Throughout Robin Becker’s poetry, there exists a sense of alienation and otherness. As a woman, as a Jew, and as a lesbian, Becker has faced the difficulties of living in the male-, Christian-, and heterosexual-centered United States with humor, intelligence, and tenacity. Her writing is specifically intended to honor and explore “issues dealing with sexual identity, relationships, and Jewish identity.”
Becker’s first collection of poems, Personal Effects, gives the reader a glimpse of the poet’s lifetime journey of self-discovery. Just as in later books, the poet writes verse celebrating her grandmother, examining her emergent sexuality, relating her childhood experiences, and discovering the breadth and scope of the wider world. Despite being fully aware of the differences between the dominant culture and her own sensibilities, Becker stands unafraid. She accepts her Jewishness, her sexuality, and her femininity in strong yet graceful lines.
Backtalk explores the often complex relationship among family members, friends, lovers, and pets. It describes the balances created between people and their loved ones, between people and the places they travel, and between people and their memories. These poems sort out the complexities of existence: “I remember the globe that was a pencil sharpener,” says the speaker in “A Long Distance”:
I remember standing in the lunchroom & trying to figure out how I could be standing in the lunchroom & standing on the earth which was the globe.
The pencil sharpener—a small, concrete, graspable object—is connected to the larger idea of the world beneath her feet—an idea hard to fathom but easy to experience. This difficulty of conception, yet ease of experience, not only describes standing on earth but also describes the emotions of love and worship. As described by one critic in the Valley Advocate, Becker’s poems tell truths of the gut and the groin. They are one half of a dialogue; communication from one individual to another rather than the meditation of a solitary individual; literally, the poems are “talking back.”
Each poem in Becker’s third book of verse, Giacometti’s Dog, is a tribute to the impact of her visual imagery. Many of the poems, particularly “Grief,” which recounts the suicide of Becker’s sister, and “Good Dog,” which refers to the accidental death of her beloved pet, are paeans to the sorrows of her life. The feelings expressed are raw and unrestrained, but Becker uses the very details of her works as a purgative. These poems, widely ranging in their emotional content, give voice to loss, guilt, and erotic yearning and describe the consolation that love, creativity, and friendship can provide. Becker seems to gain in wisdom as she travels, and her desire to understand the cultures of Europe and the American Southwest give the poems a depth rarely found in “travel poems.”
In “The Children’s Concert,” Becker and her younger sister have been taken, once a month, to listen to music played at a children’s concert series. She recalls, guiltily, how she lied about her mother’s intentions to her younger, more innocent sibling, and convinced her that their mother was, in fact, abandoning them. This lie turns what had been a pleasurable activity into a source of almost paralyzing anxiety for the younger girl, and Becker’s recollections carry an unmistakable sense of guilt when she realizes how cruelly she was tormenting her sister. The cultural value of the concerts is lost in the face of the younger girl’s panic, but it is not until Becker’s sister’s suicide years later that Becker regrets her actions.
“Grief,” too, expresses Becker’s unswerving self-condemnation as openly as “the kindness of the rabbi I remember now.” The poem moves from a Philadelphia cemetery to Florence and Venice, Italy, comparing Becker’s sister’s life to “a place I visited by boat.” Becker finds that only in the distance of poetry can she gain some kind of peace and contentment.
Becker’s fourth book of verse, All-American Girl, has the greatest scope of geographical distance of her early works. Many places—the site of a Quaker meeting in Philadelphia; a drugstore in Buffalo, Wyoming; pueblos in the American Southwest—are only a few of the vast distances traveled in the scope of this small volume, which also explores the vastness of inner space. Becker drives from Taos to Sante Fe, New Mexico; goes contra dancing in New Hampshire; and dresses up as Peter Pan and “flies” onstage. Her movements are quick, sure, and far-reaching. The only constant is her voice, daring the...
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