(New Star) $12
The History of Scaffolding
Lisa Robertson and Elspeth Pratt
(Art Speak) $12
There's a weird tether connecting passion and dispassion. Is thought or intellectualism the opposite of passion? Sort of, but it's not that simple. Vancouver, BC, essayist and poet Lisa Robertson makes me think about those things. Her most recent book of poetry, The Weather, is both passionate and controlled, a mini-fest of hot/cold, push/pull. Hip, cerebral, streamlined, and dense, The Weather is about many things, including the poles of ecstasy and intellectualism, men and women, and passion--not really sexual passion, but more like existential fever.
Robertson, who has received much attention in Canada, is a genuinely diction-mad poet, her work challenging and refined. From her first book, Debbie: An Epic, to her most recent, The History of Scaffolding (a tiny volume co-authored with visual artist Elspeth Pratt), Robertson's writing offers unique language and a thick socio-political palette of ideas.
Robertson wrote The Weather by conducting an "eccentric research"; she got a grant from the Canadian government and went to Cambridge to study the "rhetorical structure of meteorological description," as she explains in a postscript. The book is infused with weather terminology, and by extension, Robertson also looks at the separate languages and pursuits of men and women, our culture's divisions between male and female life, and the containment of gender. The Weather, a series of prose and verse poems, alludes to our complicated confinement under social rituals and the startling contrast of the wide-open sky. She can't help writing with both "feminine" and "masculine" language (even in 2002, who can?), and there's a feeling that she can't let herself write too far in either direction, which makes sense. This book's language contains layers of ecstasy and intellect, and these feed off each other.
The Weather is organized around days of the week; sections are titled "Monday," "Tuesday," and so on, and after each of these, there's a short, tense verse that seems to comment politically about what came before. The sections about weather are spacious paeans, modern mini-pastorals about the atmosphere around us. The everydayness of the subject is the first thing to notice (as the poet writes, "The day pours out space"). What could be plainer? There's also the odd, jewel-like language, and the way the lines make even the most obvious aspects of life, like the sky and the ground, into multilayered conundrums. Robertson writes, "Deep in the opulent morning, blissful regions, hard and slender. Scarce and scant. Quotidian and temperate.... Our skies are inventions, durations, discoveries, quotas, forgeries, fine and grand. Fine and grand. Fresh and bright. Heavenly and bright.... Here a streak of light, there a streak of dark. Here and there a house. Here are all of the causes. Maybe a flesh that reverses....
"Bright and oft. Bright and fresh. Sparkling and wet. Clamour and tint. We range the spacious fields, a battlement trick and fast. Bright and silver, Ribbons and failings. To and fro. Fine and grand. The sky is complicated and flawed and we're up there in it, floating near the apricot frill, the bias swoop...."
Early on, The Weather mentions the ideas of paradise and belief, which reminded me of the spiritual/religious qualities of Emily Dickinson. Like Dickinson, Robertson has some twisty irony at work. She's conscious of, and writes against, the supposed femininity in nature, the long tradition of women poets (and sissies like Shelley) who wrote about butterflies and breezes. She's frustrated with that (and who in their right mind isn't?). As she writes, "Often I reach to transitory themes, like, 'What is there that I can love?' and find these themes sweet for their own sake, the outcome not so fascinating."
Robertson is not exactly a shepherding author, steering readers toward ideological destinations and ultra-clear meanings. She prefers to let planes of language stand in relation to each other, and for associations to arise. While any of dozens of contemporary narrative poets use words and tone to tell us an event or idea is either happy or sad, Robertson's language creates a silhouette of meaning cast by at-times abstract language. This will make the poetry frustrating for some readers.
In any case, this book is a light and beautiful object, with a smooth blue cover and three white bubbles of clouds. Lots of the language is expansive and lovely as the poet's brain unglues the problems of our social atmosphere and the fact that we tend to ignore the sky around us, just as we ignore a healthy, functioning body until something goes wrong.
The poetry relies on lots of motion, and patterned repetitions that recall East Indian love ghazals: "Come we now preferring. Nothing else is happening. Come we now walking. Now also be here. Now bending, come we crawling. Now crisp, come we falling. Now sparkle, eating. Now swagger, drinking. Now transmit, smelling. Now yellow, sucking. When a mass, come we avoiding. When by the margin, come we now ignoring. When clouds go, come we now tripping. When conditions of freedom come. When cormorants play...."
I don't understand every line of Robertson's work, but her certainty as a poet pulls me through, into lines that can be surprising with sudden political electricity, like, "When conditions of freedom come." In one section, she builds a fabulous, slow-building list of female pop/literary heroes that's kind of incantatory.
One of this poet's best strengths is her way of imbuing poems with passion-- not from hot emotion, which she avoids, but from deep politics and thought. In Robertson's hands, those things are sensual.