Poet tours emotional, spiritual niches in new book

March 21, 2007

University Park, Pa. -- In her newest book of poetry, "Domain of Perfect Affection," poet Robin Becker explores the many emotional and physical places where people seek harbor -- whether they be the natural world, family, childhood, animals or art.

"Where do we experience pleasure? How are we transported to another world? Some go to art or music; some go to the theatre," says Becker, a professor of English at Penn State. "We also go to the natural world -- where we share the earth with other species. With animals, we have to find ways to communicate through touch and kinetics. "

"Another domain is friendship. The poem 'On Friendship' acknowledges the importance of friends in our lives and illustrates how all of us are sustained by domains of friendship."

Excerpt: "On Friendship"

After twenty years of friendship, we're still lousy
at talking to each other, two middle-aged women
in an age of non-potable water on Long Island,
lethal viruses housed offshore the scallop harvest at record lows.

Another of Becker's subjects involves memories of childhood and family. In the poem "Salon," Becker describes the manicure and hairdressing that represent intimacy to the speaker's mother.

Excerpt: "Salon"

Vivenne, the manicurist, dispels despair,
takes my mother's old hands into her swift
hands and soaks them to soften
the cuticles before the rounding and shaping.
As they talk my mother attends
to the lifelong business of revealing
and withholding, careful to frame each story

"After a reading," Becker recalls, "several people came up to me and said 'my mother loved going to the hair salon each week.' Sometimes, poems saunter through memories that many share."

The recently published volume offers a variety of poetic forms and stanzas -- couplets, tercets, pantoum, sonnet, syllabics and others. "I'm a poet who seeks formal challenges appropriate to the work," Becker replied when asked about form. "When I start, I ask myself: What kind of line feels right for the poem? For the emotions? How weighty should the lines be? Should I end with a hard, end-stopped feeling or run into the next line, softer and looser?"

"I tell my students that they have, as poets, many choices to make about sound, image, rhythm and music. First, however, they must acquire the skills to make those choices."

So far, the response to Becker's new book and the poems within it has been enthusiastic. One poem, "Against Pleasure," including the voices of mother and daughter, has appeared in an issue of O, the Oprah Magazine. "Poets convey emotional and psychological news of people's lives," Becker explained.

"Against Pleasure"

Worry stole the kayaks and soured the milk.
Now, it's jellyfish for the rest of the summer
and the ozone layer full of holes.
Worry beats me to the phone.
Worry beats me to the kitchen,
and all the food is sorry. Worry calcifies
my ears against music; it stoppers my nose
against barbecue. All films end badly.
Paintings taunt with their smug convictions.
In the dark, Worry wraps her long legs
around me, promises to be mine forever.

Thugs hijacked all the good parking spaces.
There's never a good time for lunch.
And why, my mother asks, must you track
beach sand into the apartment?
No, don't bother with books,
not reading much these days.
And who wants to walk the boardwalk anyway,
with scam artists who steal your home and savings?
Watch out for talk that sounds too good to be true.
You, she says pointing at me,
don't worry so much.

Copyright: University of Pittsburgh Press

"Domain of Perfect Affection" and Becker have been featured or reviewed in The American Poetry Review, Lambda Book Report, Jewish Book World, Publisher's Weekly and Poetry Daily ( http://www.poems.com ), an online site. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky reviewed the book for The Washington Post, calling her poem "OK Tucker" "a winning demonstration of how to express feeling through elements of a life that isn't literally or exactly one's own."

Last semester, she gave readings at the renowned Blacksmith House in Cambridge Mass., the University of Massachusetts in Boston, City College of New York (CCNY) and for "The Poet and the Poem" series, sponsored by The Library of Congress. This series of public radio programs highlights the work of important American poets including Rita Dove, David Wagoner and Robin Becker.

This spring, Becker teaches her popular course in book reviewing for graduate students in the English department's Master of Fine Arts Program. Offered every other year, the course puts students through rigorous writing, rewriting and editing. Throughout the semester, students contact editors and submit their reviews. By semester's end, many students have published their first reviews in fine literary journals.

See a related story on the class at: http://www.la.psu.edu/CLA-News/archives/LATimes/stories/ezine/Issue19/is... online.

Growing up in Philadelphia, Becker received her bachelor and master's degrees from Boston University and taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology for 17 years. She joined Penn State in 1993 as an associate professor of English and women's studies. She was named professor in 1998.

Her work touches on complex emotions related to Jewish cultural traditions and social and sexual identity. As a national literary citizen, she has judged numerous poetry awards including The Prairie Schooner Book Award in Poetry, The John Ciardi Prize, The New Letters Poetry Awards and the Benjamin Saltman Prize. She has served as a member of the Board of The Associated Writing Program. Becker has published six books of poetry, including "The Horse Fair" (2000), "All-American Girl" (1996), and "Giacometti's Dog" (1990), all in the prestigious University of Pittsburgh Press Poetry series. Becker has received individual grants for her work from The Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College, The Massachusetts Cultural Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. For The Women's Review of Books, Becker currently serves as poetry editor and writes a column on poetry called "Field Notes."

(All excerpts and full poem were printed with the permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.)

To hear Robin Becker's readings of five poems, download these brief podcasts via ITunes at:

Against Pleasure

On Friendship

Salon

The New Egypt

Old Dog

 

  • Poet Robin Becker

    IMAGE: Greg Grieco
Last Updated July 28, 2017