Rochelle Roberts’ speaker moves back and forth through the porous gateway of memory in an uncanny debut.
Content warning: repeated references to death.
Rochelle Roberts’ debut poetry pamphlet, Your Retreating Shadow, is full of fleetingly personal, eerie poems in which she uses memory, magic, and the uncanny to investigate and transform her life experiences into wild dreamscapes.
This brief but powerful book opens with ‘Afterwards’, a poem that establishes her speaker as a young girl grieving in the aftermath of death (or multiple deaths). This absence casts the titular retreating shadow over the subsequent poems more than metaphorically.
The speaker is engaged in surreal mourning throughout the collection. In these poems the dead remain with the living, stepping between worlds and, alarmingly, inviting her back with them. Both speaker and reader are initiated into a world where ghosts become an active part of a fracturing reality, where trauma opens up existing wounds and recasts them as tangible spectres.
By night, these shadowy memories grow large and take shape, “thoughts hang / multi-layered / above your bed”. In the sticky liminal space between consciousness and sleeping, the speaker’s psychic dramas play out with increasingly unsettling bodily repercussions.
Roberts subtly interrogates different stages of grief throughout her poems, particularly denial. In the poem, ‘In the downpour of your absence’ the speaker is aware that, over time, the absence of a loved one brings “the inevitable/erosion of memory”. Yet she and her family actively maintained “the architecture of you we have constructed”. The construct is flimsy, as memory proves to be an unreliable building material: “tiny cracks” in this ongoing structure of the deceased “widen and snap”. This is one of the few instances when memory is used as a collective coping mechanism, with the majority of poems leaving the speaker to encounter her dreamscapes alone.
Roberts’ speaker wanders through psychic spaces dabbling in magical thinking, bargaining with the unseen to imagine possible alternatives to the embodied world she reluctantly inhabits.
In the wrenching ‘DWF’, she reframes the day of her loved one’s fatal accident by undoing the scene frame by frame, “On the day you die / you do not get in the car.” The “you do not” is repeated like a binding spell in the poem, which ends with a wish, “Your face appears / in our family photos, / not scraped along / the cold asphalt.” In the face of navigating unspeakable loss, how many of us have replayed events to see where we could have prevented the inevitable?
Grieving transforms the speaker’s body and home into unfamiliar, uncanny spaces. In ‘Family History’, her remaining family members meld into a house that no longer feels like a home, transformed by the pressure of grief. Her sister becomes “embedded in the walls” and her brother “a wound beneath the bathroom sink”. The family unit is fractured and left to “haunt the hallways, haunt the walls” as grief has erased any sense of before. In this collective haunting, the family unit has fractured, “the traces / of us no longer in the architecture of our home.”
Roberts’ strength is delving into these haunted dreamlike spaces with an unflinching gaze. Her recurring motifs of wounds, eyes, and seeing without seeing will resonate with any reader who has experienced sleep paralysis or experience that has rendered the body an unsafe space to dwell within. Her speaker is both embodied and disembodied, walking between the waking and sleeping world, “I watch myself comatose / on the bed, mouth large as / the insides of dreams, eyes / leaking imagined horrors.”
When I asked Roberts about the separation of selves within her work, she said she used these poems as a way to explore feeling “lost in a reality where everything changes around you”. Well-versed in contemporary art and writing responses to the works she encounters, Roberts mentioned Norweigan photographer Anja Niemi’s work as a close visual representation of this in-between space. Niemi’s subjects are often engaged in otherwise regular activities, but something is slightly off in each shot. Whether it’s a woman’s arm clutching at a phone from the floor while simultaneously being pristine in a mirror reflection or the doubling of subject’s alter egos, the everyday uncanny characterises each knowing work.
As the pamphlet progresses, the speaker melds into the shadow world, communicating and becoming closer to these forces — at times against her will. The disembodied dream self seems to have access to dark dreamscapes, opened up through the physical trauma she has experienced and her grief. The opening line of “Pink Visions” sees the speaker scrying into this world, “I spy you through a celestial mirror”.
While there is a potential danger in her actions, there is the potential for power and possibility, too. True magic that she is not able to tap into in her embodied form. Having reached this uncanny other world, she now has to master its skills of casting and conjuring as we see in the pamphlet’s final poem, ‘Useless Magic’. Despite the oxymoronic title, Roberts playfully invokes ancestral magic to great effect poetically, though her speaker is left feeling dissatisfied by this type of magic’s futility. She craves, it seems, another type of magic not yet accessible to her, but the currency is dreams.
The supernatural is hinted at early on in ‘Family History’, with the speaker’s mother being deemed “a sorcerer” with her “ritual of muttered hexes, her dowsing crystal still in hand”. Perhaps the speaker’s initiation into this magical world is not the result of her will alone.
Roberts’ debut pamphlet shines with surrealist influences and isn’t afraid to conjure frightening places that ask us to look within and wonder what skeletons or ghosts hide in our closets or, in her case, above the bed at night. Your Retreating Shadow tackles difficult subjects of death, grief, and sexuality, continually surprising the reader with lingering imagery that creates unease. To read its dark magic is to believe in the possibilities of harnessing our dreams, however traumatic, to see what worlds we can build out of the wreckage.
Feature image: Rochelle Roberts, courtesy of the author, and Your Retreating Shadow courtesy of Broken Sleep Books.