Ed Roberson writes a lyric poetry of meticulous design and lasting emotional significance. This affective power is the very landscape—the topology—of his work, wherein experience (whether of joy or of suffering) endures. To accomplish this, the poems undertake intricate shapings of time; their terrain is layered and, through frequent use of serial structures, unfolding. The impulse toward the serial poem in Ed Roberson's work is not a typically narrative one—his works do not offer accounts of chronological progress from perception to insight, for example. Rather, they are presentations of "thought's torsion," to use the poet Louis Zukofsky's term, and the serial form that Mr. Roberson often (though by no means always) employs does not so much track time as generate a form of re-timing. This, of course, involves re-membering; not as nostalgic grasping after the past but as present configurations. In this respect, reading Ed Roberson's work brings certain musical figures to mind: the riff figures of the saxophonist Steve Lacy, the wondrously strange tonal figures of Thelonious Monk, and the giant fugal figures of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Ed Roberson was born and raised Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As a youth, he planned on a career as a painter, and he spent a great deal of time in the Pittsburgh Museum of Art, studying works in that museum's collection and lingering in their company. During his undergraduate university years he worked as a research assistant in limnology (a field of study which generally concerns itself with the physics, meteorology, and biology, etc. of inland, or fresh, bodies of water and their waterways). In this context he spent three summers on research expeditions, mostly among the alpine lakes on the Aleutian islands of Alaska. He worked for a time in the Pittsburgh AquaZoo public aquarium as a diver training porpoises, and then, in what certainly seems to be a radical departure from his interest in rivers and lakes, he worked in an advertising graphics agency and in the Pittsburgh steel mills. He has also taught in the English Departments of Allegheny County Community College, Raritan Valley Community College, and the University of Pittsburgh, and Rutgers, where his duties as associate director of special programs also involved work in outreach and financial assistance initiatives.
Twice Ed Roberson was a team member on the Explorers' Club of Pittsburgh's South American Expeditions, in which context he climbed mountains in the Peruvian and Ecuadorian Andes and explored the upper Amazonian jungle in eastern Ecuador. He has also motorcycled across the USA, and traveled in Mexico, the Caribbean, and in Nigeria, West Africa.
On occasion, perhaps as a residue from his early interest in painting, Ed Roberson's poems include graphic elements. Some are pictorial, as in Etai-Eken, which uses pictographs and what I suppose one might call text collage (he more or less draws with text here and there in the book). Some are gestural, as for example the horizontal lines that he occasionally deploys to divide pages into upper and lower regions. These horizontal or horizon lines extend the poems both vertically and latitudinally and provide them with countertimes and counterspaces—other skies and seas, perhaps, in which the poems appear not as territories but as, say, shells—seashells emitting musical chords: Voices Cast Out to Talk Us In (to quote the title of his 1995 book).
In his most recent book, City Eclogue, the poet Ed Roberson is acutely involved in an ongoing assessment of his environment, and he goes about this business, his business, with equal measures of stealth and brazen attention—"no sleeping through the words" as he has said. Not only a life, but the life inside of a life is his opus—how barriers, detours, and unforeseen associations figure into the whole experience. The city is his scene, its grid, rubble, trains, jittery gulls, and the silent woman at the other end of the bench. In interlocking lyrics of public space, he lays out the facts a little more distinctly than they were heretofore—arranging the bones of language just so; clearing feathers form the mind. You can see him thinking, and you can hear him watching.
Ed Roberson is a man of almost self-effacing modesty, but his poetry attests to his living life with almost over-whelming intensity, and with unbroken dignity. His poetry has the tenderness of water, and like water it is fully capable of rising into waves to smash cliffs or cut grand canyons through the never sufficiently aware cultural landscape.