In Tammy Robacker’s R from Seven Kitchens Press, the images of the male gaze reverberate against a young girl’s adolescent experience and the opposite story arcs carve out their own conclusions in heartbreaking and detailed lyrical narratives.
The poems depict the act of masculinity through many traditionally “male” topics such as hunting, glorifying cars, woodworking, and sexual pursuit. The reader wants to protect the speaker of these poems: especially when molestation and drug use is mentioned. The reader wants to step into the shoes of the father and become an active listener, a gentle guide, but the characters are too big and already trailblazing into the next poem. All we can do is run after them, shouting down the rolling suburban streets.
In the first poem “Jane Doe,” Robacker’s girl is an actual target. She writes:
My father named
his first rifle:
Meat in the Pot.
To be a female
among such creatures
was like the slow doe
in open meadow
who blundered off:
A perfect shot.
Robacker’s pointed words set up the father as the hunter, as taking aim at his daughter in a field. The reader immediately feels the danger and tension-filled experience of the speaker’s life. A life not stable – almost as if the girl begins her wayward journey from this point on.
In “Genesis,” we witness the speaker almost watching her father pursue her mother in a bar, almost like time travel is possible and having already been born, watches the courtship. The details are knife sharp. We hear the bar music, see the mother dancing, hear the glasses being lined up on the bar. Again the hunting symbolism appears:
who setteth his site on my mother
one night bebopping across the bar
\though not yet my ma incidentally…
Robacker creates this aggressive and confident character in “the father,” and it isn’t until reading the poems at the end of the book – when she mourns his passing – that the reader breathes a slight exhale, releasing the anxiety of the father’s hold on the daughter. This character is not often in the role of acting as protector.
The father’s presence on these pages, especially in the poems “Photograph, Meadville Driveway, 1977” and the book’s titular poem “R,” continues to hunt and seek closure and gain. The new car is a proud accomplishment and all of the neighbors come out. Robacker uses the word “wildebeest,” and the reader thinks it could be describing the new Impala or the father himself.
In R, the father carves his initial out of wood, during the end of a marriage, nails it the door. We feel his need for something permanent. We understand the need to mark territory like a hunter or perhaps show what he hunted already – and killed.
Robacker’s girl tries to escape the hunt. She takes various paths through the woods. Robacker’s girl attempts to escape through her adolescence. In “Aliens,” the girl is offered cocaine from a babysitter. And at the end of the poem:
I grew a tail and taller. Grew two heads.
I flew, too: my white hot spirit spinning off
lost in space. Something better out there. I believed.
The girl literally becomes a different beast in order to escape an imprisoned circumstance. On the facing page is the powerful “Delinquent,” where the girl attempts to shoplift. She gets caught. Robacker uses amazing details in this poem that captures the girl’s experience and sets the scene so truthfully. The name brands are a great addition. Robacker lists off “Greatlash” and “Kotex with wings” and “Purple rain nail polish.”
These overtly feminine objects oppose the posturing muscle of the father and the reader feels the girl’s vulnerability and her desire for control. The lists of details serve as breadcrumbs for the girl trying to navigate her way home – but to a new home where she feels safe.
Robacker depicts this alienation here in “Delinquent:”
Two detached parents
like warm, fleshy lobes
to push safety pins through
Control is the hold
inside of you.
The girl that Robacker portrays begins as a staggering fawn but grows into a force to be reckoned with, a figure who is strong with her eyes open. Who, years later, in one of the closing poems of the book, uses a deer to personify feelings of forgiveness toward her father.
In “The Deer in December,” the speaker still desires connection with her father at the end. The description of the deer is beautiful:
…mincing his feet
along my frosted garden
so carefully now.
As if you are sorry.
parcels itself out…
The reader feels Robacker’s evolution through these poems. The deer, like the speaker’s forgiveness, is soft and slow to surface, gentle to make footprints in the snow. The footprints will disappear when the snow melts, but the memory lingers, each time a little more vivid, easier to access.
Jennifer MacBain-Stephens is the author of two full-length poetry collections: Your Best Asset is a White Lace Dress (Yellow Chair Press, 2016) and The Messenger is Already Dead (forthcoming from Stalking Horse Press, March 2017.) Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. She is also the author of nine chapbooks. Her chapbook She Came Out From Under the Bed, (Poems Inspired by the Films of Guillermo del Toro) is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. Recent work can be seen at or is forthcoming from Lime Hawk, Sweet Tree Review, Kestrel, The Chiron Review, Yalobusha Review, decomp, and Inter/rupture. Visit: http://jennifermacbainstephens.wordpress.com/.