realize you’ve run into yourself.

Along the way, you’ll probably laugh. And maybe wince. For instance, in “Trivia Night,” we see history before the invention (discovery?) of the zipper, watch Abraham Lincoln

… fumbling
with hooks and loops above a chamber pot
in the Ford theatre moments before
every fact he’s ever known is blown
through a hole in the back of his head.

Ow. Or in “The Future Lives Here,” talking about a coworker:

… At twenty-nine,
he had two kids by different women.
The longest he’d ever been faithful
was to an annual pass at the gym.

Ouch!

Which isn’t to say that Robinson’s poetry is cruel; far from it. At their darkest and funniest, these poems get their inertia from a heavy heart, loaded with a big, complicated, generous sadness.

“Punxsutawney Bill” may be the best mascot for that sentiment. An epilogue to Groundhog Day, it shows Bill Murray’s character trying to adapt to life after breaking free from his familiar 24-hour loop. His home is a mess because “No one tidies / when he sleeps anymore, // unsnapping pencils, dusting / snow from lawns.” His love interest left after she “discovered he’d only ever learned // the one piano medley.” Without closure, the loop becomes a spiral.

Still, the poem ends on something like a note of Buddhist optimism; the protagonist’s Groundhog Day experience has taught him forbearance, and in time, he may even learn to love life on the outside.

Elsewhere, in “Terminal,” the speaker quotes Seneca while trapped in the limbo of Economy Class. In “Balcony,” a climbing tomato plant climbs from a failing garden, has “still not found what it needs, / but it keeps climbing.” Which almost sounds optimistic

Throughout the poems in this collection, there’s a sense that the speaker is willing to recognize that misery is fleeting, there’s beauty in the everyday, that it’s all kind of meaningless so there’s no use worrying—but that he doesn’t quite buy it. That any pat existential philosophy is unstable, in light of the facts.

It’s that instability that helps to give these poems their restless energy. Meticulously structured, frequently hilarious, and sometimes heartbreaking, If Your Discover a Fire is worth returning to, again and again and again.

3 Replies to “REVIEW: IF YOU DISCOVER A FIRE — SHAUN ROBINSON (BRICK BOOKS)”

  1. So that’s why I keep reading the same poems over and over again. 🙂

  2. I’ve not come across Shaun Robinson before – but I’m intrigued. I really like your description of finding one’s bearings in poetry being like crossing one’s own path. Very evocative.

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