BOOK REVIEW: Mass for Shut-Ins by Todd Robinson

Review by David Z. Drees

The poems in Todd Robinson’s Mass for Shut-Ins are simultaneously societal and intensely personal, gleaned through a lens of unifying solitariness, the sense that “We, anonymous cannon-fodder” share more than we’ve ever differed, our burden of impermanence both unique and unexceptional: “Tyranny / of laundry, tyranny of cooking / shows, tyranny of emails,” as we “evolved / into chunky adults, posing in sandy places, celebrating our offspring / and their middling successes.” Reflective and nostalgic, the collection is a search for identity, for faith and understanding, critical while maintaining a sense of optimism that can only be described as courageous, an intense resolve that,

the only thing
stopping you
from being fully alive
is your fear
throbbing like a pulsar.

Todd Robinson writes of unity in a time when there seems to be so little. The collection’s sincerity, its refusal of sensationalism, takes deep root in an indifferent world. It serves as a testament to resilience, an appraisal, not of perceived failures and successes, promotions and a couple extra inches on our television screens, but of our tenacity to strive forth, to “work like a serf until the last dogs / die and you can sleep in the quiet hum of clean escapism” without losing the part of us that makes it all relevant. Todd Robinson’s Mass for Shut-Ins serves to remind us:

The roar of God can be hard
to hear, the click of a casket lid or a silent film, the space
between a mother’s birth and the last rattle of her last

child’s child.

There is bravery in survival, in accepting and embracing “nostalgia…the black dog / of what I once / dared to say / tagging me / through shifting / grass,” all while we “toil unending for the new America wage-slavery / flipping frozen discs of conglomerated cattle scraps forever,” and few can capture this concept with the humor and song of Todd Robinson’s Mass for Shut-Ins. There is beauty in simplicity, sobriety, in “sipping small rain / from the Lutheran sky” and “calf hair on wire, dry ponds winking as we worked our way / along the Pawnee trail toward reservations littered with plastic bags and satellite / dishes,” but there is also boredom, insubordinate, stale as garage-dwelling cigarette smoke, and Robinson shies away from none of it. His poems remain exceptionally grounded, sensitive to the absurdity of examining our shared human condition, our drive to persist, our need to push onward through

             endless rows of corn and fractured
highway concrete, the old men listing

in coffin pews, night blacking the stained
glass to a kind of grace, a painterly proof
it happened, that once we were real

A product of The Backwaters Press, Todd Robinson’s Mass for Shut-Ins is a collection as comfortable on a warm, summer porch as it is curled in the fetal position on a bathroom floor. It endures and thrives in an almost bitter humor unique to those who know too well that “memory sputters up / from the past like a hangover” and gnaws at us, and even when we laugh back, when we’ve recovered, maybe even fallen in love, “The devils / of the present and devils of the past straighten / their ties and scoff.” Earnest and unfiltered, Mass for Shut-Ins bleeds in a way few collections can, cathartic wit wrapping what is solemn, the

immortality promised
in that creep of blackout’s romance,

a last reveler bowing out the door
to barf himself half-sober on a patch

of drowsy hostas.



TODD ROBINSON’S second book of poetry, Mass for Shut-Ins, was published by Backwaters Press in August 2018. He holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and has taught for twelve years in the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. His poems have appeared in Cortland Review, Canopic Jar, Sugar House Review, Midwest Quarterly, Superstition Review, and A Dozen Nothing. He once recited a Star Trek love poem to Neil deGrasse Tyson and twice took short naps on Ted Kooser’s couch.

Mass for Shut-Ins
Todd Robinson
The Backwaters Press (2018)
ISBN: 978-1935218487
$16.00 paperback