Sina Queyras on Lisa Robertson’s Nilling


When I said in an earlier last post that I go to poetry to thinkLisa Robertson was the first poet that came to mind. Hers is a poetry that embraces doubt; that is content to extend rather than conclude, yet never drifts in the sense that Barthes describes in The Pleasure of the Text. “In the pleasant displacement of identity,” she writes, “another time keeps shaping what I will be” (16).
Nilling, Robertson’s latest, is just out from BookThug. It’s a collection of prose essays “On Noise, Pornography, The Codex, Melancholy, Lucretius, Folds, Cities, and Related Aporias.” It’s dense, and lush. Scan the pages and your vocabulary puffs up with delight.  You realize how pale poetry can be. You realize you are starved. You remember too that to create you need to be inspired. You need to have ideas. You need to tap in to the thrum of intellectual desires as much as experience the physical, note the bodily sensations. All work begins in the archive, Robertson has said, and you feel the archive here. That, and the Wordworthian contemplation before the spilling of corseted, buttressed, emotion. Only after weeks of reading does Robertson begin to write. Reflection is what we are starved for. Reaction we have in abundance.
The importance of reading. The community of books. The distinction between the ideas one is reading, and one’s response to them. This is an essential, and contentious point in contemporary poetry.
Acknowledging one’s place in the long march of ideas. Modesty a productive position: “As I read my self-consciousness is not only suspended, but temporarily abolished by the vertigo of another’s language. I am simply its conduit, its gutter. This is a pleasure” (26).
I wish that Nilling had arrived prior to the first draft of my Lyric Conceptualism manifesto because there are many lines, many thoughts that complicate and extend the ideas gathering there. She is a model lyric conceptualist. An appreciation of reading. Not an appreciation of reception, but a reveling in process. An awareness and acknowledgement of influence. A rigorous inclusion of others. A call and response to present and historical thinkers. A willingness to move beyond the known. A way of writing what she wants to think about. Not what she knows. A respect for and resistance to the notion of mastery. Of having mastered and let go. Ongoingness. Lastingness. A poetry with a sense of urgency that is defiant in its will to “illustriously useless poesis.”
All of these key points in the creation of a sustainable writing practice.
A focus on process rather than reception.
A recognition that product is the husk, the remnant of the self engaging with the history of human thought.
“Sometimes my sadness in reading is that I can’t stay. I fall away from the ability to receive” (26).
A willingness not to opt for the one-liner, for the easy. A willingess to be uncomfortable. Uneasy. To embrace Melancholy. To call it a “big contemplative utopia:”
“It (melancholy) is a system that functions to pose a seemingly boundless cognitive space where transformation, never a neutral event, always a grievance or an astonishment, can claim potential…” and later, “melancholics concern themselves with the structure of doubt, rather than the structure of belief, because doubt is inventive. Doubt complicates. Even repudiation is a doubling. In this sense doubt is erotic, as is melancholic space. Doubt, eros, melancholy: affective ornaments” (51).
This is a point of tension for the Lyric Conceptualist though, because it’s hard to believe that belief cannot be inventive…by that logic faith is limiting. Faith, hope, praise become the dead weight of the lyric.
Certainly when I hear the word praise anywhere near poetry I do not feel excited. I feel the opposite of excited. Not that I do not have the urge toward faith, hope or praise, I do, I am a sucker for them. But I rarely appreciate how these words are used in poetry. It may be as simple as show, don’t tell. If you have to use praise in the title of your poem I suggest it has failed to do what you wanted it to do…
Move back in time to the molecule that triggers the impulse to praise.
Illustrate the mechanism of faith.
Give me the ribs of hope.
And so I turn to the poetry of Lisa Robertson as a space of contemplation. It is an exterior space. It represents a possible future. It offers a deep respect for the present. It honours me with doubt. As a reader I am included. I am shuffled off to my own thoughts. And that gives me all of the above, and a way of moving forward in my own creation.

Published originally at the Poetry Foundation. You can hear Robertson reading Lastingness here.

and here, from the Lemon Hound archives, is an early post about Lastingness:


The book, the sheets, the net, and the illusion of choice

So what are we making with all of this effort to connect? Aside from pooling ourselves to be sold as pods of advertisement interests I mean, aside from trading off a certain exchange of information in a format that can be sold? Have you been keeping your Facebook one-liners? Have you thought of saving them to create a long list poem illustrating the mood of Canadian literature circa Autumn 2007? The thought had crossed my mind, and I let it pass…thought…flickr…thought…flickr…

Here is an except from “Lastingness,” an essay by Lisa Robertson in the summer 2007 issue of Open Letter:

I read in early morning, preferably in bed. If I can be grateful to capitalism it is for this reason: it has permitted me to bring books into my bed.

Or I read afternoons in the Library, seated midst the anonymity of a rustling. Turning the public pages, my desk-lamp joining the complicitous glow, I become a member of rustling. Password carus, lowercase, seat 1030.

Reading in the utopia of airplanes is quite total.

I flew to the British Library to trace Lucretius. I had applied to the authority and received the plasticized reader’s identity card. My declared interest was the early translation history of De Rerum Natura in England in the 17th and early 18th centuries. The door handles of the reading rooms were wrapped in soft grained black leather bound in place with fine stainless steel wire.

“I flew to the British Library….” she says, “the door handles of the reading rooms,” the conflagration of sheets and pages under the “complicitous glow.” How intimate reading can be. And how urgent the need to touch text, to see a site of origin. Much less exciting to take one’s laptop to bed, and with it the constant potential of so much drama, terror, anxiety, and historical weight… Though myself, and many I know, engage in such practices. In fact one couple I know had chats online while they were side by side in bed, each reading separate sites. They have since separated…

But how can this compare to flying to the British Library to read Lucretius? Or sifting through the papers of Virginia Woolf in the reading room at the New York Public Library? You will notice a sidebar with a daily entry and link to the excellent site featuring Samuel Pepys diary. And though it’s fun that he is there, a click away, I’m happy to report that Woolf’s diaries and letters are not on line. Not yet, and I hope not in my lifetime…

It isn’t that I’m against the internet, or Facebook, in theory. What I’m balking at is the totality of it, the unthinking march forward. The all or nothing. And the corporate approach. Why can’t we see alternative modes of social networking? Who owns the format of Facebook? Who owns the content? What happens to your communications when you decide to opt out? I guess one thing I’m asking is why can’t this system be replicated in a non-profit, community minded mode? Perhaps this is where the next small press book fair should be.

I know that it seems as though I’m contradicting myself, but in essence, no. What I’m suggesting is a more mindful and selective integration of textual and communication technologies. What might be a partnering (to wrestle a corporate-think word back into more neutral, or people-friendly terms), or a mirroring of physical events to online events…and what might make the local more than a simple selection. Freedom has become a habit of selection. Not setting terms, merely selecting from a set of the market’s terms…

As Benjamin Barber (among many, many others) has pointed out, it’s been decades since the market responded to any real consumer need…the market sells what is easiest to sell in the most units. The illusion of choice is the illusion of choice.

P.S. I’m not a big fan of Pound, but here’s an interesting blast from the past–and a time when even Poetry Magazine seemed to understand the diversity of voices and form.