Gyroscopoetics: Navigating the Revived Lyric of Ed Roberson’s asked what has changed
Upon first glance of the pattern on the jacket of Ed Roberson’s most recent poetry collection, asked what has changed (Wesleyan University Press, 2021), the photo has the appearance of a microscopic-closeup and/or a satellite image. The enigmatic nature of this image's dissonance echoes the visual-spatial inversions Roberson explores throughout this collection, such as in the poem titled “distant nearness of gravity” in which mountains “lift off the horizon” and “the sky / is on the ground” (64). In his poetry—or all around and through it— surfaces ripple, up means down, the news haunts, solids liquefy. Daunting beauty mixes with troubling elegance, like the reinvigoration of soil after a devastating wildfire which also “grows the best grapes” (74). Perhaps most known for his science-based ecopoetics, the most profound aspect of Roberson’s collection lies in a mazy range of feeling and moving, encompassing economics, myth, geology, geography, geometry, politics, family, and sociology. This array of thematic fields indicates the discursive empowerment afforded in the ways a Black ecopoetics asks us to imagine revived forms of sensing.
Evie Shockley, among others, laments how little critical writing has been done on Roberson’s poetry. Indeed, most of the secondary sources I use in this essay come from the same 2010 issue of Callaloo with a section dedicated to Roberson. He has been publishing poetry since the sixties and his first book, When Thy King is a Boy, released in 1970 by University of Pittsburgh Press. Shockley adeptly points out some broader reasons why Roberson hasn’t received adequate critical reception:
Roberson’s aesthetic—a demanding, disjunctive, associative style of moving among ideas and images—and his race have also presumably been factors contributing to his neglect by critics working in both traditions, whether formalist, modernist, or postmodernist in their preferences. George Hart has accurately asserted that ‘Postmodernist poetry does not find much acceptance or generate much interest among readers of nature poetry and ecologically oriented critics’; this exclusion of innovative poetics from "the green canon" is exacerbated in Roberson' s case by the equally conspicuous absence of African-American poets in collections and criticism of nature poetry and nature writing more broadly” (730).
In light of these remarks from over a decade ago, some new (still relatively little) scholarly work has been carried out that confirms Roberson as a premier ecopoet. This essay offers an examination of Roberson’s newest collection asked what has changed through a close-reading/analysis of a few poems and a brief attempt to put his ecopoetics in conversation with contemporary ecopoetic theory and practice.
Although readers might find Roberson’s poems tricky to navigate, they are well worth the effort of several reads. But what initially comes off as brevity blooms into sinuous complexity like overgrowth in an ancient meadow. The difficult, wonderful, multifaceted nature of the book reflects the natural world’s difficult, wonderful entanglements. Like the stunning photograph of pollution on the cover suggests, beauty and trepidation often come hand-in-hand in the 21st century, but asked what has changed, offers at least a glimpse of hope; after all, Roberson reminds us just how vast a glimpse can be when it comes to, as the titular poem concludes, “the eye is not filled with seeing, with only / seeing, but with understanding the sight” (Roberson 2).
“Filled with understanding the sight.” This phrase has myriad valences. It could entail a colloquial empathy, as in I feel you. It could signify awareness of the objects or subjects one beholds—“my liquid body water in a flesh glass” (4). It could also be more scientific or phenomenological as the next poem says: “I want to know the larger networks / of answers’ ripple” (5). Or filled could simply mean understanding how you are seeing/reading Roberson’s poetry itself. Any way one construes its meaning, the phrase gestures towards an elusive transitivity, the troubled waters between looking, seeing, and knowing.
The ecology of such a place is where Ed Roberon’s poetry moves towards and/or from—a multimodal music that Min Hyoung Song might call revived lyric. Song’s Climate Lyricism reads Roberson’s poetry in concert with strains of ecocriticism, critical race theory, as well as other contemporary lyric poets like Claudia Rankine, Aimee Nezhukmatathil, M. Nourbese Philip, Layli Long Soldier, and Li-Young Lee. Song sees ecopoetics as an exemplary way to deal with the problem of ‘scale’ for study during climate change: “the lyric is emerging as a way to imagine scale that enables thinking about space and time that is as variable as the phenomenon of climate change itself” (Song 123). Roberson’s poetry deals with problems of perception and making sense of instability, and Song’s survey gives the lyric pragmatic ramifications not simply reducible to artistic representation.
Like much of Roberson’s oeuvre, asked what has changed frequently engages the reader/writer’s ability to adjust perception to large changes in spatial scale. Lynn Keller comments on how his ecopoetry “suggests that humans move through the world perceiving in a kind of constantly shifting scalar kaleidoscope[…]implying that apprehending Anthropocene scales is only an extension of an adjustment, however astonishing, that has long been part of the human toolkit” (Keller 53). Thus, when we consider other facets of contemporary social issues (inequities of class, race, gender, etc.), an ecopoetic purview distills them as connected fragments of a kaleidoscope’s lens and, simultaneously, encompassingly significant, since any micro-macro scale must theoretically inflect both the individual or local felt realities as well as global or nonlocal spans of dynamic relation.
The local/nonlocal duality gets the same treatment as any other duality in Roberson’s poetry. Joseph Donahue notes how Roberson uses language to “invert our sense of where we are in the world…each element takes on the properties of the other. We walk in the air. We fly underwater. On the ground, we imagine ourselves as free” (704). As a result of these navigations, any notion of free ground comes within a concatenation of sometimes-imperceptible ecological constraints like a fish’s unawareness of water. Ecopoetics becomes, arguably, a way of accounting for what philosopher/‘dark-ecologist’ Timothy Morton formulates as hyperobjects: a refusal (re-fusing) of familiar scales of reference that are everywhere, yet impossible to touch or see (Song 122-123). In not dissimilar terms, Donahue points out how Roberson’s poetry ‘touches’ on something like a hyperobject in the poem, “The Hold of Extinction:”
what disappears gets into the walls and its echoes
take shapes the scientists say the atmosphere
leaves its impressions on rock the weight of air
is there eternities later to be read
as anything it wants. Number spectrometric color
climatic epic of hot and cold — the
jar! Pouring itself into its emptiness the deep hold (30)
Here, ‘what disappears’ ‘echoes,’ then ‘take[s] shapes” as the atmosphere’s impression permutates through/as audial-tactile-visual phenomena in tonalities and relays through space. The hold of extinction also relates to, and reverberates from, Black poetics’ notion of the hold (of the slave ship) as extinction’s hold figures as a relatedly deep extraction and retraction—a constant pull towards confinement of existential options, even as any and every notion of outer-/inner-world explodes. Indeed, Donahue suggests that by the logic of inversion, “the most terrible trope in African American poetics, the slave hold, appears astonishing to say, as a treasure hold…[as the poem makes] the leap from a world built around metaphor to an animate cosmos” (707). Thus, in the poem, Extinction is not Death—it is an animated unbecoming in the ontological sense and in the ethical sense. Ultimately, extinction’s hold is an inverted eschaton, a vessel emptying itself of any-being into the very vehicle of its undoing of a hyperobject. Roberson’s ecopoetics registers the lyric as a Mobius strip: a mode of enunciation in science, in philosophy, and in verse, not as separate modelings but interchangeable, anti-metaphysical graftings of conscious, earthbound experience—a necessary activity needed to even begin to address scales of reform or conception in any approach to “see the earth before the end of the world.” 
Appositional to spatial scales, Roberson’s ecopoetics troubles temporal grooves throughout his oeuvre, a thread continued in this new book. The fact that the title is a fragmented, alt-grammatic, past-tense rendition of a colloquial question, prompts the reader not only to ‘ask what has changed,’ but also indeterminately leaves open the question of when. Even the final poem has a similar ambivalence, as the title “the times” can be read as an allusion to ‘the news’ (or current events) or “the times” as in ‘the good ole times.’ The reader can never be certain, and that indeterminacy echoes a kind of scientific fact of the entropic nature of time. For instance, in “the universal ephemeral” begins and ends with notions of time’s stable instability:
A universe of so much of
time would like to know what a moment is
other than its one (39)
Jarring the eye and ear in this arrangement, the hanging preposition ‘of’ is treated like a bulk noun straining the reader’s sense of ‘of.’ Then, the oxymoronic declaration “I’m sure” immediately after the “of” radical adds a bewildering sense of certainty. The conditional phrase “time would like to know what a moment is other than its one” implies that ‘time’ could know anything. Personifying time as such imagines it as a thing not only of agency and autonomy, but a knowledgeable thing with the ability to consider an ‘other.’ The moment has conscious momentum. Furthermore, the poem’s closing couplet “we live / as ever” (39) suggests a homology between beings of time and time of beings, which slides into view again in “the old homology” (43) in which a sphinx is rendered in homologous relation to clouds, a cat, a vulture, and a starving child. Roberson reminds us that the homologous relation spans time, like how human limbs are evolutionarily inherited from the vertebrates that came before us.
The figure of the sphinx and the starving child, both resting on their haunches, also have biosocial and historical implications: after all, enslaved labor built the sphinx whose face hovers above a vulture next to a dying child. The sequence of poems around “the old homology” showcase how poetic form deployed by Roberson’s ecological sense enmeshes historical and evolutionary forms through present-day language in complex ways. The titles “eye ear nose and throat” and “eco echo etude” offers homophonic blends and blurs, while remixing “the plumb of our animal likeness[es]” (45). Roberson’s juxtaposition foregrounds ecopoetics’ capability for fresh insight, setting seemingly disparate yet well-understood phenomenal forms in temporal and spatial relation to an intellecting “I,” whether a speaker, a reader, a writer, or a scientist.
Moreover, Roberson’s ecopoetics often complicates any notion of subjectivity. As the lyric “I” has been exhaustively considered, I won’t focus on subjectivity as a philosophical problem for the eco-lyric, but I will show how Roberson’s “I” offers nuance on this traditional demarcation, something like a phenomenological circuit breaker for a subjective mode of perception. The most notable feature of Roberson’s lyric “I” is his sparing use of it. As a lyric poet is typically figured as a someone harping or singing about something, Roberson often leaves aside this convention. Of the sixty or so poems in asked what has changed, I only count fourteen of them having the first person singular ‘I’: even the poem titled “first person” eschews the first person stance. Yet, while departing from the traditional nature poem, Roberson nonetheless invokes ancient traditions (old homologies) while also pulling into poetry’s orbit what the physical and human sciences continue to reveal about the Earth.
The limited use of the first-person certainly has something to do with Shockley’s observation of how often “Roberson confutes the dilemma constructed within dominant literary paradigms—the false dichotomy that says one has to choose between writing about nature and writing about socio-political subjects, an especially trying set of alternatives for poets who belong to politically dispossessed groups, such as the African-American community” (730). Additionally, the popular ecological model of culture-nature relations—interdependence between two phenomenally distinct realms—maintains binaries such as subject-object, human-nonhuman, organic-inorganic, and so on. Roberson's ecopoetics not only disrupts the oppositions between human culture and the natural world, but also exacerbates the tensions of such fundamental dualisms that hold representations of each as two parts of a unitary whole—an ‘I’ confronted with ‘the world’ in a constant clash between natural and human-made environments, between laws of nature and contradictions of capital.
In “color change,” for instance, the only pronouns used are ‘me’ in the sixth stanza and ‘she’ in the following stanza. The poem also mentions “such an observer,” but that is the closest we get to an overtly human speaker. But “[s]uch an observer” is not a Whitmanian everyman; here the “observer” is something like a scientist mixed with a hermetic monk. The poem directly challenges logocentric meaning when describing a glacier migrating under “a dying sun’s yellowing down / dawn” which is [dis]qualified as
A simple reduction to its colors going out
of meaning its meaning something else in that location
opens me to the chemical residue through which what continues
Here, rather than an ‘I’ as a node of the Godhead, the ‘me’ is in an open-process of chemical permutations and whatever the “something else” of this place is, any “simple reduction” (alchemical or physical) has gone out of meaning into a continual articulation of alterity. In fact, the closing couplet’s allusion to ‘kuruvinda’ suggests not an allusion to a philosopher’s stone, but a mediating queen of the universe—explicitly antithetical to the typical white-male Romantic lyric-I. Scholars and poets have noted how Roberson works with tradition in a gnostic way to subvert, or totally recast, modes of enunciation attributed to Western humanist figures.
In his essay “Metaphysical Shivers,” Joseph Donahue tracks Roberson’s work across his oeuvre along thematic lines stretching from Gnostic hermeticism, through Romanticism, to Modernism. Like the “chemical residue” in the poem “color change,” Donahue substantiates Roberson’s poetry in a wider historical context similar to, yet divergent from, an Eliotian ‘chemical agent’ of change from “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Donahue notes how Roberson negotiates the dynamic of “exegesis and narrative” both of which are sharply challenged through his poetry by an “ambivalent bit of logos” (701). The ‘speaker’ of the poems is less an individual and more of a presence, broadly defined (or undefined). As such, Donahue suggests that the reader then becomes part of that presence:
[the speaker’s] steps are our own as we move along Roberson’s lines. We too walk above a world defined by other lines: color lines, state boundaries, beaches, genealogies, bullet trajectories, apartheid, chalk outlines on the ground, lines that plunge instruments deep into the waters off North Carolina. We also walk below lines, of planets and meteors, and of space travel (701).
These lines not only register the ecology of intersubjective moves, but also render the poetic line as a measure of indeterminacy itself, a lyrical dynamism that fluctuates depending on evolutionary or historical conditions.
Roberson manipulates space like clay and the directional plane like a gyroscopic compass to transcend historical models of poetic individuation. Repetition and formal movements relay a plurality of voices cast out to talk us in. The visual differentiation from fragment to phrase to sentence play with shifts in inflection and, subsequently, perspective (Edwards 623). Kingfishers fall upwards to perch, winter arrives backwards in a shifty climate, and paradise outside his apartment window is both gazed up at from below and an openness looked down on from the poet’s “mutable access point” (41). Roberson’s gyroscopoetics is in full-force here as the syntax often leaps or halts or swerves, as if tracking the patterns of moth-flight in shifty gusts. For instance, note the prepositions used to describe leaves caught in an “invisible flow” in these two stanzas from “mutable point of axis:”
forward but sideways and seen faster than they are,
as in a maelstrom of motions, the two almost
pinned to spin on an axis of our passing,
crossing over intersecting aircraft below
throws it around behind you before it goes under
and disappears. When we placed the gods overhead
it didn’t occur this is where they’d see from: that point,
where from above, moving directions appear nonsense. (40)
The self-awareness of the last line playfully hearkens to Roberson’s own syntactical topsy-turvy-ness, while also distilling a pluralized ontological perspective. Roberson entangles the reader in these improvisatory scale-changes throughout, mirroring the ever-changing planet and era within which we live—or, perhaps, effecting a bad case of vertigo. However disoriented we become in reading these poems (or living on this earth), Roberson reminds us how “our muscular body adjustments we never noticed smooth / our movements [and] in that earthquake time—age into tremor” (71). Thus, the earthly body ages to tremor just like an elder on the brink of their next life-transition, sensuously yet tenuously inverted into a figure like Yeats’ old young man sailing to Byzantium. Intergenerational transmission of knowledge or experience is also a concern for Roberson—be it in sunny light, as when the speaker remembers a country drive with his daughter in the poem “cascade,” or in a bleak view projected by “the children in fellini’s satyricon bacchanal scene.” The children must read “the writing on the wall” of the “inherited consequences” passed down by the audience (adults), a harbinger for the future generations' predicament in dealing with climate change and oppressive social systems (53).
Thus far, I’ve mostly discussed ecopoetics through Roberson’s imagery and theoretical implications, and I’d like to close this essay by briefly discussing an aspect that might usually come to mind when one thinks about lyric—music or musicality, sound and structure, which is crucial to Ed Roberson’s particular variation of ecopoetics. C.D. Wright is often noted for comparing his work’s “musical qualities to the work of saxophonist Steve Lacy, jazz pianist Thelonious Monk, and composer Johann Sebastian Bach.”  In his work, polyphony and resonance find sources in the Blues tradition as much as in the natural sciences. For instance, when asked about his work in relation to recent arguments by Nathaniel Mackey and Fred Moten about the complex ways that black writing finds models of formal innovation in black music, Roberson replies:
One basic thing is the fact that I really used to like to draw. Any kind of graphic always fascinated me. At one point I wanted to be an architect. There is a visual-spatial element in music. I think I hear and see mathematics and geometries in music. I think that's how music comes into my work. People think that the music comes first, then the structure comes from the music. It goes the other way with me…the structure is the music (Horton 766).
Roberson finds company in a swarm of artists who think about sound structure in similar ways. In his essay, “Black Serial Poetics: an Introduction to Ed Roberson” critical theorist and music scholar Brent Hayes Edwards notes how, despite lack of critical attention, reviewers have (rightfully) reviewed Roberson alongside more widely-read or canonized poets like Denise Levertov, Kamau Brathwaite, Lyn Hejinian, Charles Wright, to name a few, as well as noting the innovation he spins out of from E.E. Cummings, Charles Olson, and Robert Duncan. Edwards determines Roberson’s is “a poetics that finds its formal inspiration in music,” and how his poetry’s musicality serves as a “deconstructive poetics [that] strives not to allow the reader access to some previously unsuspected romantic plenitude, but instead to attune a critical sensibility” (632). Consequently, Roberson’s musical, deconstructive, ecological poetics shows how music is not ‘just music’ and poetry is not ‘just poetry,’ but neither are these art forms some romanticized idyllic legend to decode the secrets of the universe. In Roberson’s words, his poetics presents a “‘radical incompleteness’...not an end in itself, but a means to compel the reader to discover points of connection and resonance, what in the first interview with Kathleen Crown he calls ‘keys or cues or wormholes or chutes’" (qtd. in Edwards 627). Music, like language, emerges from Roberson’s poems as whirl of coterminous scales in a pluralized world.
But with all the interplay of subjects, objects, science and art across verbal registers and epistemological modalities that Roberson’s poetry exhibits, it’s easy to overlook music (lyric poetry) just as a form of human connection. Roberson suggests that, more important than open-ended multivalence or indeterminacy, he thinks of his poetry as “an ambition towards universality” (Edwards 327). Such modulation of new keys asks of us, in asked what has changed, to next imagine new ways of sensing. It asks us to listen as a form of seeing from the beginning. In the collection’s second poem-sequence, “a drop of water,” we see that: “matter [is] troubling / the structure of even the structure-less” and later, “music sets up // off the walls of our body / structures that hang / in our blood” (Roberson 3-4). Music is thus, something embodied, a troubling matter, or, a troubling rendition of what we hear/see as matter. This lyrical fusing of matter and music, structure and structurelessness, transmutes naturally into Roberson’s historically-conscious ecopoetic approach language’s rhythm. Rhythm, as Shockley describes in her discussion of Roberson’s earlier work, Lucid Interval as Integral Music, reverberates through “what we might call ‘natural law’: human intervention cannot control, but only negotiate—or, at best, influence—the tempo at which these phenomena operate” (Edwards 737). The integral senses of musical entanglement situates Roberson’s work in crucial spaces of black study and ecopoetics.
Roberson has written alongside, within, and yet still outside of the Black Arts movement, and his work likewise asks us to expand our sense of that arena to include a broader ecopoetic vantage. His work exists in dialogue with what Aldon Neilsen calls into question as “‘the nearly hegemonic assumptions about the nature of the relationship between African-American oral traditions and writing, with a clear privilege given to the prevailing ideal of the oral’" (qtd. in Edwards 623). Where even in recent memory "readers didn't read black poetry with any depth, it wasn't read with any universality…We could say black and it only meant Harlem or certain streets in Pittsburgh, but it would never have a sense of us as humans, or a sense of the whole world" (qtd. in Edwards 627), to read Roberson’s work now across his lifetime, and in this latest volume, explodes what might otherwise be a limited conception of Black experimental poetics, in alignment with other experimental practitioners with expansive eco-bent like Nathaniel Mackey, Will Alexander, Tracie Morris, and C.S. Giscombe, among others.
Ecopoetics, as Roberson enacts it, also reminds us how "natural" our sociopolitical world actually is by recalibrating human interactivity within the larger context of nature, rather than insisting on a separation of the human from natural, nonhuman phenomena—which is not to naturalize human institutions like racial capital. I do want to suggest that ecopoetics literally and figuratively, critically and creatively, re-attunes the body-mind’s attention to the music all around. As Min Hyoung Song reflects in his discussion of Roberson in climate lyricism: “focusing on scalar variance, persistence, and swing…have been helpful in making climate change available to my own quotidian sense of reality” (Song 122). Through poetry’s sensing, the keys modulated in this revived ecopoetic lyric are the very concepts of scale, spatiality, temporality, the makings of the world cast anew in Roberson’s language’s sound. The larger project of ecopoetics, then, is less about referring to a thing and more about inferring a feeling—to actually feel moved or redirected or reoriented, in an “ambition towards universality” or to better “filled with understanding the sight” (2).
 Title of Roberson’s previous poetry collection, and frequently repeated by Fred Moten.
Joseph Donahue. “Metaphysical Shivers: Reading Ed Roberson.” Callaloo, vol. 33, no. 10, Summer 2010, pp. 700-718. https://doi.org/10.1353/cal.2010.0030
Brent Hayes Edwards . “Black Serial Poetics: An Introduction to Ed Roberson.” Callaloo, vol. 33, no. 10, Summer 2010, pp. 620-637.
Randall Horton and Ed Roberson. “‘The Structure, Then Then Music’: An Interview with Ed Roberson.” Callaloo, vol. 33, no. 3, 2010, pp. 762–69. JSTOR,
Lynn Keller. Recomposing Ecopoetics: North American Poetry of the Self-Conscious Anthropocene. Richmond: University of Virginia Press, 2018.
Ed Roberson. asked what has changed. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2021.
Evie Shockley. “On the Nature of Ed Roberson’s Poetics.” Callaloo, vol. 33, no. 10, Summer 2010, pp. 728-747. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40962665
Min Hyoung Song. Climate Lyricism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2020.