This is the light Debbie steps into. Her
toffeed flanks roll with greatness and sustenance
in their sockets and her hearty hands bear
the bruised sea. Mighty amazing beauty
moves her and all the whirling majorettes
are her marvellous squadron: their bare throats
spill analysis.* Dactylic
eastern desks pom-pom
from puddles of yellow
mud. For rhetors bathed
in scent of chrome and split hide her senses
If Luck’s nameless girls love me
I’m happy. My city
Whence! giddy swish so skin-like
as a dress
as a spill
this pink text:
for her we could
The poetic line is an opportunity to test an otherwise tacit observation. Providing lasting and resonating sound, it envelops an inquiry in sensory detail. Paranoia grounds itself in reality, for better or worse; infatuation sheds its rose tint, catapulted full tilt into the self being consumed by another; physical illness finds its complementary emotional gust; and all is enacted in the jostling of words and phrases. In the sensuous landscapes of Lisa Robertson’s poetry, those lines and swerves are rife with intellectual and cultural consciousness. With Debbie: An Epic—my first confrontation with Robertson (soon Magenta Soul Whip and R’s Boat were wondrously gifted upon me, while Occasional Works and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture would accompany me through peregrinations overseas)—the poet manages to displace and disperse the tropes of the traditional epic so that the ancient male politics of Virgil’s Aeneid undergo a female subversion. Amidst the dense reading history of the canonical text, Robertson asserts a new tension: she exploits the usual binary between intellectualism and emotionalism. In the poem “She Has Smoothed Her Pants To No End,” the accumulative and abstract descriptors, such as “Mighty amazing beauty,” and the acknowledgement of a reading body, as in the call to action “Toast!” are undeniably antique gestures. Made with a self-aware hand, they indulge the form’s available affirmations. “Toast!” is simultaneously a celebration of the rituals of epic form and a checked response to the exclusionary acts it has wreaked. Occurring in the verse footnotes of the poem, it directly addresses the lines: “their bare throats / spill analysis”. What is most remarkable about this movement, from the body of the poem to its margins, is the immediate scrutiny of the gore. The frightening nature of these bared throats is less the disfigured human flesh than the dehumanized response to the matter pooling from the destruction. Modern propulsion toward dehumanizing the individual is the inspiration for Robertson’s call for communal action. And communal action, for Robertson, necessarily includes the act of writing.
Despite Robertson’s use of a loaded conceptual frame, she is not entirely wed to any rigid constraints. Entrenched allusions and prescribed movements consult the individual speaker and not vice versa. The resulting gestures are her own. For example, the title “She Has Smoothed Her Pants To No End” heralds not the Aeneid but a vulnerable female figure manufacturing an appearance through a personal and physical tic. Through an overabundance of adult and animal flesh, the poem explores the troubling decadence attributed to the female form. The female becomes recognized as “toffeed flanks”, “sockets”, “waxen heart”, and “marble marrow”. But amidst this physical imagery and its list of body parts are “Erin’s vowels”, and these female utterances puncture the surrounding discourse so that the flesh can become a speaking subject.
In subsequent sections, the language continues to burst at its self-imposed seams. Spliced instances of an outside discourse and rhetorical questions knock up against the firm caesuras and drop individual lines into dizzying breaks. “In My Heart as Drooping Pith” employs a single overflowing stanza in which Robertson’s various strains of intellectualism and emotionalism smash together. Unwilling to exclude a personal urge to commend nature’s splendours, the critical feminist speaker of this epic insists:
I am never free of
those beautiful woods – they excite
me powerfully as does the ultra
clear manufacture of girlhood.
Both romantic imagery and the dilemma of female identity spark excitement. This dilemma will persist as an ideological thrust persists throughout the remainder of the modern epic, even in instances when the speaker feigns otherwise. For example, “For Girls, Grapes and Snow” begins with the following lines: “Pardon me if I throw myself / absolutely outside my sex”, but if such a gesture of catapulting outside one’s sex is made, it is only to ricochet back with greater force. The poem is a testament to the drenching discourse of the feminine, steeped in a sexuality that is unblinking, naked and dancing against its limits and clichés.
Debbie: An Epic clamours with aesthetic excess. But the poems lure the mind beyond the flourish, for they are never merely language for language’s sake. Robertson exploits each angle of a poem’s frame, whether the epic or the lyric, not only utilizing its available strength but also inquiring into its weaknesses. The antique gestures subverted by Robertson prepare her poetic sphere for the tension between intellectualism and emotionalism. The poems simultaneously reel in the empathy of the reader and evoke his or her critical response. The poetry moves from the body of the text, from its footnotes, and from its margins, into a continued call for engagement. The struggle behind the text rises above the capture of the moment, becomes raw under exposure, and risks the radical pulse of its every utterance.
Jessi MacEachern is in the process of completing her MA in English (Creative Writing) at Montreal’s Concordia University. She reads poetry, writes poetry, and dreams poetry.