The number one cause of drunk driving is learning to drive
but it’s your job to teach us to drive. I met someone yesterday
who looked me in the eyes, even touched me just above
the elbow. I lingered for a second but then I looked away.
I had to. Our faces. Wouldn’t it be awful if they got stuck this way?
From “In Praise of Lying to Children Specifically”
Robert Wood Lynn may have published his first poetry collection just two years ago, but he has already established himself as one of the most talented writers in America. Winner of the 2021 Yale Younger Poets Award for his debut collection, Mothman Apologia, Lynn was recently named a finalist for the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and a 2023 NEA Creative Writing Fellow. On the heels of an award-winning debut, Lynn offers How to Maintain Eye Contact, a brief but searing collection that encapsulates the full spectrum of the human experience with poise, precision and compassion. It is, quite simply, one of the best chapbook length collections in American letters.
Lynn separates the collection into three sections, each one exemplifying one part of the titular promise to teach readers how to maintain eye contact. The first section offers “Rehearsals for Being;” the second section is “Rehearsals for Departures;” the final section is “Rehearsals for Apocalypse.” On a personal level, I was most affected by the second section, which includes poems that center death and grief. Lynn writes with incredible grace and restraint, even as he describes the lingering impact of a friend’s suicide. In “On My Way Home from the Hospital,” the speaker paints a vivid picture of a woman who is trying to recover a $20 bill that she has dropped while onlookers take in the sight. Her efforts culminate as “she jumps/two feet coming/down together on the bill.” The woman lifts her hands in triumph and “Someone drapes/her coat on her shoulders, a medal she’s won.” Against this endearing and jubilant scene, the poem closes with a quiet confession from the speaker: “I spent my whole day watching someone/I love die–I mean someone I loved.”
The subtlety of shifting “love” to “loved” exemplifies Lynn’s ability to use wholly relatable moments as a backdrop for sagacious revelation. Readers confront their own misgivings, fears and experiences with loneliness through the generous and vulnerable lens of Lynn’s writing. “On Silent,” for example, takes something as mundane as putting one’s phone on silent and explores the crescendo of anxiety and fear that follow silence. The speaker alludes to how misunderstood he feels, asking the reader to “help [him] make something of/all these ringless moments, silent phones/all this waiting for the train to arrive.” The poem moves ever closer to a single scene, the speaker “at your front door/exhaling the feeling back/into [his] slow fingers after texting/I’m here/to you waiting inside.” The implications inherent in these lines are haunting, as the reader is left to wonder whether or not the “you” of the poem ever opens the door, or if the phone is still on silent and no one sees the message.
My favorite thing about How to Maintain Eye Contact is that the poems never wander too far from the central metaphor of looking into someone’s eyes. Lynn consistently and accurately depicts the strong pull to look away–from strangers, from friends, even from ourselves. His knack for simple phrases that resound is profound. In “This Side of Parnonas,” the speaker resolutely admits, “In New York I invent new kinds of lonely/but here, at least, there is only one.” Lynn embodies the voice of arms in “After All the Unpleasantness, Arms Have Something to Say for Themselves.” Here, the arms acknowledge that they can often get in the way or act as the catalyst for uncomfortable, even violent moments. Still, they urge the reader to “remember us jutting out in front of loved ones//just before they walk into the street remember us thrown/like seatbelts across the passenger side…” Again, Lynn’s talent lies in how familiar his images appear, and how much meaning he manages to layer into each one of those images.
I will admit, I was unprepared for just how continuously How to Maintain Eye Contact would upend my worldview and force me to confront my own baggage. Lynn writes with humility and tenderness far beyond his years, but also an urgency that is perfectly of the moment. He has a finger to the pulse of human experience, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.