by Katrina Roberts
University of Washington Press
While reading Katrina Roberts’s fourth book of poetry, Underdog, I felt as if I had travelled into the inner workings of the author’s mind – a big, loving, generous, voraciously inquisitive mind. In Underdog, it seems any moment can be caught and brought to light, and by the act of being caught, turned into something permanent. The book is filled with vivid imagery that appears culled from the author’s daily life as professor and mother of young children. Cutting across it are ruminations about mortality, familial love and heartache. Perhaps we will not understand all of the book’s private allusions and will even feel occasionally perplexed. But like dreams, these poems are filled with things that do not make apparent sense, and to read Underdog is to simply trust in not knowing.
Several of Underdog’s most prominent themes are explorations of race, social class, and the immigrant experience, and many of these poems touch on Chinese culture in particular, especially its languages and proverbs. Roberts also writes about words themselves. Above all, she explores the experience of motherhood (the author’s children become more familiar with each passing poem). For instance, the book begins with a fragment of her poem, Cave Canem, which is featured in full later in the book:
The word asp.
The word breath.
It’s always turning
into the next decade.
and several lines later:
my quiet urgings to the children accompanying me in
my tasks . . .
These poems indeed evoke a feeling of following the author through her daily tasks, collecting verbal and emotional associations as the day unfolds. Meanwhile, Roberts moves gracefully between numerous poetic structures, ranging from couplet to triplet to thin, terse poems, and prose-like poems with long, wide stanzas.
In “From Po Tolo to Emma Ya,” the opening poem of the book, a rich, long poem, she writes:
Pitchers of sweet horchata. We’re walking out. Gracias, out into it. Xie-xie.
We’re walking. Spasibo, Shokran, We’re treading this earth’s skin,
leaving imprints, and afterimages however ephemeral for whomever
comes after. We’re on our way, my boy and I. And half-vast works for me.
It is sometimes challenging to decipher who is narrating a poem and when or where a poem is taking place, which evokes the sensation of dreaming, where any image can be a symbol of something else, and anything can occur. Roberts moves rapidly from broad strokes to sharp flourishes. She writes, in Dream Diptych:
We made our own reasons, wrote our own laws in a book
buried nobody knows where. Eating dirt.
Let the boat drift on black water. No oars. The way it seems
his father needs something antibacterial three days after drinking
from the think creek that slides through yellow wheat. Yes,
the color is simple.
Readers attracted to courageous, erudite poems with existential undercurrents will find a great deal in this volume to love. In Underdog, we must trust in the po wer of poetic inclusiveness, just as we would trust in the strength of a river that catches roots, branches, and soil as it moves across the earth.
Associate Editor Shevi Berlinger teaches English at the City University of New York and is at work on a book of poetry. She also runs a food conservation project, Egg in a Box.