Robbie Coburn’s first poetry collection, Human Batteries (Picaro Press, 2012), is a vivid chapbook that contrasts experimental narratives with pieces more tender or direct. As with all great poetry, Human Batteries is revealing, there’s a clear sense of vulnerability to some of the poems and an almost thematic ‘questioning’ of the permanence of relationships runs through the collection.
As if in opposition to such questioning, the mechanical and the constructed in Coburn’s imagery seems to stand in defiance – reliable, strong, lasting. In the face of other trials presented in the book, struggles with the self and with love, poems where animals might be friendlier than humans, the mechanical is also something to draw comfort from. This sense of permanence or strength is clear in There Are No Strangers especially, where “homes [are] suspended on brass hinges”.
I asked Robbie about his use of such imagery – cogs, ticks and hinges play a recurrent role in Human Batteries – asking if he could discuss where it comes from, if he was surrounded by machinery as a boy?
RC: I grew up on a farm so there were always lots of different machines around; cars, tractors, mowers. And my Dad was a horse trainer so we had this huge horse-walking machine on our property that I used to love watching go around. So I was around machines, but I’ve always been attracted to the little details in things, which is why I think I like those ideas and write about them.
You know, although the door itself is the main thing, without the hinges it would just be a rectangular piece of wood that wouldn’t have any use to us. Everything has a place and a purpose so things will function properly in the big picture. I don’t intentionally make it a recurrent theme in my imagery, but it’s definitely something that often appears in my work.
AC: Actually, there’s a lot of linking or extracting small details from experiences in the collection, what sort of process is that for you? Difficult, natural? Fun? I often feel like poetry is a battle to extract meaningful small detail from our lives.
RC: I think I write poetry as a way of making sense of all this. Ultimately life is fairly uncertain, so I agree with you entirely that poetry is a way of dissecting the great human trial. I see writing as an impulse we don’t have a choice about or control over. I know I’d write no matter where I was in life, I’d always return to it because it is a part of who I am and why I live, as I’m sure is the same or similar case for most poets.
The finer details have always resonated with me, for better or for worse. So it’s a natural process and somewhat therapeutic, but can also be difficult when confronting negative aspects of memory. Little things just niggle like a loose tooth and often plague my mind more so than the bigger picture. But it’s also great to remember smaller details- they’re personal and mean so much more, really.
Not all experiences in the collection favour what might be considered ‘small.’ Larger moments also feature – fantastic opener, Love poem, is one of the best examples of a piece that takes no half steps:
You are to me as water is to fish;
During those days black cloud was my sky, I fell in love
an accident, like all miracles, that lasted and still lasts.
What resonates most is the urgency
and where the narrator, who is dispossessed of a location in the poem by the clever use of the word “somewhere”, experiences acute loneliness as he “shudder[s] in a silent bedroom somewhere”. It’s a powerful moment that sets the tone of the collection most convincingly.
Elsewhere the use of repetition creates a thematic and rhythmic consistency both at the level of a single poem and across the collection, such as in 3am or in The murder, where death, towers and black reappear in increasingly threatening states – acting as dark metaphors for the blindness of love, a theme also seen earlier where the narrator admits to “Owl-blind eyes”.
In fact, Human Batteries often uses animals, in particular birds, as representational tools, something I asked Robbie about – I wondered if they featured in earlier drafts of the collection or whether they were a conscious choice?
RC: I’ve always had an obsession with birds; the imagery you can create when describing their appearance, movement, behaviour, interactions, etc. They create beautiful metaphors that can go either way; light or dark. I don’t really think about it too much, but I’d definitely say it is a conscious thing. Many of my favourite poets write frequently about birds, from Poe to Ted Hughes to Robert Adamson.
Horses, which also feature in the collection, don’t seem to conjure up the same thing for me, although it is interesting that they don’t. When I started writing poetry I would often use them as they were what I knew and instinctively thought of, I suppose, but horses feel more restrictive when being descriptive, ironically like the animals themselves in comparison to the freedom of birds. They do always find their way back into my work from time to time though.
AC: The idea of movement/stillness in your poetry is interesting too – I felt there was a sense of stillness in the objects and often the narrator, which contrasted with the animals. It leads me back to the title actually, what do you feel are our batteries as humans?
RC: I think our source of energy is repeatedly exhausted due to the hum-drum lifestyle that most of us lead. The title refers to love or connection in the sense that a relationship between two people is operated, or run rather, like a machine by batteries- a negative and positive that need to work together or they will counter one another and cause the machine to lose functionality. Due to change, circumstances, misunderstandings etc. I suppose it also links in with the idea of a soul mate: two people sharing the right connection creates a machine that can run infinitely.
The question of functionality also appears in the centrepiece, Two Lies in a sequence, a longer, more experimental poem. Employing more cinematic lapses in narrative it serves to express not only the thematic concerns of the collection but also a tangible frustration, as if time between events and statements cannot or need not be held on to.
Here narrator also expresses private frustration in moments that almost read like a letter to the self – claiming “I don’t miss you (a lie)” – where authorial aside gives him away. It’s a knowing, revealing moment where once again the permanence of things is questioned.
I asked Robbie, what attracted him to long-form poetry?
RC: Long-form poetry allows for me to use a less formal approach to form, and to create narrative or meaning using somewhat of a prose style, which I absolutely love. I can also experiment more without compromising the poem’s message or neglecting the use of good language – I don’t feel restricted at all. I originally wanted to be a novelist so I suppose it provides a nice bridge between the two art forms for me to stand on! It is something I love to read from other poets and love to write myself if it’s appropriate for the piece.
AC: That freedom must be refreshing – for me, in a poem I feel more constrained in regards to ‘time’, that the poem ought to be reasonably discrete in terms of the span of time it covers. How do you see or treat time differently between the two forms?
RC: I agree absolutely. Time is a factor that often becomes a restriction. Long form, for me, can be more non-linear. My short form poems can often become too cryptic. Sometimes poetry that is straightforward in structure can be an issue for me as I’m in the habit of darting from thing to thing and sounding mad. Long form, especially when constructed in sequences, seems the appropriate place to explore a variety of different ‘times’ and emotional states. I also use it to break away from the “voice” I naturally produce when writing and take on a variety of voices. Like Ginsberg, I suppose the objective is to speak for “the whole man” rather than the man at one particular time.
Human Batteries certainly reads like more than the man at one particular time – for me it’s a very convincing multifaceted portrayal of the struggle with self and others, one that uses its contrasting imagery and analogy so well. The mechanical and the natural, the digital and the metaphysical, these aspects make individual strengths that make up parts of the wonderful whole.
I’d like to thank Robbie for being so generous with his time and hope you can find time of your own to check out his work! Human Batteries is available right now through Picaro Press and you can also visit Robbie’s website here and read sample poems from the collection here.