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DINNER DATE by Judith Robinson

Finishing Line Press, 2009
ISBN I-59924-435-7/ISBN 978-159924-435-8

A Review by Natalie Lobe

Judith Robinson has ordered the poems in this collection so that the cumulative force makes us cling to and savor those few experiences that that one really lives for. The salient message of Dinner Date seems to be transience, pro tempore. Special relationships, events, places slip from our grasp and take on a new perspective with time: some to be cherished, many not.

The first poem, “Message to a Friend,” sets the tone, particularly in the last two stanzas which read:

Perhaps you want to leave me here, on this
stony path where you believe I belong,
with the weeds and occasional bright bluebell.
Go ahead; in a curious way you favor me

Do it now; turn around and leave.
Most likely, I will forget you.

Moving on, the poet portrays, in beautiful imagery, the pretenses we use to deny the inevitable transience and the lingering ugliness of many experiences. She writes in Unseasonable, “… The slaughter of our sweet fictions/the filch of what should be.” What a phrase! These lines would jolt most of us into self recognition. Because her imagery of the tender, the delicious moments is so effective, their loss is all the more poignant.

The notion of honesty pervades in Ms. Robin’s collection. To face the truth is hard but these poems do and we are all the better for the experience. The title poem, “Dinner Date,” faces pretense head on with forceful, unadorned language on the price of war, its absurdity and uselessness. It exudes rage with a mite of compassion for the hapless gentleman at the table.

Dinner Date

The man was justified, I admitted,
because he had served there.

I gave him that, anyway.

He’d been the soldier, and his soldiering
had to mean something, You could see

how much in those tight lips and his fist
squeezing the wine-glass stem, hard.

So I gave him that

Then I told him Danny never came home.

I really laid it on:
24 years old, law school, Penn, his goodness,
sense of duty, The Navy pilot:

the way he was raised, how he was the first,
for me, the first and best,

and what it was like for us, the lush days
and the nights, summer after young summer.

I kept steaming on, juiced with the wine and some
strange rage: the obscenity never seemed

more obscene, this now old man still fighting
his black-hearted filthy military cause.

It was finally for nothing, I whispered, evilly.
Nothing. Your service, his death. Nothing

He quit arguing. Shut up.
I felt queasy, like I stepped on something
and made it stop moving.

We assume that soldiering gave this man his identity which seems to melt away with the onslaught of his “date’s” words: the absurdity, the uselessness of war. She speaks about a young serviceman named Danny, young, bright, her first and best love, who is killed in battle. Put in this context, the anti-war message overwhelms any counter argument.

The love theme occurs in other guises. In many poems the love object is simply you. In others, named lovers, sisters and, most poignantly, her daughter parade through the poems like ghosts melting into mist. Love relationships are often unfulfilled or ludicrous in retrospect.

To Guy who resides in a bottomless cerebral post…./ You surprised me as you sank/ like a fireball into my chest/because I know full well/you still reside above and/not a hundred years of dreams/ will make you ever leave, you bastard.

To Paul who is heartless. What force invaded the hollow chamber / that my have been your heart? Was it a spade? Sharp?

To Alex, one of the men who appear every morning milky grey as dawn ……You’re a half-mad fool/ or just another liar, I don’t know which. This is telling it like it is.

In “Heather,” the poet speaks to her daughter with a profound depiction of love. This poem brings an essential message; cherish what is dear to you because nothing lasts forever. Heather begins with, My sturdy girl/ to whom were you loaned before me…and ends with the same sentiment. In some ways her closeness to Heather is as ephemeral as to the fallen soldier, Danny. In the poem, Black Star we learn more about him. He was Ebert’s older son, a drum player and paper boy on Linden Street. To me, it is these particulars that immortalize the young man. Black Star and Heather appear at the end of the collection to epitomize the kind of love that one lives for.

Dinner Date offers us a clear perspective on our most profound feelings. By putting love, loss, rage in the context of other peoples lives (imagined or not) we can better understand these same feelings in ourselves and perhaps rethink the way we handle them. This is the stuff of life and Judith Robinson faces it clearly, responds in her own way and challenges us to do the same.

Natalie Lobe’s poetry collection, Connected Voices, was published in 2006: Island Time 2008. Her most recent publications are in Blue Unicorn, Iconoclast and Comstock Review. Ms. Lobe is a Poet in the Schools for Maryland and Anne Arundel County.

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