Culture & Conversation

Reading Between the Lines

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/


  • 5 Responses to “Reading Between the Lines”

    1. Addison Steele

      A well-written review, I guess. But the reviewer forgets to actually tell us anything about the content of the non-poem/non-prose. The particular lines she quotes seem like some amateur’s attempt at poetic theorizing through the use of a series of abstract words that can mean just about anything we want them to mean. It is the opposite of the concreteness that both true poetry and prose demand. But maybe this was just an unfortunate choice. Words like “stability. and “volition” and “non-identity of servitude” and “effacement” are statements that might be further explained in a philosophical debate. But as poetry … or even non-poetry … it comes across more as gobble-de-gook — the specialist’s secret coded language.

      Reply
    2. Abby

      I don't necessarily see it as my place as a reviewer to get into a philosophical debate with a book's author so much as to describe the author's work, which perhaps I haven't completely done here. That way, I hope, the book's potential reader can decide whether to engage with it one-on-one, without my interpretive intervention. I chose to focus on Robertson's approach to poetic form because it seemed to me to embody her book's "argument" (if it's fair to call it that), that familiar forms have assumptions embedded in them that prevent certain ideas from being expressed. I tend to be sort of fond of familiar forms, but questioning them is a worthy project. Robertson's language does tend to be deeply abstract (a statement which I should have included in the review). Some people would certainly find it gobble-de-gooky. Others might feel that she gives the reader greater latitude to find meaning in the work than most more conventional poetry does.

      Reply
    3. Addison Steele

      Abby. I understand where you're coming from — and my argument was not with you but with the merits of this "non-poetry" which to me seems like a way of avoiding the essential discussion as to the nature of writing. If a writer simply flings words out there (normally they're abstractions such as "love," "hate", "beauty" and so forth but they could also be similar to those that are used in the poem segment quoted), then what are we supposed to make of them? The essence of writing, I believe, lies in its concreteness, in the ability of the writer to make the reader visualize something in a way that the reader has not visualized before — be it an inner world or an outer one. If these words mean all things to all readers and each reader gets to interpret them the way he/she wants, then what work has the poet/non-poet done? Even the description of abstract objects needs to be done concretely. When we use abstractions in this way, what can they represent? Meta-abstractions? That's an interesting avenue but I doubt many of us have travelled in that direction.

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    4. Abby

      Addison – I didn't feel like your beef was with me, only that you might have expected me to have a beef that I didn't have. If she is interested in making the reader "visualize" anything, it's probably a space within language where new meanings can emerge — but that itself is a pretty abstract idea. Since Robertson's concerns are abstract, I don't know if I can blame her for not being concrete enough. To do so would be to judge her by a yard stick she's not even interested in. I often have a bone to pick with this kind of poetry, too, but its aims are so different, I wonder eventually a different vocabulary will be developed to evaluate it.

      I'm grateful for your comment because it revealed to me what my review perhaps should have been about, which would have been not simply Robertson's use of form, but how form and content are related. In this work I think they're very interdependent — as I've said already, the form embodies the "argument" of the piece. This I find intriguing. How often do poets who rely on more conventional forms really interrogate those conventions and question how they affect language and the ideas they're trying to express? In what assumptions are we complicit with when we use those forms? I'm not sure. But that idea gives me greater empathy for Robertson's project.

      Reply
    5. Abby

      Addison – I didn't feel like your beef was with me, only that you might have expected me to have a beef that I didn't have. If she is interested in making the reader "visualize" anything, it's probably a space within language where new meanings can emerge — but that itself is a pretty abstract idea. Since Robertson's concerns are abstract, I don't know if I can blame her for not being concrete enough. To do so would be to judge her by a yard stick she's not even interested in. I often have a bone to pick with this kind of poetry, too, but its aims are so different, I wonder eventually a different vocabulary will be developed to evaluate it.

      I'm grateful for your comment because it revealed to me what my review perhaps should have been about, which would have been not simply Robertson's use of form, but how form and content are related. In this work I think they're very interdependent — as I've said already, the form embodies the "argument" of the piece. This I find intriguing. How often do poets who rely on more conventional forms really interrogate those conventions and question how they affect language and the ideas they're trying to express? In what assumptions are we complicit with when we use those forms? I'm not sure. But that idea gives me greater empathy for Robertson's project.

      Reply

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