How To Maintain Eye Contact by Robert Wood Lynn; Button Poetry; 64 pages; $16.00
Robert Wood Lynn’s new chapbook How To Maintain Eye Contact is quieter in tone than his previous full-length, Mothman Apologia (2021). The new text is a set of city revelations, almost out of the tradition of Frank O’ Hara, but with Lynn’s trademark knife-in-the-gut twist of observational wit. As we saw in Mothman Apologia, Lynn can create an atmosphere which is exquisitely crafted in terms of form, then immediately revoke it with a sonnet-like volta. These new poems, however, are pensive; they are pounding the pavement outside coffee shops and bars searching for meaning, looking for that perfect person to share one’s life with, and ultimately, coming up empty. As Lynn navigates a breakup, living in an entirely new city alone for the first time, and writing a new kind of manuscript, we can see that he is navigating uncertainty and takes readers on this journey with him.
Despite this uncertainty, Lynn brings needed humor to his poetry, which is often dark but never cynical. His specificity is effective at capturing what makes New York City great, and often comical. The irony that crops up again and again in his poetry is important because it separates him from poets who simply languish in the dark, getting lost and never finding their way out again. Lynn is looking for the light, and even if he may not find it, he remains hopeful. The details captured in How To Maintain Eye Contact let us know that Lynn is always watching, always waiting for the world to give him something better, something beautiful, and even if it doesn’t, he’ll be there to make a poem out of it anyway. This chapbook is an ode to the everyday, the little things that make us scared and anxious and nervous. The poems, however, are not anxious. They confidently state their names and what they are trying to teach readers. In “Poem Ending In A Public Service Announcement,” the speaker states:
…In the Hall of My Fears,
the first room is devoted
to how casually we can kill
what we love without noticing.
This is one of the many examples of Lynn’s ability to turn the everyday into magic and why I continue to look forward to his books. Dropped wallets, snubbed lovers, cats casually consuming lily petals—all of this is as painful as a thousand paper cuts, but Lynn is able to create something more out of these small pieces of detritus.
The simplicity is their genius. These poems have the uncanny ability to make you realize what you have always known, but never been able to verbalize, which is the hallmark of all good writing. The pieces are not fast-paced, or flashy, or built on some kind of scaffolding of tricks. They are solid, contemporary, and well-articulated. They are everyday poems, the kind of poems you can live with in your back pocket or read a few between emails to your boss on your lunch break, and their experimentation with this voice suggests that Lynn did not know what he was setting out to do when he started writing this chapbook—rather, it is an experiment in itself. How to Maintain Eye Contact is, so to speak, a lesson for the writer as well as the reader, but in writing, Lynn is learning along with us.
In “Opportunity,” Lynn’s speaker remembers one such lesson: “I’m sorry, I love you always / the first things you’d say aloud / until I stopped hearing the comma.” Now, the violence of the everyday becomes personal—the way people hurt and harm each other, the way we hurt ourselves. These are universal themes, and Lynn acknowledges this. This chapbook is a guidebook on how to be alone—in a new city, after a breakup—and Lynn provides vital information on how to do so. His previous work felt very deliberate, measured, and calculated. This feels less so, but the looseness has an electricity that feels exciting and urgent.
The idea at the core of this collection is the desperation for another person and the inevitable letdown when they are gone. In “Inscription For The Surface Of The Moon,” the speaker explains:
we didn’t invent remembering
how another tastes
just how we tell them about it
desperate and immediate
Yet as much as we look to How To Maintain Eye Contact to teach us how to be alone, it is ultimately a set of instructions on how to connect with others as well. In Mothman, we learned about friendship, relationships, history, and a whole culture. This new chapbook has a smaller scope, but it deals with the same meat. While Mothman was ultimately about addiction and loss, Contact seems to be about loneliness, the aftermath of a breakup, and the way we reach out when we think we are alone. Lynn is deft in his movements, and this new subject matter shows a maturation, a continuous growth process that can only be admired. How To Maintain Eye Contact is a gesture towards others, a hand reaching outward in the dark, and as much as the speaker in the chapbook feels comfortable in their anonymity in the big city, they are inevitably looking for connection, through poetry or through sex or through love or through that magical something else that we all believe exists but might not.
Lynn has the uncanny ability to distill human wants and needs into lines and verse, and isn’t that what we all want? An assurance of love, of goodness? This book is sharp, often funny, and a strong contribution following a powerful full-length debut. Lynn manages to get into new territory here—the personal, the confessional—without sounding melodramatic or too retrospective, and he explores dangerous waters with the grace and ease of a much older writer. After a breakup, in a new city, in a completely new environment from his previous work, Lynn traverses loneliness the only way he knows how: through formal experimentation, beautiful observations about the world around him, and true poetic accomplishment. Although How To Maintain Eye Contact can feel like a journey for the writer as well as the reader, it is a vital stepping stone for both parties, as we all learn to live alone, combat loneliness, and try to make connections the only way we know how—through the simple act of eye contact.