A life in poetry and prose
By Carolyn Males
A camper. A dog. And a laptop. On some days those are the things poet Elizabeth Robin finds essential for focusing in on her craft. “Sometimes I just need to escape from the constant tug of people,” she says.
On the morning we talk, she’s recently returned from a short stay at a state park on the South Carolina line where she and her lab mix Byron (and what better name for a poet’s dog?) have hiked the backwoods trails.
There she’d hunkered down among the trees to focus on her latest manuscript, Leaving the Margins, a title inspired by a late evening Twilight Zone-type experience with a friend at a Hilton Head lounge. That night the band turned out to be heavy on the metal and tattoos with a head-banger vibe. The clientele and the bartenders were, shall we say, also a bit picturesque, at one point flipping out switchblades for comparison. Meanwhile a few seats down a pit bull perched on a barstool next to a large drunken man. The dog seemed sweet but not so his owner who kept staring at her while he knocked back booze. Robin would leave with a narrative poem forming in her head.
While this nocturnal adventure was exotic, leaving the margins and meeting with the unexpected challenges life throws in her path is a trajectory Robin has traveled on many a time before. Sometimes it’s an adventure. She and her brother, Russell Brown, grew up as Navy brats living in various states as well as in Italy and Ecuador. As kids they’d viewed masterpieces at the Louvre, explored the Alhambra, and climbed the Leaning Tower of Pisa. She would learn to speak several languages but, more importantly, she developed an openness to other cultures. “That’s why I don’t see things the same way as most people,” she explains. “Being an outsider gives you a different view of things.”
However, along with the highs, the road she’s traveled has been pitted with deep uncertainties and pain. She was fifteen years old when she found herself rushing to her brother’s room one morning. “I can’t get Mom to wake up,” she cried. Her mother, they discovered, had died in her sleep. When their father, who’d been away on a business trip returned home later that day, Russell had asked, “What are we going to do?” Brown, a stoic military man, had said, “We go on. That’s what we do.” His words would be a driving philosophy for Robin’s life.
Becoming Mrs. L
Robin later followed Russell to William & Mary College with plans for a career in psychology. But an uncomfortable internship in a hospital psychiatric ward sent her veering off that first path to teaching English and psychology to adolescents, a group she enjoyed working with. She landed a job in a rough high school rife with gangs and teenage pregnancies. “It was a baptism by fire,” she declares. “Even though I wasn’t particularly competent in the beginning, I was motivated to figure out how to get good at it.” She hit upon the idea of introducing the magic of literature and language to her students through popular movies and lyrics from songs by Bruce Springsteen, Nirvana, and rappers like Tupac Shakur. At one unwed teen mother’s suggestion, she even launched a pilot program for a developmental psychology class, a first for this poor Tidewater school.
Four states and several teaching jobs later, she found herself back on the margins, now a divorced single parent of two children in Monmouth, New Jersey. Enter George Liebenberg, the local high school’s popular drama teacher. Like Robin, he too looked at the world in a different way. Soon they were traveling down the same road, married, their individual creativity sparking innovative ways to work with students. Here Robin would begin penning Becoming Mrs. L, essays about her teaching experiences.
Where green meets blue
Meanwhile, after a career in professional football, Russ Brown settled on Hilton Head in 1974 and started a successful real estate marketing and development company.
With Russ’s gift of a timeshare, the couple found themselves on a new course. The live oaks draped in Spanish moss, the sound of the palmettos clattering in the breeze, the curve of the shore, and the blue of the sky meeting the sea of marsh grass had woven their spell. Robin would recall her husband’s love of the latter in the poem, “Whereafter.”
where green meets blue
i remember he loved that view
stitched into the seam
of this whereafter
memories seep through
“Let’s move here,” George had said.
By 2010 they had both wound down their teaching careers, sold their New Jersey home, and settled full time in Hilton Head. Two years later, Russ would be diagnosed with leukemia, and twenty-seven months later he passed away. Then on the heels of Russ’s death came George’s diagnosis of stage-four melanoma. Less than two years after that, he, too, was gone.
Silk purses & lemonade
When Robin had first come to Hilton Head, she’d joined an Island Writers Network critique group to help her with Becoming Mrs. L. But with the loss of George and Russ, she’d turned to poetry as a catharsis, a way to work out her feelings and make observations about the world around her. One day she brought “A Split Screen World,” a poem contrasting our small-screen addictions against what’s happening outside our windows, to the group.
Judge strikes down NYC ban on sugary drinks…
Pundit rejoices on behalf of “liberty loving soda drinkers”…
I could watch the screens all day, some do.
Everything in life is a choice.
or, i could stroll the stretched-wide flat sands
watch comedic interplay in a lowcountry
lab’s fruitless sandpiper chase
marvel the revelations of an ebbing tide:
jellyfish larger than basketballs, long tentacles menacing still,
sand dollars clinging, bared conchs, glimmering shells
dolphins slipping along in happy splashes above pelican vees,
a sudden, singular dive-pause-waterplume, its chandelle return
“This is what you should be writing,” her critique group had told her.
Finishing Line Press would publish her first book of poetry Silk Purses & Lemonade in 2017. Her second chapbook, Where Green Meets Blue, followed a year later. Both had been born out of raw pain. “I thought Russell was hard. He’d been my friend for sixty years. And yet, it was George who almost brought me down.”
In her poem “Lasagna for One,” she writes
How to ladle a pot of soup into one bowl?
A hearty stew into a single plate?
Locked into meager, petty routine
upended by newsfeed tragedies
unable to lift a spoon
or calculate construction
of one pancake
105 days, 31 states, 19,418 miles
Leaving the Margins, Robin’s work-in-progress, invites readers to join her and Byron on their 2018 cross-country camper trip. She’d originally planned the book as a travelogue, documenting the places and characters she’d encountered. However, once again her IWN critique group nudged her onto an alternative route. The frame of her tale would now map her parallel journey from the depths of widowhood to the rediscovery of who she is and what’s important to her. So from Joshua Tree, she writes
my spirit whirls like a dust devil
a mystery energy that soars, vanishes
the fear: what goes on
whispered in grocery lines
sketchy corner liquor marts
a local pharmacy queue
people live behind gates in trailer parks
new riders of the purple sage
filling an abandoned hollywood set
It promises a wild and beautiful ride.
Internment When they come knocking
Leave the backyard wooden swing
Its seat worn smooth from children
Pumping against the summer wind
Its rope twisted and frayed
Where it rubbed the brown bark.
Leave your chipped pie plate
Given to your grandmother and
Then to your mother, gone the hours
Of kneading and rolling and filling;
There will be no cherry pies in camp.
Leave your violin and bow
The years of practice worth nothing now
The angle of your chin on warm wood
Soon a distant memory
The music silenced and left behind.
Do not take the rows of corn
Growing straight and sweet inside the fence
Leave them for the glossy black crows
Who will grow plump and happy
On the back of your labor.
When they come knocking
Take their fears and their suspicions
Take their narrow minds and clay hearts
Take their laws, which are not yours, but
Do not take your freedom
Leave it when you close the door.
— Meryl Newell
I wrote this poem after attending a lifelong learning class based on four of the worst decisions of the U.S. Supreme court. The case was passing the law to build Japanese internment camps during World War II. The instructor had actual photos of the camps and the people, and I was so moved by what it must have felt like to be forced to leave the life you knew.