Sometimes You Need a Record of Your Life: on Lisa Robertson

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“I want to be believed. But I also want to write through spaces that are utterly delusional.” —Lisa Robertson

I was reading Lisa Robertson’s latest long poem, Cinema of the Present, for what was supposed to be a short review, and something about the book made me think of Wordsworth’s Prelude. It was a vague notion, entirely unsuited to being worked out over the course of 500 words. I did my best to banish the thought, but it nagged at me until finally I implored my commissioning editor for more time and space, which (perhaps to her dismay) she granted me. [1] This was, for me, a particularly knuckleheaded undertaking. I had been an occasional reader of Robertson and had managed to avoid rigorous engagement with Wordsworth, whose ego-on-the-table grandiosity—his sense that “he ought always to be saying something wise,” as Ruskin put it—I’ve often found precious and off-putting.

It would not have shocked me to learn, upon immersion into the worlds of Robertson and Wordsworth, that one had precious little to do with the other, that the course I had set for myself was a wayward wander, that I would do best to backtrack, save myself a few weeks, whip off a page-point-five of clean copy and get on with less taxing diversions. But Wordsworth’s ghost, clearly if problematically, haunts a great deal of Robertson’s thinking, and its frequent apparition compelled me to honor my counter-intuitive hunch. The Prelude and Cinema of the Present are both long poems in which authors make raids on their personal history in a selective, constrained, curatorial manner, in order to fashion an account of the movements and growth of their minds—and in order to stake a claim for the kind of poetry they have written and hope to write.

Robertson, moreover, seemed to be tacitly endorsing my synthesis. In her essay “Lastingness: Réage, Lucrèce, Arendt,” she writes of being “immersed in [Hannah] Arendt’s text on willing immediately after my first reading of [Pauline] Réage’s Histoire d’O. Unavoidably I confected parallels between the books. Though I don’t want to reduce Réage and Arendt to an identity, they each speak to an occult texture in the inner structure of willing in the person.” Besides Arendt and Réage, Robertson was reading Lucretius’ De rerum natura, and his idea of the clinamen informs her mental fusion of these three non-contiguous works. In Epicurean physics, the clinamen is an unmotivated swerve; as atoms fall through space, Epicurus theorized, one will, without apparent cause, change course, leading to collisions between atoms, leading in turn to change in the universe. It was a powerful metaphor for Jacques Derrida, as Robertson elaborates:

I think this shared Epicurean moment is accidental, a kind of fall, as Derrida calls it in ‘My Chances,’ his essay on Lucretius, Freud and the clinamen. For Derrida, the accidental, the haphazard, becomes a frame, a lens for the analysis of two kinds of motive agency, kinds which he presents as conflictual but co-existent tendencies.

Such fortunate falls, clumsy stumbles upon “conflictual but co-existent tendencies” in Robertson and Wordsworth—who himself loved “chance collisions and quaint accidents,” [2] much as Robertson has displayed an affinity for “inappropriate pacts”—came to characterize my experience of reading them in tandem.

If the parallels I would identify were, in part, “confected,” I found further reinforcement for the coherence of the candy floss I was spinning in Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence. The Lucretian clinamen is a concept even more important to Bloom than it was to Derrida. Clinamen is the first of Bloom’s six “revisionary ratios”; he reframes the concept as “poetic misreading or misprision proper”:

A poet swerves away from his precursor, by so reading his precursor’s poem as to execute a clinamen in relation to it. This appears as a corrective movement in his own poem, which implies that the precursor poem went accurately up to a certain point, but then should have swerved, precisely in the direction that the new poem moves.

The more I read, the more insistent became the idea that Robertson was swerving from lonely Wordsworthian roads and pathways into a ditch more commodious to her own particular modes of thought, experience and inquiry. In order to set up her swerve, moreover, Robertson had to misread her precursor.

 

In the summer of 1850, three months after William Wordsworth’s death, a long-withheld poem was published. It bore the full title The Prelude, or Growth of a Poet’s Mind; An Autobiographical Poem. Although a complete draft was ready as early as 1805, Wordsworth never intended it to be published as a standalone piece, but rather as the prelude to a sweeping philosophical long poem, The Recluse—an elusive epic that became the white whale of his career. Even in the late 1830s, when Wordsworth had finally conceded that his envisioned magnum opus was “beyond his powers to accomplish,” he refrained from making its prelude public because of “the personal character of the subject.” Given how sticky Keats’s rubric for the Wordsworthian sensibility has been, it may seem incongruous to a present-day reader that the poet of the Egotistical Sublime should have displayed such reticence in making public a poem about himself, but we would do well to keep Bloomian misprision in mind when reading any poet’s words on their precursors (and Keats was, in this instance, distinguishing his own work from Wordsworth’s). Wordsworth biographer Stephen Gill reminds us that, even while “autobiography was the well-spring of his creative powers,” the poet was nonetheless “opposed to biography” and did not see himself—his person—as his principal subject.

A parallel push-pull ambivalence colors Robertson’s relationship to autobiography. One hardly expects to find self-indulgent confessional verse in the oeuvre of a poet steeped in the canon of American Language Poetry, but Robertson has taken pains to differentiate herself from Bernstein, Hejinian, Silliman et al., even while acknowledging their importance to her work. In particular, she has cited Lyn Hejinian’s My Life as an exemplar for her experiments with autobiography. Intriguingly, academic critics (e.g. Lisa Samuels and Stephanie Sandler) have noted Romantic affinities in Hejinian’s book. Samuels has gone so far as to say that My Life “serves as a kind of Prelude that can be written and re-written as the author ages and wants to alter her material.” Much like Wordsworth, who disliked talk of the “Lake School” in reviews (even while he pretended to ignore his reviews), Robertson insists that “poetry is not bound by movements, periodicities and canons.” She has also, on occasion, taken issue with the strictures of certain avant-garde tendencies:

I know that within a lot of modernist and avant-garde theory around poetics and literature, there’s been an anti-descriptive bias. Somehow description is thought of as being secondary, complicit, and not vital. But I’ve never felt that way myself. I’ve always felt that if I can begin to write texts that can carry across just a small proportion of the variousness and the complexity of what’s in the immediate environment, that that would be my goal.

Which calls to mind many a passage in The Prelude, particularly the London scenes. In a mutedly Wordsworthian moment, Robertson has said that “rhythm and subjectivity inform my work,” and she has made forays into autobiography, but they have not, of course, been remotely conventional.

“Face/”, published most recently in her 2010 collection R’s Boat[3] began, she says, “with the premise of autobiography. I wanted to see if I could construct an autobiographical text that remained impersonal, yet which would hold together as its own object.” For that poem, Robertson, a self-described “gentleman collector of sentences,” culled all the first-person sentences from a “huge stack” of her notebooks, made selections from the gleanings and then arranged them. The result is a mesmerizingly strange eleven-page pronomial dance, both intimate and clinical. Each line is a sentence; all the odd-numbered lines are italicized and appear in alphabetical order; the even-numbered lines are in Roman type; a space—a splice or caesura—intervenes between each line; lines repeat, sometimes immediately, sometimes long after their first appearance. To give you a sense, “Face/” begins thus:

A man’s muteness runs through this riot that is my sentence.

I am concerned here with the face and hands and snout.

All surfaces stream dark circumstance of utterance.

What can I escape?

Am I also trying to return?

Not the private bucket, not the 7,000 griefs in the bucket of each cold clammy word.

But just as strongly I willed myself towards this neutrality.

I have not loved enough or worked.

What I want to do here is infiltrate sincerity.

That last quoted line is something of a wormhole, as this is not its only appearance in Robertson’s oeuvre. Earlier, she used it in “The Weather: A Report on Sincerity,” an essay on her 2001 book also called The Weather. In the essay she says that the motivation for her infiltration is “not to dissolve [sincerity] in sceptical critique, but to lift it from its maudlin imprisonment, return to it the rhetorical play of idiom, of scale, enjoy its identificatory intensities and climates as conditions or modifications that pass over the face. I am a spy.” Robertson gathered material for The Weather, in the form of English meteorological descriptions, during a six-month residency at Cambridge, Wordsworth’s alma mater. Lest this seem a spurious correspondence, Robertson acknowledges “Wordsworth’s Prelude … as a guidebook for the rustic” in the end matter of her book—sections of which are labelled “Residence at C___”, a direct reference to Wordsworth’s Cambridge residency—and has said that she arrived at Cambridge with Wordsworth and the Romantic turn towards sincerity already on her mind. In her essay, Robertson makes the link between her project and Romanticism more explicit:

Wordsworth, in the Second Preface to Lyrical Ballads says “The language of these rustic men has been adopted … because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived; and because… being less under the influence of social vanity, they convey their feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions.” Wordsworth was applying the Royal Society’s notion of plain speech to poetry. The transposition of the rhetoric of sincerity from prose style to poetry wasn’t entirely elided; Wordsworth stressed that good poetry and good prose have a common diction. He claimed as well that all knowledge, including the sciences, belongs in poetry. […] No longer genre-driven, the composition of poetry now included in its compass the possibility that content was a matter of individual choice, and the measure of the poem was no longer tradition, but authenticity. Wordsworth extended the trope from content to diction—now the lexical choices and phrase formations enacted by the poet reflected the poet’s own subjective status rather than the learned apprehension of a tradition-based rhetorical economy.

Robertson, in other words, wanted to reclaim the sincerity of Wordsworthian subjectivity and reframe it as a viable, authentic approach for a twenty-first century, female, post-Language poet, as she explains in a 2013 interview:

So basically that’s why I was interested in learning about the descriptive tradition of English meteorology. It seemed like an interesting thing to attempt to transpose that lack of a center into an autobiographical text. We are required to behave as if we are a center of our life, of our biography, as if we originate our own experience. You know, this would be the mark of sanity and a well-socialized persona. But in terms of a text I just wanted to see what would happen if that enunciation was completely decentered, if there was no point of veracity or origin that “I” authenticated, if that first person was distributed much as a weather system is distributed.

Thus, out of The Weather, and Robertson’s post-modern, feminist shifting of the Wordsworthian “I,” arose the experiments that led to “Face/.” Robertson went on to employ the techniques of “Face/” in another poem, “Draft of a Voice-Over for Split-Screen Video Loop,” which occupies six pages of her 2009 collection Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip. [4] “Draft” anticipates the film metaphor of Cinema of the Present, in which she exploits the same set of compositional strategies.

In “Draft,” the pronouns have shifted; instead of I/my, we have she/her: “Her pronoun is sedition unrecognized as such.” Following the lead of comparative linguist Emile Benveniste, who postulated that the very basis of subjectivity is linguistic, the pronoun per se is of greater import to Robertson than the persona who employs it. This might seem like a swerve away from Wordsworth and his valorization of the poetic soul—and it is, to a degree—but it is not so sharp a clinamen as we might suppose. Consider “Tintern Abbey,” of which Stephen Gill has written that “[w]hat counts […] is not the sequence of verbs in the opening section which register the scene, ‘hear’, ‘behold’, ‘view’, ‘see’, but the pronoun ‘I’, four times repeated. The poet is concerned not with what is seen in itself, but with the eye that sees” (emphasis added). Robertson renders that pronoun more diffuse, but does so towards the Wordsworthian end of conveying her sensibility and ideals, her particular subjectivity, sincerely (according to her own predilections, rather than conventionally) and lyrically.

The lyric “I” can be an island, an isolation, and “solitude” is an idea undivorceable from Wordsworth’s ethos. “The words ‘lonely’, ‘alone’, ‘solitary’,” as Gill tells us, “take up column inches in the Concordance.” A concordance of Lisa Robertson’s oeuvre has, to my knowledge, yet to be undertaken, but if it ever is, it might alarm a cohort of her admirers to see how often she flaunts such faded props from the lyric closet as “love,” “longing,” “loss,” “desire,” “tenderness,” “soul” and, yes, “solitude.” (Far more, I reckon, than most any “mainstream” poet not associated with the skeptically hardcore interrogations of the avant-garde.) And, downplaying the crass practicalities of trying to make a living from writing, she has insisted upon solitude as a pre-condition indispensable to poetry:

I don’t write from the position of having a career. I write from the position of someone trying to open her thinking in language. For me this can be an extraordinarily difficult process. I’m plunged in a solitude that is both imagined and actual. I have to invent how to think at each step of the process, even within the moment. I often feel that I don’t know how to think, I don’t know how to write. I try to seize this experience of not-knowing and let it become sentences.

Doubt, another hefty entry in the Robertson concordance, and the attendant agonizing difficulty of composition, are Romantic tropes par excellence, and Robertson’s description of her own writing process sounds remarkably like Gill’s account of the epiphany that allowed Wordsworth, at a time of mid-life crisis, to compose The Prelude:

Wordsworth’s liberating breakthrough came as he realized that dealing with […] contending thoughts was a necessity, the pre-condition of any further composition towards The Recluse, but that dealing with them might itself be the substance of a poem which would have an integral relation to the major philosophical whole. Anxieties about The Recluse, his self-doubts, his perplexities and fears about the recesses of his own psyche, Wordsworth recognized, need not be evaded or repressed, but could be confronted, articulated, and shaped in poetry, and the recognition released the energy for composition. […] What Wordsworth had discovered […] was how to exploit the hesitant, probing, personal voice so that apparent perplexity could become the generative principle for a complex structure.

“Can the poem,” Robertson asks rhetorically, “become the space of that solitude? In this instance I took 9 years to build a pronoun. During that time I didn’t talk about it, and that was a freedom and a pleasure.” The solitary struggle “towards a pronoun caked in doubt” has culminated in the “complex structure” of Cinema of the Present, her most extended essay at the autobiographical poem of distributed subjectivity—and its pronoun is “you”:

What is the condition of a problem if you are the problem?

You move into the distributive texture of an experimental protocol.

A bunch of uncanniness emerges.

At 20 hertz it becomes touch.

A concomitant gate.

At the middle of your life on a Sunday.

A dove, a crowned warbler in redwood, an alarm, it stops.

You set out from consciousness carrying only a small valise.

The “I” is not entirely absent from Cinema, but Robertson drops it rarely and when she does, it is subordinate. Most appearances of a first person pronoun are accompanied by a “you” or “your,” as in “I’m in debt to your radiant obscenity,” or, more conspicuously, “If I want to cry it’s because I’m not a pessimist, you said.” The second person is a notoriously tricky voice to pull off in a literary work of any length; “you,” to modify Robertson’s opening line, is a problem. It can lead to unproductive alienation of the reader, who might, upon reading a sequence of sentences seemingly addressed to her directly, respond defensively: “No, I damn well am not.” There are good reasons that participants in mediated counselling are urged to frame their remarks in terms of how they feel, rather than in terms of what their antagonist does. Another problem with “you” is its potential haziness. An “I” or a “she” is almost always specific in its reference, but the indefinite “you,” even more than “we” or “they,” can refer to no one in particular.

The polyvalent character of the second person pronoun, however, is precisely what makes it the mot juste for a hundred-page extension of Robertson’s earlier ventures. The “you” is the very embodiment of “distributed subjectivity”: it can be singular, it can be plural, it can be the reader, it can be the poet, it can be anyone and everyone. One of Robertson’s favorite concepts is “utopia.” It crops up again and again in her books, from XEclogue (1993) to the present; it is the title of her most explicitly autobiographical poem [5] and would constitute one of the chunkiest entries in her concordance. Utopia—literally “no place,” or, punned as “eutopia,” the best place—while inherited from Sir Thomas More, has connotations peculiar to Robertson’s idiolect. She articulates some of the parameters of the concept in her essay “Perspectors/Melancholy”:

Melancholy is big contemplative utopia. It is a system that functions to pose a seemingly boundless cognitive space where transformation, never a neutral event, always a grievance or an astonishment, can claim potential. Transformation may include decay, multiplication, reversal, inflation or minification, fragmentation or annexation, plus all the Ovidian modalities. But it is not possible to calculate which, or in what sequence. […] Melancholy is a latent or paused anticipation of something necessarily unknowable, where the latency is not passive, but an experimental site for non-identity.

In a 2013 interview, she identifies utopia, using terminology tying it explicitly to Cinema [6], “as a sensed present.” Robertson has said that she “wanted to make a structure that could contain anything,” a goal as ambitious and utopian—albeit more couched in potentiality—as Wordsworth’s aim for The Recluse, which was to “convey most of the knowledge of which I am possessed […] Indeed I know not anything which will not come within the scope of my plan.” As an “experimental site for non-identity” and a “sensed present” projected through the film gate of the second person pronoun, Cinema is Robertson’s ultimate you-topia. And though we might justly see the pre-eminence of the “you” as a swerve from Wordsworth’s “I,” we should not forget how important the second person is in The Prelude, which was, for years before its publication, thought of by its author simply as “the poem to Coleridge.”

 

We tend to see The Prelude as a poem nostalgic for the past, with its rearview gaze on vivid “spots of time,” and of Wordsworth as a reflective poet, with his emphasis on “emotion recollected in tranquility.” But far more important to Wordsworth than the veneration of bygone days and the innocence of childhood was the excitement of the mind into a fully occupied state of presence:

I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. [Emphasis added.]

Inseparable from the matter for him was the method:

Now the music of harmonious metrical language, the sense of difficulty overcome, and the blind association of pleasure which has been previously received from works of rhyme or metre of the same or similar construction, an indistinct perception perpetually renewed of language closely resembling that of real life, and yet, in the circumstance of metre, differing from it so widely—all these imperceptibly make up a complex feeling of delight, which is of the most important use in tempering the painful feeling always found intermingled with powerful descriptions of the deeper passions.

A phrase like “harmonious metrical language” is anathema to the hardline avant-gardist. Charles Olson—whose Black Mountain School would come to influence Canadian fifth column poetry, including some of Robertson’s earliest teachers and influences—saw the “closed” systems of traditional prosody as so many garden walls to be demolished in the spirit of “projective verse” and “open composition by field,” the only valid measure of which was the individual poet’s breath, as opposed to the fixed syllable and stress counts of accentual-syllabic metrics.

In this, as in many other ways, Robertson, who “work[s] through the ear,” has demonstrated her independence from the dogmas of the schools in which she was tutored. She has professed her attachment to description and ornament, age-old avant-garde bugbears [7], and has abjured the values of austere protestant aesthetics in favour of baroque aural seduction. “I spend a lot of time counting syllables,” she explains. “For a while I had to stop myself from counting syllables when people spoke.” She has not worked in metre exclusively, by any means—a Lisa Robertson poem is as likely to be set in prose as in stichic verse—but everywhere in her work is evidence of an ear both trained in and attuned to the beauties of iambic music in English, which has helped make her poetry beguiling to readers of all stripes.

“Cinema,” derived from the Greek word “kinema,” means “movement,” and connects to the Lucretian clinamen, by way of kinematics, “The science of pure motion, considered without reference to the matter or objects moved, or to the force producing or changing the motion.” (OED) “Present” is another productively polyvalent word, suggesting not only The Present (as opposed to the past)—and hence alluding to the currency of her poetics, distinct but not divorced from inherited, traditional, past modes—but also the present in terms of a present-minded, engaged sensibility. The title thus suggests the movement of the never-fixed, ever-fleeting moment, the flickering motions of the mind in the acts of perception and cognition. [8]

There is also lurking in the word “present” the tertiary sense of present-qua-gift, a sense whose relevance is heightened by the book’s epigraph, taken from Emile Benveniste: “In addition, one must allow for chance discoveries, always possible in this vast domain in which the investigation has not been systematically pursued.” The passage is taken from Benveniste’s “Gift and Exchange in the Indo-European Vocabulary,” a minutely rigorous linguistic analysis. Benveniste, however, clearly had a mind open to aleatory possibilities. Easy to see how he might appeal to Robertson, for whom freedom and constraint have long been more complementary than contradictory. The ideas of exchange and congenial reciprocity (especially as verbal artifacts) are, moreover, central to her ethos. Cinema of the Present is an embodiment of such mutual gift-giving, an exchange between the poet in the present moment of composition and the archival records of her past selves; between herself and the canon; between herself and her coterie of friends and contemporaries (several of whom have names embedded within the book’s text); between poem and reader—exchanges which are affirmative on the whole, but also fraught with ambivalence and anxiety. A gift may be freely given, but always within a matrix of social, cultural and economic parameters.

Wordsworth drew on the landscapes of the Lake District for most of his positive stimuli and this is a point at which Robertson diverges significantly. What landscape and Nature were for Wordsworth, urbanity and language have been for Robertson. While Wordsworth was fascinated by London and Paris, he found the city—and its metastatic growth in his lifetime—unwholesome and anti-literary, as he made plain in the 1800 “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads:

For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies. […] When I think upon this degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation, I am almost ashamed to have spoken of the feeble endeavour made in these volumes to counteract it; and, reflecting upon the magnitude of the general evil, I should be oppressed with no dishonourable melancholy, had I not a deep impression of certain inherent and indestructible qualities of the human mind, and likewise of certain powers in the great and permanent objects that act upon it, which are equally inherent and indestructible[.]

It is telling that Wordsworth’s most famous London sonnet, “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802,” shows us the great city unwontedly “quiet,” “calm,” and “still.”

Robertson has, in recent years, retired to the central French idyll of La Malgache, a cluster of houses too small to call itself a village, and has spent a great deal of her life in rural settings, but the city has exerted a far stronger pull on her imagination than it did on Wordsworth’s. We see this in her essays on architecture and urban design in Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture, but the centrality of the polis to her work is nowhere more programmatically, coherently and compellingly presented than in a more recent essay, “Disquiet,” a celebration of urban hurly-burly in which she aligns city meanderings with the poetics of Cinema. Robertson likes “to walk in the city and I prefer to be lost. [9] […] I’d like to dissolve into the diffuse perceiving of a multiplicity.” She transvalues the noise and motion of the city—the “outrageous stimulations” that Wordsworth decried—as agents of political subversion:

In spite of dominant intentions, movement doesn’t stop. The city never becomes a static image of its own nostalgia, because some movement will always be indeterminant. Centrally defined limits and products are misused, transgressed. Border practices take place on a deeply layered and concentrated history of related counter-activity. To be in the city is also to be in the ancient habitus of refusal and resistance. Bodies assert their incalculable drives. Noise is made. It is the present.

As apposed to an idealized landscape—Wordsworth was wont to omit unsublime elements of the scenery, just as he elided troubling episodes from his past in The Prelude—Robertson “want[s] the present to be an ideal library.” In the work of both poets, we find significant energy expended to “re-site the pastoral,” as Gill has put it; the particular locales each poet occupies are superficially distinct, but appropriate to time and place.

And for both poets, the means towards that re-situation have been primarily linguistic—and their linguistic predilections have been emphatically political. Robertson’s complement to “the real language of men” is “the vernacular,” a term taken from Dante, who made the radical decision to write in his Tuscan dialect instead of the institutionally approved and imposed Latin, but, as with “utopia,” she has tailored it idiosyncratically to suit her own poetics:

A vernacular is not structured according to a valuing hierarchy or an administration of history; it is improvised in tandem with the rhythmic needs and movements of a present-tense yet tradition-informed body among other bodies, each specific. There is no general vernacular; it is intrinsically grammarless. Vernacular speech can only ever begin and can never achieve closure. Refusing spatial propriety, it crisscrosses institutions. […] As a generator of temporality, the vernacular overdetermines any bounded circulation concept or singularity of origin – it moves every-which-way continuously, so an excess or an innovation may erupt at any point, initiating various kinds and intensities of political consequences that can never be predetermined.

Richard Turley has labelled “Wordsworth’s philological vision” as “contingent or even disingenuous. At best his position requires a double logic to be comprehensible that can be rendered in the troubled and troubling formula: ‘real poets use the real expressions of men in a way that other men and poets cannot.’” Sidestepping such problems, Robertson renders the idea of vernacular speech far more intimate and local than did Dante or Wordsworth:

Characterized not by lexical economy and simplicity or limitation, as in Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s formulation, nor by a misappropriation of tradition or heritage as redemptive closure, but by wit, excess, plasticity, admixture, surge, caesura, the wildness of a newly turned metaphor, polylinguality and inappropriateness, the vernacular is the name for the native complexity of each beginner as she quickens.

It is no small irony that this refinement of vernacular into idiolect actually out-Wordsworths Wordsworth in valorizing the haecceity of the subject as the well-spring of poetic art.

If Robertson is more linguistically idealistic than Wordsworth was, the same might be said of her politics. The standard account of Wordsworth’s political development is that of a conversion from revolutionary radical to reactionary Tory. Both poles of his political being, however, are frequently exaggerated. Although the young Wordsworth was fascinated by and sympathized with the French Revolution, he was never a public radical in the way that his associates Coleridge, Godwin or Thelwall were. Robertson, who has professed her interest in “William Wordsworth’s relation to the French Revolution,” has perceptively noted that “[e]ven in the early Wordsworth, the methodological project, the experiments in diction and address, the romance of the perceiving subject, are aligned with a sceptical conservatism concerned with the description and promotion of static, enduring values.”

Robertson herself has more consistently sided with radicalism and subversion throughout her adult life. 2012, the year she turned fifty-one, saw the publication of Revolution: A Reader, a doorstopping sampler of revolutionary texts, co-edited with Matthew Stadler. (The book does not contain any writings of Wordsworth’s, but does feature Hazlitt’s “On the Pleasures of Hating,” which is critical of Wordsworth’s conservative turn.) In the introduction to Revolution, Robertson and Stadler shift the radical emphasis away from collective action and toward individual reflection, defining revolution as “the difference that each of us brings into living, the difference that resists the imperatives of markets and market ideologies, and that resists even the smoothing activities that can be part of community formation.” This formulation, hinged on the importance of individual heterogeneity, is not, after all, so different from Wordsworth’s ethos, as explicated by Gill: “Deliberately distancing himself from the political centre, from publishers, and the whole professional world of literature, he had chosen his home, not as a negative retreat from the ‘real world’ but as a positive commitment to an austere and dedicated life.” In a recent interview, Robertson has stressed the need to “craft a balance, between solitude and social visibility. Retreat is also an economy. As well as developing social and political critiques, we need to nourish our inner lives.”

In Cinema, a line about “the true and fluent beauty of distant mass protest,” followed swiftly by “You’re bent to a book as the uprising unfurls,” perhaps betray some ambivalence on Robertson’s part about her choices and priorities. Critic Clint Burnham has called Robertson a “Neo-Pastoral Red Tory,” arguing that her political and aesthetic belief systems are “both radical and conservative, both ‘red’ and ‘tory.’” Meanwhile, George Grant scholar Ron Dart has explicitly aligned Wordsworth with the values of Red Toryism as well. In an email to me, Robertson has said that she “bristles” at the Red Tory label, even though it wasn’t applied pejoratively. Nor, I think, was it Burnham’s intent to pigeonhole her aesthetics or politics. The classification is of limited use in coming to grips with the nuances of her work, but it nevertheless furnishes means for distinguishing Robertson from most of her contemporaries—and for establishing affinities to Wordsworth which are not immediately obvious.

A quotation from Michèle Bernstein that serves as epigraph to R’s Boat encapsulates Robertson’s position: “We have now reached a stage of experimentation with new collective constructions and new synthesis, and there is no longer any point in combating the values of the old world by a Neo-Dadaist refusal. Whether the values be ideological, artistic, or even financial, the proper thing is to unleash inflation everywhere.” She has said that she likes this statement so much that it should be “in the front of every book I write.” Rather than rebel against or try to overturn the canon, Robertson has been colonizing it, decorating it, insinuating herself into it, augmenting it by inflation.

In a review of Cinema of the Present for The National Post, David B. Hobbs enthuses that Robertson “has made a career out of dazzling rejections of Canadian literary conventions.” This sort of boilerplate gush, taking as given the far-from-settled matter of what might constitute a “Canadian literary convention,” has so often passed muster as informed opinion about Robertson’s work that few of her admirers would think to gainsay it. This is a real pity, because what a truly attentive reader—a reader who follows Robertson’s example—will find in her is not merely callow antithesis, but sustained inquiry and sophisticated synthesis. As she puts it in her poem “The Stricture,” “I wanted to think into the stricture of appearances,” which is precisely what Hobbs et al. fail to do when they hail her as a simple iconoclast.

Rather than “throwing out” the dubious baggage of poetic tradition like so much garbage, Robertson broadcasts it in front of her, “like sand,” and it provides traction for her passage. As Burnham argues, she has displayed “a willingness to engage with the poetic past” that “sets her work apart from many of her fellow-travellers in the avant garde, in the Kootenay School especially.” That engagement has taken many forms over the years, from her tussles with Virgil in XEclogue and Debbie: An Epic, to her re-situation of Dante, Petrarch and the conventions of the Dolce Stil Novo school in The Men, to her ongoing dialogue with Lucretius, to her richly ambivalent affair with the Romantics.

Robertson has long been fascinated by surfaces and styles, by fences and walls, by thresholds and interfaces. A key motif of Cinema of the Present is the gate. Her gates—or stiles, to employ a rather English synonym—are made of all manner of bric-a-brac, “of medium-density fibreboard, fibreglass, foam, balsa wood and copper,” “of gold, metal rods, driftwood, glass, concrete, peacock feathers, wood,” “of exit signs, metal mesh, payroll sheets, chrome walkers.” She takes whatever material she has at hand, whether it be junk or precious metal, payroll sheet or canonical text, and fashions it into art. One of my favorite of Robertson’s essays is “Rubus Armeniacus: A Common Architectural Motif in the Temperate Mesophytic Region.” Rubus Armeniacus, or the Himalayan blackberry, is an alien invasive species imported from England that has thrived on Canada’s temperate west coast. Robertson’s encomium to this sprawling cane could just as easily be a description of her methods as a writer:

In fact, the Himalayan blackberry insistently makes new hybrid architectures, weighing the ridgepoles of previously sturdy home garages and sheds into sway-backed grottoes, transforming chain link and barbed wire into undulant green fruiting walls, and sculpting from abandoned cement pilings Wordsworthian abbeys. […] Tracing a mortal palimpsest of potential surfaces in acutely compromised situations, Rubus shows us how to invent. This is the serious calling of style.

A serious calling, as Wordsworth knew well, deserves serious responses.

 


 

[1] This essay was originally undertaken for Arc Poetry Magazine, which ran an abridged version of it in the summer of 2015.

[2] An OED citation for “clinamen” led me to an 1823 passage in the letters of Thomas De Quincey, a disciple and patron of Wordsworth’s who moved into the poet’s Grasmere home in 1809. In the passage cited, De Quincey invokes the Lucretian clinamen as a means of explicating the divergence of synonymous words. One example he cites is that of “fancy” and “imagination,” which he says were gradually prepared by means of a clinamen to be more fully distinguished by Wordsworth. Another OED citation is from J.C. and A.W. Hare’s 1838 book Guesses at Truth, which is dedicated to Wordsworth. I don’t know that Robertson is acquainted with these delightful textual coincidences, and I do not wish to overstate their significance to this essay and its own guesses at truth, but they do seem germane.

[3] Originally published in the 2004 chapbook, Rousseau’s Boat.

[4] Publication order can create a false picture of compositional sequence, but Robertson informed me by email that “Face/” was written prior to “Draft,” which was later expanded and adapted into a video project, with collaborators Nathalie Stephens and Allyson Clay.

[5] From R’s Boat.

[6] In an email, Robertson informed me that she had completed the composition of Cinema in 2011.

[7] Olson was particularly strident in his bias against description: “The descriptive functions generally have to be watched, every second, in projective verse, because of their easiness, and thus their drain on the energy which composition by field allows into a poem.”

[8] Which puts into my mind the “stir and strife and life and bustle” of “the moving scene,” a phrase from “Summer Winds,” a poem by John Clare, a late Romantic heir of Wordsworth much admired, perhaps less problematically than the Bard of Rydal Mount, by Robertson, as he is by another decidedly postmodern poet, John Ashbery.

[9] A statement which corresponds beautifully with Wordsworth’s rhetorical question in the first book of The Prelude: “shall some floating thing / Upon the river point me out my course?”

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