Complex Bravery by Robert Lipton
Reviewed by Alexander Suczek

To read the collection of poetry by Robert Lipton, titled "A Complex Bravery," is to scan a panorama of the poet’s life. Here are impressionistic vignettes of childhood, his mother and her disability from a stroke, his father, love, lust, and war. Yet, inherent in the poetic imagery there is more. Like the artist whose paintings intensify the scene represented on canvas with sharp outlines, exaggerated shapes and enhanced color, Lipton reduces his verbal painting to the essence of his experiences. He concentrates the emotional power much as a chef reduces his sauce to a stunning intensity. He dramatizes his concepts with sharp and often brutal and satirical contrasts; also, he represents a man of conscience, aware of the harsh features of contemporary life that threaten well being and happiness. The poem begins with "…the heavy fog of marijuana / smoke like a comforter/ kept me in the curve / of the futon couch." And proceeds as the speaker concedes: "I glanced back at the TV /With the illegal cable box / which obscured the 20,000 dollars / Of freshly harvested weed /Glistening in the Steuben crystal pitcher," the abundance of details here contributes to the flow of the colloquial speech, where the expected turns of phrase become unusual, as the speaker says: "Caught myself wondering about the severity / Of the fine for dicking with cable, /Telling my brother it was just the local /Crows playing with the fat tabby; / The crows knock against the aluminum/ Siding force the cat to skid its butt/ Against the planters lined up/ Like congregants waiting for communion…" So, what begins with marijuana, ends with communion. This blend of styles is typical to Lipton’s collection and is, frankly, refreshing in its surprise and flow. As Lipton looks at the world around him, he does not surrender to the harsh side. Instead, he is just supremely aware of it and reports it as he sees it with utter frankness:

…I will casually leave out my inarticulate screaming
At the 80-year-old woman who brings me lukewarm
Turkish coffee, or my fits of vomiting when I hear
The F-16s dive into another bombing run,
No I will give you acts of overcoming
Rising from my weakness to pull a child
Out of harms way.
Large caliber bullets ripping at me as we run
Each moment broadening into a chapter
Of my new poetry book
I will make my troubled sleep
Turn into something as deep as shrapnel
Buried in the wall of a children’s center.
I will see colors more vividly
As if I have the eyes of a thousand parrots
Smell cinnamon in the breath of all people
Not blood dried to a fine red dust.
I will tend lovingly to the family of the dead;
Embarrassing in this exsanguinations
My cowardice is sealed here…

Tender and loving moments are reinterpreted through cruel realities of the modern world. In this tonal blend, nobility and crudity mingle both artistically and realistically. The impact is startling, but reassuring, too. The approach is reflected in such lines as "Hope is a relay event and you will be handing off, soon." Or in a recollection of the author’s mother ("I remember Mom filling my own tin / Batman box with baloney sandwiches / And stringed potato crisps. / This is the world Mom allows me, / She prepares the plastic-wrapped cookies / And thermos of milk as carefully as a Noh / Actor crying in silence. / This where I keep my mother’s love.") This is the world Mom allows me, says the poet. But as the collection proceeds, he looks out of the domestic conflicts of the larger world. Lipton’s experience in the Middle-East is reflected in those later poems. It would be easy to sentimentalize such a subject, to make the poetry of protest a mere slogan. This is precisely what Lipton does not do. What does he do and how, then? Well, perhaps because he has learned something of the complexity of human confrontations in his domestic poetry, when he looks at the world at large, his eye is still on the local details. That attention to the music of details is what saves him from the easy "poetry as propaganda" trap that many political poets fall in. Instead, Lipton expresses veiled outrage with effective irony when faced with a reality that cries out for restorative leadership.

…I wasn’t the boy shot through the hand
as he walked along Sal-hedin street
idly brushing his fingers against the concert market stalls.
His hand, not mine
Would sometimes throw rocks at the tanks
Smoking up the streets near the school…
…It is not my blood running out of my mouth
and it is not my smile stuck to my face
like a paper donkey’s tail.
I am still telling this story
An insightful, and more to the point, living narrator
Who lets you believe death
Is for someone else
In some other place.

Lipton reports the world, his world, his life, as he finds it with a distinctive and highly expressive style. This style is evident in both his domestic poems and his poems about Middle East. This collection of more that 50 vignettes express a very true to life array of the tragedy and comedy that pervade our world today. It is stimulating and thought provoking reading with the added zest of needing careful re-examination and re-reading to find the truths hidden in every figure of speech.