Lisa Robertson’s latest collection, R’s Boat, may be read as a formal experiment, an autobiographical game, an argument about language and gender, or an attempt to put the unsayable on the page — but not, if you please, as a poem. Its author has described the work as neither a book of poems nor a series of poems nor a single long poem of many sections, but as a “unit of composition.” The distinction is worth exploring, because the reader may find that its not-a-poem-ness is a fundamental aspect of the book.
Robertson created R’s Boat in dialogue with her own archives, now housed at Simon Fraser University. From old notebooks, she culled sentences and phrases that were related thematically or, more likely, grammatically: first-person statements, negative statements, statements in the present tense. The resulting compositions are fragmentary, but not without their own logic or music. There is a time-released quality to Robertson’s language, as flat, declarative lines of text are juxtaposed with densely evocative ones, and repetitions sound more like echoes than drumbeats, as she seems to acknowledge when she writes, “I heard two centuries of assonance, and then rhyme.” If most poems are written on the page, this work is composed across a broader span of time and space.
Robertson goes to lengths to resist conventional poetic form. Most of the book is double-spaced, spreading lines across the page so stanzas don’t appear as blocks of text and stanza breaks become almost incidental. The spacing doesn’t merely allow the text to breathe, but breaks down the relationship between utterances, preventing a coherence pointed enough to coalesce into something decidedly poem-ish. Odd enjambments often further aid in the fragmentation:
Between stability and volition
Full-blown in the first moments of waking
The action of the sounds comes clear
It’s like this—the non-identity of servitude
(The part that makes its own use of effacement)
Won’t ever be revealed
After struggling to string these words onto a ribbon of meaning, one might nod a few lines later when the poet writes, “It is both in ruins and still under construction.” Is this language being put together or taken apart?
While some of Robertson’s individual lines are beautifully written, it is the space between them where the poetic work happens. This is not to suggest that Robertson’s work is not poetic — at least not in any pejorative sense — but to emphasize how fundamentally she questions the conventions of both the narrative and the lyric. She looks for a form unfamiliar enough not just to defy expectations, but to sidestep them altogether. If what she’s writing doesn’t look like a poem (or an essay or anything else we’ve ever seen), the reader can approach it without the baggage associated with those forms. While fans of Robertson’s work will likely delight in how this “unit of composition” searches for a way to liberate language from its own limitations, those more ambivalent about innovative poetics may protest that some baggage contains helpful tools. Interestingly, Robertson seems to acknowledge as much in the final section of the book, which contains couplets separated by stanza breaks, work that looks more poem-ish, suggesting a sort of counter-argument, or a conciliatory suggestion that, on the other hand, poetry might have an answer to language’s problems.
Abby Paige lives, reads, and writes in Montreal and at http://www.abbypaige.com/