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‘I want a dog’ Pet Shop Boys Introspective (1987)

I want a dog
A Chihuahua
When I get back
To my small flat
I want to hear somebody bark

When Pet Shop Boys released Introspective, the emptiness of ‘I Want a Dog’ was a challenge. At the tender age of 14, I associated drum machines and keyboards with the feel-good flummery of Stock, Aitken and Waterman but, by contrast, ‘I Want a Dog’ offered an austere soundscape of bass and drums. Neil Tennant’s fragile vocal bounces around the track like a young urban professional in a minimalist riverside condo. The crushing word in this masterwork of understatement is ‘somebody’. The anthropomorphised Chihuahua is the speaker’s smallest (yet impossible) dream of companionship. It’s crushingly lonely, beautiful music and was in mind as I savoured Sophie Robinson’s Rabbit.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, illustrated by John Tenniel, 1865 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The opening monologue, ‘Sweet Sweet Agency’, commodifies the self as ‘there is nothing i love more / than to be treasured’. The line break artfully wrong-foots the reader as we anticipate the speaker pointing to an object of affection beyond the self, but this little white rabbit descends down the burrow of solipsism. The speaker keeps her ‘face in careful stillness not to crease its cute forgettability’ and it is her ‘life’s work / to work out how to stay creamy on the inside’. The result? A nightmare world of inertia. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at least the bottle labelled “DRINK ME” was consumed. In Robinson’s universe, it would be retouched and posted to an Instagram feed.

On the page, some of the poems in Rabbit are obsessive – overwhelming. In ‘Social Fabric (An Edited Version of the World)’ Robinson starts with social disconnection: ‘no father no sister no mother no brother no gf no bf’. Her acronyms belong to instant messaging. Hers is the demotic of the digital native whose palsied fingers flick compulsively to refresh the newsfeed. However, Robinson’s poem darkens across a page turn as the speaker’s mind locks obsessively into a cycle of thought like scratched vinyl: ‘nothing on the television nobody picking up the phone nothing on / the television nobody picking up the phone’. She cannot break this loop.

An Instagram food photo (Photo credit: Ari Helminen)

Rabbit continues to bounce around compulsively. In ‘Black Cherry’, one of the later poems in the collection, the speaker opens ‘stuck on a loop of the new on a loop of the / moving soundtrack of my singularity’. Here, perhaps the loop suggests the disposable music of subscription services like Spotify and Apple Music – services which trap us in a bubble of the self as we float through the world. Robinson’s ‘singularity’ is telling. We’re not people in the old sense. We’re no longer social animals. We exist in the solitary confinement of the self. We want to reach out and touch one another: ‘i want to text you / a picture of my dinner to show you / what’s moving around / inside me’ but we confuse the forensic with the intimate. The result is tragic: ‘don’t mistake my message / for its content: I’ve got nothing / to tell you i just wanted / to be in touch’. The final irony is ‘being in touch’ – we’ve probably never expended so much energy being in touch, or felt so alone.

Rabbit is forceful expression of isolation, and of yearning for connection. There’s dignity, stoicism and lyricism here – even as Robinson’s subjects get back to their small flats, unlock their computers and phones and fall into rabbit holes who knows how deep, or how dark.