Letter from Vancouver

by Bess Lovejoy, guest columnist

Thirty or so chairs were set up on Thursday, October 30, at the Charles H. Scott gallery for the launch of Lisa Robertson's new book, Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture (now available from Clear Cut Press; www.clearcutpress.com). Thirty is a reasonable estimate for the number of bodies at an event of this sort in Vancouver, BC, not a city known for wild turnouts at literary events. In hindsight, however, event organizers probably wished they'd hauled in a few more things to sit on. The crowd that showed up to hear local poet and essayist Robertson read was huge, heterogeneous (old ladies, scholars, punky art kids), and hungry for her work. Attendees stood and squatted--cramming themselves into corners, perilously balancing their wine on any available surface--to take part in a celebration of Robertson's latest offering.

That so many showed is a testament to Robertson as a galvanizing force, her place in the center of a crisscrossing in the literary, artistic, and scholarly communities. She seems to delight in the spaces where cultural disciplines collide, creating work that soundly refuses to be pegged as merely "theory" or "cultural criticism" or even "poetry." As the Office for Soft Architecture--an institution of her invention--she investigates the "natural history of civic surface," which brings her to subjects like blackberries, scaffolding, shacks, Value Village, and haunted mansions. But like other great writers, Robertson is never limited by the subject at hand: She plucks a subject (object) from the quotidian and banal in order to move through it, uncovering layers of the historical, the lyrical, and the political. The result feels somehow psychedelic: After reading her, the mind swims with connections and patterns that feel disorienting and profoundly new. When she stops, you just want to whisper, "Holy shit."

Which is another way of saying that her work is difficult. This is part of why hearing Robertson read is such a pleasure: To hear her work literally "embodied" helps to bring it home, because her powerful presence brings a rootedness, an in-the-flesh-ness to the challenging concepts of her words. The voice coming out of her slight frame becomes an anchor, a place to settle, inside the elaborate architectures of her mind.

Rumor has it that this event was not only a sendoff for her latest book but for Robertson herself, who is moving to France. She will be sorely missed. There aren't many of her ilk who can pack a house here, but Robertson has won her loyalty through a courageous determination to the experiment, to doggedly pursuing the ways in which the everyday can be pushed and pulled into startling new shapes. For that, of course we'd cram ourselves into corners and spill our wine.