Monday, October 24, 2005

Rousseau's Boat: Lisa Robertson & the Craft of Boat Building

Published last year from Nomados, and the winner of the bp Nichol Chapbook award, Lisa Robertson’s Rousseau’s Boat, is a meditation on solitude and walking. More than any other art form of our time, it seems to me that poetry has something urgent to impart to our production—or at least consumption—obsessed times: how to be alone. How to appreciate the world without owning it; how to walk; how to listen; how to see; how to make appreciation an art form. It would be difficult to assess the relative levels of consciousness or “success” around this question. Suffice to say that some poets are more crafty than others in terms of their ability to impart this wisdom. Possibly this is because some recreate the experience, allow the reader to enter into and see for his or herself what this free floating glory in existence might feel like. Experiential comes to mind, experiencing rather than admonishing.

Lisa Robertson, I would argue, is one of the more successful (Erin Mouré, Tim Lilburn, Anne Carson being a few other great examples). To step into her beautifully crafted sentences is to slip into a boat, alone, and venture out onto a lake on a slightly breezy afternoon—an afternoon with the possibility of a storm lurking, an afternoon not without its chop. It’s this lyric foundation, the “sureness”, the “aloofness” of it, that I find so appealing. The poems are not “about” the lyric, or the I (the music or the self), rather the lyric, or the self, is the boat, that which sustains/contains the poem. The poem is a flight of fancy. Other poets make the poem about the “lyric” and “the I” out in the world observing, enduring, commenting...not so with Robertson.

But more complex than that, too. Reading Robertson is not unlike staring at a Bridget Riley painting: it can be alarmingly three-dimensional. One might, after a lengthy read, have sea legs. From the Nomados website:
The ebb and flow of this water, its ongoing sound swelling with vibration that set adrift my outer senses, rhythmically took the place of the strong emotions my dreaminess had calmed, and I felt in myself so pleasurably and effortlessly the sensation of existing, without troubling to think.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Of course there is a lot of thinking going on in the boat, and a lot of seamless sentences woven to create the kind of buoyancy present in all of Robertson’s work. The sheer beauty of them always astounds me:
Rain buckles into my mouth.
If pressed to account for strangeness and resistance, I can’t.
I’m speaking here for dogs and rusting ducts venting steam/into rain.
(Roberston 21)
These are not unlike the simple declarative sentences of The Weather (which I wrote on for HOW2), though less ecstatic than those of Debbie an Epic. They are somehow sharper, more singular, and as the very thoughtful reviewer in Jacket points out, they amplify the project. Again, I think of Bridget Riley.

Would that I had more time to spend in reverie, or in Robertson, myself…but the more practical duties of grading beckon. Consider this part one. I’m reading Robertson in conjunction with Anne Carson at the moment, and will be posting on Decreation sometime in the next few days, and perhaps I will have a few more coherent thoughts on Robertson by then.

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