Sapere Aude: On “3 Summers” and the Poetry of Lisa Robertson
By Sina QueyrasFebruary 2, 2017
3 Summers by Lisa Robertson
The cultish followers of Robertson — a widespread, loyal, and vibrant tribe — know her well, and don’t need me to urge them to pick up this book. But it is new readers whom I particularly want to encourage, partly because I like to share the joy of encountering Robertson for the first time, but more importantly because I believe her insistence on thinking entirely on her own terms makes her an essential poet for our time, one that should have a wider audience.
To the uninitiated, I present Robertson as a kind of model “lyric conceptual” poet, a poet who positions lyric modes in conceptual frameworks and in so doing creates a visceral, sculptural transmission of an intimate thinking between speaker and audience, between author and reader. Some call her work difficult. Cerebral. If you think Anne Carson is difficult, as some do, I imagine you will think Robertson even harder. I don’t agree that either is unduly difficult, though Robertson’s work often “defies immediate analysis,” as Michael Redhill points out in a short essay on Robertson’s third book, The Weather. More exciting for me however, is the way that both poets can expand, and even change, the way you read. For example, The Weather was my introduction to Robertson's work. It was a totally immersive experience. From the three floating blue circles in a white box on a sky-blue cover, signaling a Canadian pastoral poetry I had never before encountered, to the mix of conventionally paced lyric poems contrasting the justified prose blocks, it was, as she would say, a “sweet new style.” I didn’t immediately understand the relation to Virgil, or the pastoral, or Cambridge, but the book opened up more than Romantic thinking; it was also a kind of master class in feminist ecopoetics before I knew such a thing existed. Which is another gift of both Carson’s and Robertson’s work — they introduce one to other texts and authors. The Weather is also a master class in the prose poem, in ways of creating sentences. As Redhill points out, examining the text, one sees that “what is being repeated leads to a collation of ideas. Belief repeats. Two-stage depictions of something repeat (‘Fine and grand. Fresh and bright.’) A pastoral landscape is depicted in fragments.” What Redhill notes in his piece is the euphoria of discovering whole new ranges of expression in very distinct modes of composition. The Weather was difficult in the sense that there was a good deal of pleasure before any understanding occurred. I read it alongside Stein, Woolf, Erín Moure, and Anne Carson, and have been reading these women in relation to each other, together with an ever-growing body of work spun out of other poets’ conversations with these works, since then.
A Robertson poem is wrought of eloquent and ludic sentences, and the poems themselves are housed in contemporary design. You won’t find the kind of extravagant, and some would argue (I’m not one of them) gimmicky designs of say, Anne Carson’s Nox or her more recent Float. Yet Robertson’s poetry collections, too, exude design, and like Carson, the work creates a space of copious, well-lit joy. Also like Carson, the breadth of Robertson’s projects is grand — her first three books were reimaginings of Virgil, and the conception and realization of her revisionings are consistently startling. Alone we encounter books of poetry, but together we digest them, and that’s in part why a Robertson publication feels more like a vernissage than a book launch — the poems feel inhabitable, visual, sculptural, and performative. Recently my students staged a full-length reading of Debbie: An Epic in the halls of our university. In times of empire, we could use more poetry in the hallways and on the streets, and Robertson’s work calls out for such treatment.
I also include The Weather in my poetry workshops, and it is always a pleasure to watch undergraduates enter into Robertson’s work and find their footing. What is happening, they say, as if I have tipped them into a swimming pool while they weren’t looking. Then we begin our conversations about prose poetry, vocabulary, syntax, the notion of research and reading as essential components in a poetic practice, of threading philosophical and intellectual inquiry and formal beauty.
3 Summers, Robertson’s latest collection of poetry, and the fifth book in collaboration with the artists Hadley+Maxwell, features a melting, summery pastel cover containing 11 poetic sequences — “The Seam,” “Toxins,” “On Form,” et cetera — each prefaced with a woodcut by the same artists. Robertson’s work has always been directly engaging with or in collaboration with visual artists and, indeed, other poets. The poet Stacy Doris, with whom Robertson was collaborating on the “Perfume Recordist” before Doris died, is very present here, and addressed directly in “A Coat,” and elsewhere. 3 Summers is elegiac and of course, not necessarily about summer, let alone three summers. Or, if it is, it is indirectly concerned with those summers. Or, it evolved out of a decision to write a poem as a way of taking account of a year, as one does in the month of one’s birth, which for Robertson is July. Or, it is about the desire to find formal balance — in the body, in the text, in the season. Or, it is about reading. Or Lucretius. Or form. Or formlessness. Or losing form. Or, it is about all of these things at once.
That final statement is probably closest to the truth. “I got lost here to transform myself,” she notes, and, reader be warned, Robertson is a poet who dismantles in order to reassemble. She does this with description and imagery (e.g., “holding the lilacs aloft like a torch”; “the flowers just pour upwards / to be organized towards sugar / why not”) and declarative statements (e.g., “I like to spit from moving trains”; “Actual living trees are cinema”; “Innovation is not a quality – / I want you to really mean it”). The book’s original title was On Physical Real Beginning and What Happens Next, the title of a sequence still in the book, one which traces Robertson’s ongoing reading and thinking about Lucretius, feminism, architecture, the Romantics, and the body:
Here is Marx’s big dilemma, the reason he goes to Lucretius:
practice arises from conditions
yet these are the conditions we must change.
With a cloth on her upraised right hand
Venus stands on a shell, hair windblown, torso twisted to dance
posture, more fluttering cloth draped over her arm.
Material is always a concern of Robertson, and her feminism is always at the edge, defining itself in the face of the hurling present. “The text may have become politically disreputable” she owns, at the end of this section on Marx’s dilemma. The body, in particular, the female body and the process (costs, conditions, and pains) of inhabiting one for the long haul is a key theme, along with the hormone, that regulatory secretion of the body that forces women of a certain age to take up their fans. Here, from the “tousled concept” of “The Middle” with its “3-D maquette of estrogen”:
I had thought
To be a woman breathing
Through the door of my body
I would begin to bark
So as to violate my preferences
In the middle of her life the poet realizes that “all along it’s been my body / that I don’t understand.” And so begins a project of reengagement: “The work will be called the linguistics of the hormone.” The hormone, toxins, what we take in, what we make meaning of, what regulates the way we make meaning or are able to make meaning of our bodies in time.
Robertson is interested in thinking about the physical realities and limitations of the female experience, which, she says, she didn’t see depicted anywhere in poetry, at least, one assumes, not in a way that satisfied her yearning. As such, the work in this book is and is not about the body of the poet and what the body and mind encounter in time. The book is about time, about the body as a concept we all share in confronting time. It is about a particular body, the one that the poet-consciousness of Lisa Robertson inhabits, the bodies of the poets with whom the poet Lisa Robertson collaborates, and the bodies of ancient poets that still exist within defined spaces and in the space her texts create. It is about loss, the details of which appear as “a mystical emptying,” a “frothing openness,” and every once in a while as a direct hit: “I really miss her radiant obscenity.”
More is more, Robertson’s work argues. And the more is always textured. Complex. But also, as Erín Moure reminds me, Robertson writes a radical present that receives fully, without screening. That Steinian impulse to see (and accept) outside of the usual contexts. This is what makes Robertson such a great poet to introduce to new poets: she role-models a kind of simultaneous respect for and disavowal of the limitations of formal poetry and poetics. She is both resolutely present and entirely rejecting of identity or an uninterrogated lyric subjectivity. She is a rigorous thinker and reader: “I never write without spending extended times in a library, or archive,” she has said, but also, there is the field, the plough, the hearth: “Had I only been able to write a quarter of what I saw and felt / beneath that tree / Sir, of imperceptible movement, the baroque description of / number, broken/ vase of European psyche.” She models a kind of deep connective writing that is immediately engaged with discrete, unpredictable lines of inquiry that seem both otherworldly and wholly contemporary (Calais, Brexit, Aleppo). She has written mini-essays on the subject of sincerity, Hannah Arendt, John Clare, Wordsworth, Virgil, tapestry, architecture, Eva Hesse, the Kootenay School of Writing, Vancouver, translation, Lucretius, stone, and the origin of a given piece of clothing.
In fashion, you can see everything, the iconic style guru Iris Apfel has said; you can discern the entire socioeconomic record of the time of production. So too with the sentence. Always aware of fashion, of scaffold, architecture, textures, design, and of the visceral ingredients of everything from shoes to shawl, Robertson has described herself as a gentleman collector of the sentence, which, rather than the line, is the unit of composition she most often employs. A Robertson sentence rarely ends up where you think it’s going to at the outset. She takes great risks, being at once emotional (“Sometimes I feel excited to be choosing”) and cerebral (“Sometimes to make some female documents/ analogy must be applied”).
A student was telling me how he had begun knitting with his arms, plunging his entire forearms and hands again and again into the wool, huge strands of wool, and I instantly thought of Lisa Robertson’s sentences, with their thick veins of inquiry. Robertson’s is a poetics of assemblage, or accretion more than collage. This is what gives her sentences their timeless, sculptural quality. They embody both the coolness of the iconic and the warmth of the material craft, but always, I think, giving way to the core of form, which is the body: “The lust of the eyes / rarely obeys anything.” What is obeyed? There is a sense of Robertson as a giantess (or indeed Lady M from XEclogue) romping through the 18th century (and Bay Area punk scene simultaneously), gleaning from whatever she reads and hears. There is something cabinet-like about a Robertson poem, too. Curiosities. Luminous objects. “The pastiche of the subject.” Ornate display, but also “the experience of loathing.”
The time it takes to develop a unique style in an organic way — and I use that term un-ironically — is difficult to impart to new writers in our era. It is hard to explain how long and varied life experiences are sought and ravaged for material in the way that Robertson has done — years of working as a bookseller, living in isolation in a cabin on an island, in California, in France, diligently attending to her reading practice, to her collecting. It is hard, too, in this time of conceptual cataloging and intense appropriative accumulations, to impart to young poets how a practice of copying sentences can eventually become a practice of copying one’s own sentences. And to urge them to trust that the “in relation to” will come over time if the collection continues to grow, and if they attend to their practice.
By “the collection,” and “in relation to,” I refer to Robertson’s practice of using her own writing as a kind of found material. R’s Boat came out of selections from her earlier journals; The Weather was site-specific to a residency at Cambridge University. 3 Summers was “found” in a different way. The poems are, as I’ve said, individual sequences, composed apart from each other, though thematically linked. In thinking about the evolution of her relationship to the sentence recently, Robertson noted in Scapegoat Journal: “I came to see the composition of a book as an exploration of the historical and subjective tension between form and structure.” Although the 11 poem-sequences in 3 Summers are discrete units, linked thematically and compositionally, they are, in effect, single poems, written out of different moments and as such exhibit a compositional tension between the desire to condense and a love of the expansive. Each sequence appears to be concerned with different modes, or orders of sentences, as much as with distinct content, such as estrogen in “The Middle,” the self in “The Seam,” and the body in “Toxins”:
Go now. Recite your poem to your aunt.
I threw myself to the ground.
Where were you in the night?
The intimacy of the address is ancient. Confident. Pure lyric. The “go now” recalls Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho with their guttural, dusty lust and devastation. Because Robertson composes on the level of the phoneme, we can hear them, too, and there is a way in which one’s experience of these poems has purely sonic attributes. Another aspect, though, is delight in sensing the female poet body take up literary, thinking space:
To add gravitas
I am alone, transcribing
If you can never be mine
I’ll get some Swinburne.
The swagger of the poet is full-on, roguish.
A well-constructed sentence, we know from Stanley Fish to Gertrude Stein, can contain anything. In 1962, Sylvia Plath decried the impossibility of including a toothbrush in a poem, but there is apparently nothing that won’t fit in a Robertson poem and sound better for its arrival there. How does she do it? She explains:
After three or four years of composing an intentional, and for me pleasurable and melodic, sequence of sentences, I effaced that sequence by doubling, arbitrarily resequencing and splicing the new sequence back into the old one. I felt a childlike joy in the creation of a structure through its own destruction.
The reweaving of sentences keeps the reader at an intimate distance, just slightly off-kilter, familiar enough but still pleasantly uncanny. From her sentences, a reader can learn a good deal about the labor of poetry, both directly and indirectly:
I say I would like philosophy and housework
to frame the beautiful machine that contemplates us.
This year I am sick of language
cut radiant gentle and frank
little angle of dissolved rhyme
who sires the flagrant exemplum
what if language is the suppression
of vitalist vocal co-movement
by the military-industrial complex?
What if language is the market?
Indeed. “Fear—” this poem ends, “it’s because there are consequences.”
If the relationship between the body and poetry is an ongoing question for women, how (and what) to think in poetry is equally important. I read in a Megan Marshall article in a late October issue of The New Yorker about Adrienne Rich and Elizabeth Bishop discussing how to include everything and not fall into the anguish (and distastefulness) of the confessional. How, in other words, to tame identity but include the body, to think, to be passionate, but to be objective. Marshall notes, “Bishop had managed both the Olympian distance and objectivity, along with a charged immediacy, that her younger colleague thought impossible or inauthentic in these angry times.” Indeed, the times are still angry. Women are still making far less than men. To say nothing of the recent US election, we’ve had several semesters in both the United States and Canada of angry campus sexual politics. Where can we turn to find the interrogation of embodiedness alongside a mutually rigorous brocade of literary and timely writing? Or, perhaps we don’t want that distance? Or, we want a more ludic distance? Or, we want the pricks and pathos, “listening to Tom Jones on vinyl while reading Carlyle? Why didn’t I say emotion? Why did I say documents?” Perhaps this desire explains why a generation of young women (and others) line up to hear Lisa Robertson and swoon: sex, style, and intellect.
Women, POC, others, we are still looking for adequate artistic representations. Though we have had gains, as we see from VIDA, and its Canadian counterpart, CWILA, and other literary advocates, even experienced writers can still be deflated when we recall our lack of mentorship, or the power dynamics of literature: “I hear weakness speak / between sexuality and friendship / in the material bodily lower stratum / the entire system of degradation and travesty.” How does she do it, we ask of Robertson, how does she sound so ancient and contemporary, so masterful and yet embodied and individual, which is to say, vulnerable? “Embodiment is ongoing formal experience,” she writes, “and it’s always political.” So, how will we speak? In what form? With what rhetoric? With what affect? Or, as we encounter in the powerful, allegorical poem “The Coat,” how can we measure a person? What can contain us? How do we account for our friends? How do we hold them, or lose them? How do we care for each other’s bodies? Who fashions the buttons on our coats, and are buttons any less useful, or beautiful, than couplets?
The equivalent form of a body does not imply
that the magnitude of its value can be determined
for the body of the friend is commodious only
and so extinguishes all named commodities
rather than exchanging.
She writes poetry, Robertson seems to suggest, because she thinks, but also because it’s portable, and Robertson knows something of precariousness of labor, poetry, the body. What is most invigorating about the work is this affirmation of a poetics of grappling with nowness: “I put my hands into an idea / I had to do it, lying across the / hotel bed near the sheers.” If you stick with the lines, all of these statements add up to something, and the something appears to always be shifting: “Now my idea of time / keeps changing, and that’s what this is about.”
Seasoned readers of Lisa Robertson expect style; as she writes: “Glamour is the true subject of the idea.” The new reader can be liberated by Robertson’s embracing of it, of describing and experiencing what holds and enfolds us. Seasoned readers especially look forward to encounters with her expansive vocabulary, which remains startling in its specificity: “cuticle of silence,” “hormonal forest.” The new reader, the student who feels tipped into the deep end, finds her work bracing, but quickly refreshing. And for the uninitiated that is the question: How to confront a text that is essentially “smarter” than one is in a given moment? How to assuage the unsettled nature of a first encounter? Well, one doesn’t, but being unsettled isn’t a bad thing.
Great poets create poems that teach you how to read them, and that is the case with Robertson. So, though at times the work may feel opaque, it is generally about exactly what you suspect it is just below the surface of your conscious responses. The condition of encounter then, is a kind of wilful suspension of one’s resistance to style in favor of linear lyric poetry, or what Robertson has termed, “porch verse” (i.e., lyric poetry which can be commented on from the sublime vista of one’s domestic plateau). That is a provocation, and intended with the general good humor of Robertson’s prodding. Here is an excerpt from “An Awning”:
Each day we receive the body of a gentle light, not burning.
This sentience passes through our muscles to the soul, brushed by the pupils.
It borrows the motion of anything
in order for the female soul to be reached
the vibration of this Queen being colour
Sometimes the next morning we just puke light.
Light is the actualization of transparency, Aristotle chanted
(or was it Peaches or Björk?)
The lines move from light, to the body, to the soul, to the female soul, to the Queen (bee, society), to Ancient Greece, and then land back on popular culture. Robertson’s signature style grazes through time, bringing a heightened awareness of the grand and the small in the present moment. Her sentences, lessons in possibility, range from high to low with equal affect. All the while, we see the “we” at the core of the poem. And the radical inclusivity of that we. The men, for example, the way Robertson receives and writes about them is both adroitly feminist and not bound (or limited) by social codes. Her men are complex and erotically drawn; for example, the men “tremble a little bit while / speaking about passivity – / They’re all right,” she owns, “I could compare them / to a song.”
As is clear by now, I have been a fan of Robertson for many years; my bias is glowing. In some ways, however, I realize with this recent book that while I have loved her abstract representations, I have always wanted more bawdy and body, more of Robertson’s reactions to her own body, more raw, unmediated emotion — more Debbie, more humor, more cheek:
Hegel scorned the women who undertake experimental meta-
physics while walking in gardens.
But also more visceral reportage of women’s lives. The intense and tender discourse presented here feels more intimate than Robertson’s earlier work, and quenches my thirst for such conversations. As a reader, I often need poetry to create a utopic space. All of Robertson’s work has been concerned with female friendship, feminist utopias, power. It affirms a desire to wrench free of propriety. To do cartwheels. To do back flips across boardroom tables. To laugh.
I keep thinking back to the Bishop dilemma traced out in The New Yorker. I find myself applauding the ways in which Robertson is deftly creating her own investigation of form in relation to questions of how to fit women’s expansive thinking and physical experiences into poems:
We were driving the car. I said that my work had gone fugitive.
We talked about the difference between an idea and thought,
We said that an idea comes and goes
while thinking continues until death, we supposed.
So how do we recognize the guest?
Mind the gap, Robertson’s work suggests. Also mine the gaps. Her poems encourage experimentation, collaboration, empathy, and love of self and body: those “Hormones, humour like, are produced by light / in order to unaccountably transform us.” Robertson models a kind of poet persona that is errant, unruly, deadpan, unwavering; a virtuoso of bawdy and raucous feminism. But ultimately it’s this active resistance, this very particular jouissance, the ideal of Sapere aude that is so refreshing. Obey nothing that is not joyful, this poet reminds me; create no art that is not piercingly intelligent; reject all modes of easy, but do embrace ease (that and good canine companionship). Her practice is entirely modern and yet it exists outside of social media and instant gratification, which has not only shrunken our desktops, but also our points of references, our reading habits. Reading Robertson reminds us of the ways we limit our minds, and how we need not limit them, how we too can be audacious in our knowing, assembling, and resisting, but perhaps more radical than all of that, in our self-accepting.
Sina Queyras is the author of several poetry collections including Lemon Hound and MxT, both from Coach House. My Ariel is forthcoming in 2017. She lives in Montreal and teaches at Concordia University.
Sina Queyras is the author of several poetry collections including Lemon Hound and MxT, both from Coach House. My Ariel is forthcoming in 2017. She lives in Montreal and teaches at Concordia University.
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