In edie roberts’ Ain’t Life Grand (pitymilk press, 2020), the seething fury of radical youth boils just under a cooled, jaded, midlife critique of contemporary America. roberts pinpoints the surprisingly complex feelings of seemingly normal, bureaucratic experiences, such as going to the doctor and riding on the bus, and delivers them as hot, little coals of poems. In the condensed space of the chapbook, they touch on a heavy range of subjects: healthcare inequality, environmental disaster, hostile architecture, and familial anguish. Ain’t Life Grand begins with a dying cat and ends with a mountain of garbage, and in between, roberts files away the personal, political, and defyingly beautiful events that define our lives.
“We were never meant to survive,” writes Audre Lorde in the book’s epigraph, and indeed, at first, it does not seem like anyone will. A dense pessimism begins the collection. The cat who cannot “find a comfortable spot / to wretch and foam / convulse then quit” in the first, eponymous poem becomes a framing metaphor for the physical and emotional separation between people imposed on us by a brutal, capitalistic culture. roberts uses a diction almost violently terse and direct to discuss this separation. In “I am going to the doctor in America,” the nurse’s touch is “like a sterile mother / who can’t assure you of anything.” Within the illogical and inhumane healthcare system, marrying a Canadian friend for medical coverage might be the only logical option for a cancer diagnosis.
Despite the curt bleakness, an underlying attachment to the beauty of life runs through this book. In “Any Greyhound station bathroom,” roberts is “endeared / to every person / in here.” Their struggle to connect despite the bench separators provides a common resistance. That Canadian friend they “love / in a dear and tender way.” Even the human-made terrors have a kind of resigned beauty. In “The gulf is on fire,” the “cellophane / was let to ride / the hungry wind,” which in a way makes it more free than we are.
But beauty alone does not excuse these environmental and societal ills. With language like a staring contest, daring you to look away, roberts calls out their villains. “If people in America / really gave a shit / about babies / They probably wouldn’t have them / Because they don’t have shit to give them / except a mess so big / that the people who are already alive in America / can’t do anything / but ignore it.” And ignoring problems is the central crime of the book. They call out the “woman who seems to think / thinking good thoughts and / having hope / about the future / is all we can do.” Ignored problems pile up. Even the poet is culpable. “[T]hey all knew about / where the / world was going…We built this mountain / in 15 years / You can smell it for miles.”
Yet, there is some hope in Ain’t Life Grand. There is a dream of “some real estate / in the stars / where no one works / for pennies and / gets chased by / debt companies.” There is a sense that “I am / doing a bad job / trying to stay alive / and living at the same time” because we have been asked to live in an unreasonable structure. But hope, like ignorance, is a choice to be made by each individual. “I need things to look forward to,” writes Roberts, “or the future is a numbing jelly.”
Ain’t Life Grand is available from pitymilk press
Robin LaMer Rahija (she/her) did her MFA in poetry at the University of Kentucky. Her work has appeared in Puerto Del Sol, FENCE, Guernica, and elsewhere. She is an Editorial Intern at Sundress Publications. She loves books, trees, and Excel documents.