October 24, 2015

The Disembodied Voice Within: A Review of Liz Robbins’s Freaked by Mindy Kronenberg

Cover Credit: Amazon.com
Freaked by Liz Robbins
Elixir Press (2015)

Review by Mindy Kronenberg

What is it about being a freak, or possessing freakishness, that summons public curiosity or our private fears of exposed peculiarity? The notion of being a “Freak”—outsider, misfit, against which others measure their merits or failures— rises from superstition or class snobbery. Our society has become a devoted audience to the broadcast lives of the dysfunctional rich and anonymous disenfranchised, those loudly or meekly suffering their private anomalies. The greater the lens on our own conflictual, alternate cravings for camouflage or celebrity, the more uncomfortable we grow within the skin of our own humanity.

Liz Robbins’s Freaked magnifies concern about how easily friends and intimates could be considered pathetic or profound by a simple twist of phrase. Where does eccentric and abnormal differ or intersect? What life styles (or circumstances) determine our value as citizens and intimates?

Divided into six sections that focus on different and intriguing themes to present the skewered human drama, Freaked unravels tales borne from rites of passage, wrong turns, well-intended but misbegotten gestures, and love’s confounding fickleness. These include horoscopes, tabloid curiosities, social and spiritual ritual, and Diane Arbus-captured portraits. Robbins’s prowess is in the language and rhythm of each narrative, creating a dream-like tension through phrasing that approaches incantation, as in “[the scorpion]:”
sooze, the radio jesus says our salvation must come
without body, i’m not willing to wait and you are,
the sax solo growing buttered layers as it complicates,
this explains all—
Or from “[the twins]:”
and mine’s no more a faux life than yours, it’s just you actually
get to the gym, your slept-with-list thinner than mine—
you go out in the day and i stay in, the apartment becomes
a shotgun shack teeming with bad-dream melting clocks
and skyscraper mice—
Poems in the section inspired by “News of the Weird” columns reveals Robbins’s talent for summoning personal tales from the odd reportage of ill-gestured wannabe heroes, benign offenders, and the spiritually afflicted, among others. These headlines-turned testimonies manage a dark humor along with the ridicule of each story. There’s “Drive-In Church,” where the daughter of a devout choir singer expresses her own approach to faith (“… you don’t even have to / get out of your car and therefore your pajamas, just tool / right up with your ciggy’s on the dash and a 12 pack / of Krispy Kremes, reggae on the tape deck…”) and “Man Chokes to Death on Pocket Bible,” a story of a young man’s fatal attempt to purge himself of the Devil, where the poet speaks on behalf of the demon (“For months now, / I’ve explored his brain’s gray maze, turned flowering/ girls to mean drunks and parents to shrieking crows…”). “Rebellion as Ice Floe,” inspired by the story of three teenage boys who commit a robbery and make a regrettable getaway, is an especially strong narrative musing on adolescent angst, and restlessness (“… what waited beyond the yard’s split-rail fences?”). An awkward attempt in escaping (“How / little I knew, stuck in the reach-out-and-grab delirium, assuming / a hard run would bring safety, not paralysis. Like when I backed / down our driveway’s hill, only to stall at the bottom.”) is followed not only by embarrassment but also parental forgiveness for foolish acts.

Robbins excels in ekphrastic interpretation, moving seamlessly from poems of elaborate statements and unfurling lines to a series of sonnets that are deftly connected by their last lines. She summons both the empathy and unease of Arbus’s photographic subjects, as when their confident posturing belies their personal crises. In “A Family on Their Lawn One Sunday in Westchester, NY, 1968,” a couple relaxes on lawn chairs while their young son hovers over an inflatable pool caught by his own reflection. There are clues to their diminished passion— “(Dad covers / his eyes, tired from the sun, Mom’s in the mid- / life crisis bikini.)” —and the accoutrement of marital ennui, such as:
… their bodies turned away to smaller traces
of comfort: stuffed ashtray, the full glass
on the table in between. Their weekend bliss:
the country club tan. Their weekend pass:
him running the yard. They do not kiss
or touch, but once they did…

Robbins also effectively evokes the pained hopes and fears of a giant’s parents (“A Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, NY 1970”). All the details in the title, taken, as with all of the poems in this section, directly from the photographs, are required to understand the complexity of ambition and disappointment in this family dynamic. The giant’s mother wishes for her son “movie contracts, straight spine, blond wife, fakes guns.” And he gains celebrity, a mixed blessing:
A great man he became, eight feet high.
Played in movies too: son of Frankenstein’s
monster. Looking at him, Father thinks, Why
me. Mother thinks, A nightmare, but he’s mine.
Eddie looks down on them, leans on a cane
(back hunched, shoes thick-soled), dying of bone disease.
Freaked taps into the confounding ways we live, longing for acceptance or denying dependence on others, rejecting convention yet regretting alienation. Robbins captures our attentions with carefully crafted vignettes of dismayed but determined souls striving to be human. It is our dilemma—or privilege—to recognize ourselves among them.

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