The poem in Tammy Robacker’s collection Villain Songs (ELJ, 2017) that I come back to again and again is “The Cuckoo Clock.”
When I was a girl
I wanted to live
inside of one.
A wooden, small
place to hold me.
I was in love
with its bird
This is the wondrous beginning of the poem, and I’ve felt this—a sense that there was some magic in that chamber where the bird lived, or, in some versions, where the tiny woodcutter keeps his table, or the milkmaid has her bed.
But this poem goes darker, and its danger is the same throughout the entire collection. It’s an overwhelming sense of masculine oppression, built into the whorls and knots of the timepiece.
Clockmakers all carve
the same male game
in their overhang.
and alpha beasts—
They rule the ornate
Robacker ends the piece by referring to the pinecone weights of these clocks, “dangling / their gonadal hang.” And just like that, a child’s wonder is given over to oppression and fear.
Villain Songs calls out the dangers the world poses to its children—and particularly its girls—in poems of witness, poems of incest, a poem with a buried fetus, poems with nighttime dangers and unwelcome touch.
And they resonate. The poems in Villain Songs hit home for anyone who has encountered a cockthrust on a public bus or the weird attention of a creepy uncle—its intentions obvious in retrospect, but puzzling to a child.
Once I was at a gas station and a man exposed himself to me. The front of his pants were open, and he stood there as if the presence of his penis were an accident of which he was unaware. I called him out and he ran, and when I got to my car, where my mother waited, I worried that I had made an error. Maybe he didn’t know. My mother shook her head. “Men always know where their penis is,” she said, and I think it’s true.
In Villain Songs, my mother’s words stay with me. The men whose selfish and violating acts are recounted know what they are doing. There are no accidents here. And Robacker knows what she’s doing; she’s bearing witness. She says as much in the poem “Blocked Memories”:
… I could never tell
the poor man it happened then.
I tucked the secret beneath my body.
Silence fell across me like down.
For forty years I have slept
on it. Blank as a sheet till now.
As Rick Barot states in his blurb for the collection, “Poetry’s work as retrieval and repair has never been more vigorously practiced than in Villain Songs.” He also cites superb craft, and poems “as artful as they are wounded.” It’s not an easy collection to process, but it houses important truths—and poets know there is beauty in that.