amongst books

amongst books

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Lisa Robertson, a reading diary; Part one: Cinema of the Present

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

I have decided to embark upon a reading diary of the works of Lisa Robertson. I’ve purloined  this idea from Benjamin Friedlander whose own reading diary on Lisa Robertson was published in the Chicago Review Issues 51:4 and 52:1, Spring 2006.

Lisa Roberton’s writing came to my attention via a workshop I was taking with rob mclennan in 2006. He gave us links to several sites with poetry and poetic statements to respond to in the form of a poem. I chose a Philly Talk with Lisa Robertson and Steve McCaffrey.

LR talked about her book, The Weather (New Star Books, 2001) and also “From the Office of Soft Architecture,” which became part of Occasional Works and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture (Coach House Books, 2010). I became fascinated with the idea of creating an entity as the voice of a poem. I tried it myself. The notion of basing a long poem or a suite of poems on a concept was new and intriguing to me. I had only started reading contemporary poetry in 2000.

I begin with Cinema of the Present (Coach House Books, 2014), LR’s penultimate book because it is a library book with a due date. I have renewed the book three times, scrawled in it in black ink and dog-eared it, so I shall have to buy a new copy for the library.

CoTP is a long poem made up of individual sentences alternating between Roman typeface and Italics; these sentences are in the first, second and third person. This method gives the impression of multiple voices that interrupt one another or complement one another. Many of the sentences are about form and language: “Curiosity, limbs and momentum: because of form, you keep playing.” (p. 22). “Form requires of you a reticence.” (p. 30).

This rebelliousness against/exploration of form is one of the reasons why LR’s writing has always resonated with me.

The sentences are a collection of different types: declarative, interrogative, imperative, exclamatory, fragments, reported or indirect speech. I haven’t done a thorough grammatical study of the book, of each sentence to determine whether they are mostly simple or include compound and complex sentences, but the work seems to encourage an examination of systems and patterns.

I read somewhere that LR wishes to corrupt the pastoral in her work. It may have been in an interview in the Chicago Review’s special issue from 2006 cited above. There are instances in CoTP where nature is shown as unidyllic or where it is corrupted by urban spaces and time. “You entered the university of vines and crumpled mosaic, hot sun, the cracks in the walls, the balconies peeling and collapsed.” (p. 63).

LR’s sentences have cadence and sound: “Flanking the clatter and shriek of migrations.” (p. 24).

Running through the entire book is list of the materials that make up a gate. The materials become more and more absurd and textual as the poem moves along. Reminiscent of an art installation. Contemplation of the notion of a gate, what it holds within or shuts out. “A gate made of gold, metal rods, driftwood, glass, concrete, peacock feathers, wood.” (p. 83.) Writers can be gatekeepers of language.

There are several mentions of the present in the poem and its relationship to language, the constraints of language: “You’re interested in the brutality of description: it is the transversal of infinitely futile yet fundamental and continuous space called the present.” (p. 27) This makes me muse about how writing distorts reality. These sentences aren’t linear. They don’t offer an obvious narrative, they aren’t in any kind of conventional order, such as chronological; they don’t tell a story. Don’t think that I’m complaining about this. The way in which to address or not to address narrative in poetry has long been an obsession of mine. Questions I always have come to me as I’m reading this work: Do these sentences work together to form a cohesive whole? If so, what? Is cohesion important? Will readers engage with a text that doesn’t have an obvious narrative? Who is LR’s reader?

“If you speak in this imaginary structure, it’s because other choices felt limiting.” (p. 31).
“That your mouth lovingly damaged the language.” (p. 48).
“Then you felt lyric obscenity both erotic and rhetorical.” (p. 50).
“At times you had only wanted to float upon the norms of a beautiful language, obedient.” (p. 59).
“You had wanted to believe that language needs us to witness its time.” (p. 59).
“You are only lyrical if you’re harsh.” (p. 65).
“You ask what if language is already beyond itself?” (p. 46).
“You may no longer use better words.” (p. 84).
“You carried the great discovery of poetry as freedom, not form.” (p. 75.)

Cohesion comes from the repeated subjects, and also from repetition of sentences. Several of the sentences are repeated numerous times. These repetitions act as a refrain, become incantatory. I’d like to reread this book to note the sentences that are repeated.

While the sentences seem objective, emotions, such as sorrow, loneliness, scorn are mentioned. There is a feeling of constraint however: “Time is short; you need to constrain your feeling for the sentence.” (p. 59).

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

I have long been fascinated with the concept of “plenitude” or abundance, the horror vacui fear of the blank page. Somewhere LR talks about inflation and in CoTP, “Sometimes the concept of plenitude is a help.” (p. 46).

I enjoy the way the sentences cause my mind to wander, lead outward:
“The countess of prose in your abandoned orchard.” (p. 49 and repeated.)
“You’d rather be a dandy than a writer.” (p. 50).
“Tattered Europe caking up in the corners of abandoned rooms.” (p. 60 and repeated.)
“Let feminism be the girl raging at a chandelier.” (p. 80.)
“So you came to nilling.” (p. 98). [the title of an entire book: Nilling (Book Thug, 2012).

The role of the pronoun is also the subject of several sentences:
”The I-speaker on your silken rupture spills into history.” (p. 50).
“Its pronoun plays a social rupture.” (p. 59).
“What is a pronoun but a metaphor?” (p. 62.)
“An unknowing expands within your pronoun but it feels convivial.” (p. 89).

The poem contains references to sex, to the body, to feminism and to being a woman.  It also examines the concept of the city. There’s so much here. I could do a study on the use of the gerund alone, the verbs/nouns: “becoming/burning/trembling/rotting/crumbling” as states of being, of transformation.

As Stephanie Gray writes in her review in Jacket2, there is a cinematic quality to the text, each sentence moving from one frame to the next, a kind of unreal quality to the present, as if one is watching it rather than participating in it per se. The sensing of the present, the present as character in an avant-garde Man Ray film.

Cinema of the Present made me want to also collect and assemble sentences, to try to engage with the ineffable, the inchoate, the ludic. In answer to the question, who is Lisa Roberton’s reader, I will say that I am. I’m fascinated by the concept of assemblage, the collage of concepts, ideas and images that aren’t obviously related, the interrogation of form, playfulness in language, lush imagery, attention to sound.

See also

Ella Longpre’s review in Entropy:

Stephanie Gray’s “Moving image, moving text, never past, look in mirror (repeat)” in Jacket 2:

Jacqueline Valencia’s essay “Poetry as the Conceptual Experiment of Language” in AllLitUp:

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