THREE BOOKS BY LISA ROBERTSON
Is it odd to begin liking a poet on the basis of a pair of lines? This happened to me with the Canadian poet Lisa Robertson. And though I eventually found that I did my liking on a semierroneous basis, the affinity was secure. I loved these two lines, from a slim untitled poem out of Robertson’s 2001 collection, The Weather.
It was Jessica Grim the American poet
who first advised me to read Violette Leduc
Are you aware that Jessica Grim and Violette Leduc are both real people? I was not, at least until I came across Leduc’s 1964 memoir, La Bâtarde (The Lady Bastard), on the cover of which a pair of female profiles look ready to kiss. I just liked the sound of those names, “Jessica Grim,” “Violette Leduc”; one character arrives with a strange haircut and opinions, the author she recommends could wear boots that cover the thighs. It’s a Nabokovian limb you potentially like your poet to venture out on: a commonplace the site of an unexpected evocation.
We’ll leave aside for a moment the fact that Jessica Grim is an American poet who, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, has published several books and also works as a librarian, and that Violette Leduc (1907‑1972), besides authoring an autobiography, composed some nine novels and was a friend of Simone de Beauvoir’s: Lisa Robertson’s oeuvre is dense, sonically resonant verse and combinations of verse and lyric prose, and often the result of collaboration or travel—with other artists and across countries, centuries, and literatures, both high and low. The list of her publications gives a clue to her pursuits, which are simultaneously pastoral and modernist: The Apothecary (1991), The Badge (1994), The Descent (1996), Debbie: An Epic (1997), XEclogue (1999), The Weather (2001), Occasional Works and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture (2003), Rousseau’s Boat (2004), The Men: A Lyric Book (2006). What follows here treats three of these collections—The Weather, XEclogue, and Rousseau’s Boat—which show to great effect Robertson’s prized dilemma: how to stage obsolescence successfully, such that its strangeness, anachronism, and even its sometime illegibility, can be read intact. For whatever is obsolete is free for the taking. Which is to say, many abandoned styles have something (beauty) yet to offer; we need their insolvent otherness.
As I have explained, I am an innocent. I believed that Jessica Grim and Violette Leduc were aliases, just as I believed in the legitimacy of an “Office for Soft Architecture,” who had sent, folded into my copy of The Weather, a sky-blue flyer printed with a quantity of text presumably referring to that book. The flyer began promisingly: “We think of the design and construction of these weather descriptions as important decorative work.” But the text veered quickly into a territory I knew to be emphatically foreign to any authority worth its salt, with a nod in my direction, “What shall our new ornaments be? How should we adorn mortality now?” And, the author(s) insisted, now plaintive, “This is a serious political question.” The envoi finally convinced me of its impracticality as blurb:
Dear Reader—a lady speaking to humans from the motion of her own mind is always multiple. Enough of the least. We want to be believed.
Who were the authors of the flyer, this “Office for Soft Architecture”? None other than Robertson herself, writing to the reader from the pages of the book (Occasional Works and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture) which would follow The Weather.
But, to begin at the beginning of The Weather, even if Robertson is an author devoted to taking herself out of order, the book is divided into seven ‘days’ of the week, each section containing one long prose section and a shorter, more traditionally lineated poem. “Sunday” ‘s prose presents phrases commencing, “Here…,” with resultant residual anaphora as guide to their overall meaning: “Here is a church. Here is deep loam upon chalk. Here is a hill. Here is a house.” “Sunday” has, as its grander half, the strange untitled poem to which I first made reference:
It was Jessica Grim the American poet
who first advised me to read Violette Leduc.
Lurid conditions are facts. This is no different
from daily protests and cashbars.
I now unknowingly speed towards
which of all acts, words, conditions—
I am troubled that I do not know.
When I feel depressed in broad daylight
depressed by the disappearance of names, the pollen
smearing the windowsill, I picture
the bending pages of La Bâtarde
and I think of wind. The outspread world is
comparable to a large theatre
or to rending paper, and the noise it makes when it flaps
is riotous. Clothes swish through the air, rubbing
my ears. Promptly I am quenched. I’m talking
about a cheap paperback which fans and
slips to the floor with a shush. Skirt stretched
taut between new knees, head turned back, I
hold down a branch,
Here the poem ends, at a comma. It is a factual, even banal, report on the fortunes of one literary person’s room—and the entrance into it of news, of memories, and of the weather—and, then again, this is pure fiction, each thing an instance of contrived metonymy. Robertson’s is a realism of epistemological concerns: even “[l]urid conditions are facts.” “I,” reader, no longer hold metaphor and perception apart; “I” compare, “I” fail to perceive discretely, “I … speed” impetuously into a fantasy in which reading has become, by virtue of this extraordinary capacity for association, a physical event. Most surprisingly, “This is no different….” “Clothes swish through the air”: the phrases borne toward the reader are a carousel of styles, and the shuffling of these costumes, the “shush[ing]” and “fan[ning]” of their physical manifestation as pulpy pages of a novel, “quench[es].” Yes, the “outspread world is / comparable to a large theatre,” but its materiality has become analogous only “to rending paper, and the noise it makes,” just as mortality is a detail, “pollen / smearing the windowsill.” Here everything returns to the book, carried as if by an irresistible wind. Who knows where this weather originates; Chaucer invented a House of Fame to explain it.
“I think of wind,” writes Robertson, portraying herself in a janissary pose at the climax of her long stanza—legs open and “head turned back”—she makes way for whatever’s arriving. Which is to say, a lot of reading went into the composition of The Weather. Robertson writes in her appendix that the book resulted from “an intense yet eccentric research in the rhetorical structure of English meteorological description.” Sources include BBC forecasts, and a number of rare, weather-related tracts: “Mr. Well’s Essay on Dew, Luke Howard’s Essay on the Modification of Clouds, Thomas Forster’s Researches About Atmospheric Phenomena,” among many others. By way of these tracts, weather returns to the séance prop closet in The Weather, less phenomenon than diction—which diction is needed (a grant or two probably had to be written to give Robertson time enough to hunt it down) to describe a gorgeous and fleeting consciousness, one unharnessed by memory and receptive only to marks made by the immediate. This is the obvious consciousness of the long prose poems, but it is also the finely balanced syntax of their lineated partners and of a final poem, “Porchverse.” The stanzas of “Porchverse” are spare and beautifully broken and talk about transformation—how things “go”—as in this fine report on the necessity of stillness in a speaker who wishes to bear witness to flight:
Then refused so lucidly as when
I saw a dog
run a doe
Robertson’s 1999 collection, XEclogue, was already hot on this theme. And, indeed, hotter, as Virgil’s shepherd Corydon observes in the second Eclogue,
torva leaena lupum sequitur, lupus ipse capellam,
florentem cytisum sequitur lasciva capella,
Lion eats wolf eats goat eats flowering clover: we consume and are in turn consumed. Where The Weather sidesteps this chase and takes a position of third party observer, XEclogue takes enthusiastic part, in ten chapters each titled Eclogue. Robertson introduces her work here with the following excuse, “I needed a genre for the times that I go phantom.” By “go phantom,” Robertson means an inability to find herself reflected in the world around her, social or otherwise. This inability is often called Liberty, according to Robertson, and its symptoms include “illusions of historical innocence” and weird attempts to recognize oneself in “proud trees” and “the proud sky” (Robertson is less interested in flags and eagles). But Robertson has discovered that she has “an ancestress,” a woman of the landed class who is both dead and moving rapidly through the psychic woods, and who can offer advice about how to escape the numbing tropes of Nation and Nature:
Ontology is the luxury of the landed. Let’s pretend you “had” a land. Then you “lost” it. Now fondly describe it. That is pastoral. Consider your homeland, like all utopias, obsolete. Your pining rhetoric points to obsolescence. The garden gate shuts firmly. Yet Liberty must remain throned in her posh gazebo. What can the poor Lady do? Beauty, Pride, Envy, the Bounteous Land, the Romance of Citizenship: these mawkish paradigms flesh out the nation, fard its empty gaze. What if, for your new suit, you chose to parade obsolescence?
Political correctness has turned out not to be an entirely excellent exit-strategy for the twentieth century.
XEclogue is a discussion of this departure, among others. The book forms a basis for the work Robertson executes in her later collections, but it is also millennium-appropriate: full of richer language, speculation about the body politic, and contrived scenarios designed to help the reader entertain a more glamorous notion of self than “the Romance of Citizenship” normally affords.
XEclogue concerns a tripartite dramatis personae: a worried individual named Nancy, the brave and multifarious Lady M, and a gaggle of sex objects known as the Roaring Boys. What results is a series of letters, dialogues, complaints, and stage directions, which lead to the eventual reformation of Nancy, who initially proclaims: “I need to assume my dream of justice really does exist.” Just as Virgil simultaneously mourned alongside farmers who had lost their farmsteads to soldiers and poked fun at them in the Eclogues, Robertson shows she thinks psychology is a predicament and an opportunity. In this description of one of the Roaring Boys, it is difficult to tell when she is talking about the way he thinks and when she is referring to his looks:
Roaring Boy #1 is skinny and pure as the bitter white heel of a petal. Spent lupins could describe his sense of mind as a great dusky silky mass. Yet a feeling of being followed had taken his will away. In an age of repudiation he would exclude sullen indolence and reveal his lace. […] When he closes his eyes he asks: Shall I be sold up? Am I to become a beggar? Shall I take to flight? He is skinny and pure as a calling.
In passages like these, Robertson revitalizes prose and raises the question, if so much is possible in language, must it refer to a world at all? Robertson’s reply is that language must at least refer back to itself and, then, pointedly. She shares the literary conversation which nourished XEclogue at the book’s conclusion: eighteenth century “poet, traveler, and political critic,” Lady Mary Wortley Montague, Frank O’Hara, Virgil, anonymous fourth century ad Latin songs of the Pervigilium Veneris, Rousseau’s Social Contract, the Slits, the Raincoats, Patti Smith, Young Marble Giants, the Au Pairs, L7, Marguerite de Navarre, and many, many (it appears) others.
In spite of this careful acknowledgment of authorship, 2004’s Rousseau’s Boat finds Robertson toying with the remarkable notion that much of what makes the experience of writing powerful is her own lack of authority:
Here/ freedom has no referent. It is like/ an emotion. This is for/ them then. This is a passive narrative. I feel/ it could be useful. I’m forty-one. It/ gets more detailed. I feel an amazement.
The book is a short one. Its back cover bears a quote attributed to Jean-Jacques Rousseau in which that thinker describes the way in which the perception of moving water can replace thought: “I felt in myself so pleasurably and effortlessly the sensation of existing….” It’s also a pleasure to hear the poet mention her age, “I’m forty-one.” And then, the astonishing way she bears this statement out: “It / gets more detailed. I feel an amazement.” Robertson displays a talent for the sweeter side of generalization, for unknowingness. The two large poems in the book, “Face” and “Utopia,” are full of hauntingly general language, which is no oxymoron. The poems repeat lines, and much of their power stems from the subtle accrual of sense produced by freely appearing refrains. Thus the reader becomes a subject born along in Rousseau’s boat (these languid poems), batted by lines which softly suggest the fact of mortality.
The effect of the downflowing patter of shade on the wall
was liquid, so the wall became a slow fountain in afternoon.
Our fears opened inwards.
Must it be the future?
Yes, the future, which is a sewing motion.
And Robertson keeps coming up with dates (“It was the spring of my thirty-fifth year,” she writes, or “It was 1993”) which are proof of the simple effect of sadness that precision can give. For the facts are outside the poem, and the poem itself travels away from standard referentiality, teaching thought to refer to itself:
*This is one part of the history of a girl’s mind.
The unimaginably moist wind changed the scale of the morning,
Say the mind is not a point of origin, but a skin carrying
sensation into the midst of objects.
Now it branches and forks and coalesces.
In the centre, the fire pit and log seat, a frieze of salal and
foxglove, little cadmium berries.
At the periphery of the overgrown clearing, the skeleton of a
reading chair decaying beneath plastic.*
Lisa Robertson knows where she is headed, but this is not the only reason that she is a trustworthy writer. Her work results from a reading practice in which words continue to disturb the poet, who is always just beginning to accept that there is more justice in literature than outside it.
Date: January 3, 2007
Link to the review.
Author's note: The conclusion drawn (by me) at the end of this essay is not one I would be likely to arrive at now. I think it's incorrect. I was in my twenties when I wrote this, and it is likely that I was subject to what is called "cruel optimism" during this time.