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Book Three: Romance

(after Eve’s Ransom by George Gissing)

All life sets itself upon us like a dull, iron-colored grief,

and the discipline is

to realize that we haven’t died


In the story, the protagonist has no basis for hope.

In the story, the protagonist ends with a shout of joy,

and we believe this exclamation.

Yet it is hard, very difficult, to understand from whose

point of view the story is told, to understand that neutrality

functions as sympathy.


The difficulty of understanding is so large that the character must put its hands out to hold up its head, must furrow its brow.

It must be willing to wait indefinitely.

It must be willing to misunderstand itself as a means of surviving.

It must understand that its recklessness is indeed reckless even when it is absurdly modest.

It must be able to turn itself into a different character entirely, and this trait or capability will become known as love.


The romance is full of legacies: slight, often bitter, inheritances.

A beguiling photograph in the landlady’s album. But no more specific than that.

A chance meeting on the train platform where the debtor, flush with wealth, pays off his debt to the impoverished man.

This sudden wealth.

This payment of debt is meant to humiliate the man to whom the money is owed.

The countryside undulating with industrial waste.

This life.


And so the character resolves, and so the character says, over and over:

“I am going to live.”

“I am going to live.”

As though he were tutoring himself in an expression from a foreign language phrasebook.


Slight tune, burble,
turbulent smallness,
lost in the strewn
Hope, drunkenness,
and their
final, bright resolve.
Clatter, moon on
the tracks. London,
lodging, the blight of
misgiving, cracks in
city pavement, her
lovely costume. Furtive,
cost, always the tune accosted,
lover giving, clutter,
window giving out to
view, worrisome
giving way to, gratitude’s
cool, its foolish
duty. Late
leave-taking, the
costume’s tryst, a lady’s
wan face, her glove
and her wrist. From
above, the window
final, furtive, true
to its duty, its
assignation with
along with the
cost of the meal, slight
appetite, thrummed by its
own truth.
Debt, owning
up, betrayal soon captive. Mistress,
illumine, please, misnomer
crooned to
spellbound honor. Slight
melody asked to stay, stay on, else
the debt and debtor become confused
and from each other stray.


At the core of the story is a fundamental hollowness.

This is signified by the flatness of a photograph. That it purports to show a face.

This is signified by the pallor of the main character.

At the core of the story is a contradiction that refuses to lead the reader

to a state of resolution. The nature of the story is to generate

a tension that remains suspended over the ending, like a landscape held

over its actors: they can go nowhere.

This is signified by the lodgings of the central character: all the furnishings having been given to this person by a closest “friend.” They are not of his own choosing.

This is signified by the main character’s diligence and mercy. At the very end, the character throws back his head and laughs.

At the core of the story, this irritability: that it is constituted by two main characters; that by no number of concrete signifiers can the narrative unite them into one.


It would be absurd to mistake patience for dispassion.

The very idea of forgiveness is the idea of a bafflement.

The lover warns the beloved to stay at a distance for safety’s sake.

The best certainty is that poverty is a form of duty, an enactment

that destroys health but upholds honor.

The characters walk independently of each other up the same street,

a tenement street, and herein lies their most acute intimacy, that

they can recognize this, and can grant that at least some of the hovels

show signs of order within, of habitation, a light seen from outside.


No gasp, cry, sob, escaped tear, sigh, betrayal of feeling.

Only the loss of color in the heroine’s cheek.

No such word as distress or disappointment permitted.

Neither sorrow.

We negate these, and this is our means of making measurement.

The relative silence of colorlessness, the way the lack

plumbs a certain depth. Deficiency

sounds the dimensions of this vacant space.


How does the human soul curdle?

Perhaps by self-abduction.

The consistency of the soul loses its satin texture

when it learns options.

It may take itself away.

It may demand a ransom.


How much does a self cost?

The lady had, perhaps, kidnapped her “self.”

How much ease there was in adopting the role.

How beguiling the photograph, which is the only lingering image of the tale.

Her portrait.

Meanwhile, the gentleman leafs through a book he once thought too expensive.

The color plates. A study of

architecture, that is, how structure can contain, how the structure

might develop its own beauty, even integrity. How simple

to shake her hand later at the fete, seeming

hardly ever to have known this woman at all.

Elizabeth Robinson is the author of the forthcoming poetry collection Being Modernists Together (Solid Objects) and Thirst & Surfeit (Threadsuns Press).