On Lisa Robertson’s R’s Boat

Hannah Brooks-Motl

University of California Press: Berkeley, CA, 2010. 96 pages. $19.95.

Over eight books and dozens of chapbooks, as well as pamphlets, reissues, and collaborations, Lisa Robertson has quietly but surely emerged as one of our most exciting and prolific philosophers—I mean poets. Interested in architecture, weather systems, fashion, autobiography, gender, the classics, and just about everything else, she manages to irradiate her subjects with calm, wit, and astonishing beauty. Robertson’s style is both on splendid display and under fierce interrogation in her latest book, R’s Boat.

Utilizing a sort of lyric aphorism, the long poems in this book coast around coming-of-age narratives, travel journals, and proto-diary entries that, like Rousseau’s seminal stab at autobiography, Confessions, question their own status as revelation. “I seem to have no desires / Or my desire is not very beautiful” is a typical line, daubing its ars poeticism with self-awareness that can sound both coy and world-weary. Robertson has said her goal in R’s Boat, which she wrote from “archival gleanings,” was to “make an autobiographical book that was not self-referential.” While that project might sound suspiciously academic, or like semantic hair-splitting, these poems are cerebral but not abstruse, puzzling but not off-putting. They reveal a writer/speaker at once mysterious and mundane; they also ask us to think about who and how we are when we write and speak.

Robertson has always been interested in the potential of form to shape and misshape content; her previous books take on prose, lyric poetry in short lines, and the formal conventions of eclogue and epic. In R’s Boat, Robertson’s preferred unit of measure is the sentence. Bathed in white space, her lines float down the page like leaves in a stream. Yet their isolation suggests continuity and progression, even as the subjects and referents within them turn wildly: one feels these phrases have all fallen from the same resplendent tree.

Sometimes built (as in the opening gambit “Face”) like fugues, sometimes (like “Utopia”) as a kind of shuffled bildungsroman, the poems in R’s Boat are generally concerned with a set of themes often earmarked “autobiographical” (memory, time, romance). But Robertson is not interested in anecdote, in retelling. There are almost no clear “incidents” to speak of in this book, though that’s not to say nothing happens. Often embarking from the earthen banks of the real (“Spring 1979,” but also London, October, Europe, Sol LeWitt), Robertson quickly leads her readers into the deeper waters of lyric abstraction and philosophical investigation: “It would be nice / To interfere with the accuracy of the world,” she muses. In lines like “In the evening I walked through the terrific solidity of fragrance, not memory” she does just that, showing us how even casual encounters generate, even require, a lyric response. Like Rousseau, whose Reveries of the Solitary Walker foreground the difficulty of accurately describing not events but the experience of them, Robertson chronicles not causes but effects, loading them, in Rousseau’s phrase, “with a pleasure which would almost match the pleasure of experiencing them.” When Robertson goes for a walk, the sensual as well as the epistemological are also out for a stroll.

Though hyper-aware of its own tics—a dependence on stylized reveries; “the masquerade of transcription”—R’s Boat is also Robertson’s defense of them: “And if I degenerate into style / It’s because I love it very much.” Robertson might suffer some reasonable criticism for an occasionally obscure stutter (“I wanted to mould verbs from clacking fragments of justice”), but she almost always blazes an accessible trail through her chosen woods of dense abstraction. Her poems are not “self-referential,” but they spring unmistakably from a single, constant, constantly thinking self. Their roomy lyric “I” conjures enough scenery to let the comical, sexy, wistful, and difficult snatches of pure thought and contemplative observation exist all at once, in a sort of forest of the sublime that few contemporary poets care to penetrate, let alone tend.

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