Lisa Robertson on Peter Culley

The Provisions


Between the storms of October

And the storms of March

the deep, wide trench

Of this afternoon, one

of a series making up

This temporal lapse, this


In which we are involved.

Ignorant as I am

I hardly dare

to speak of it,

But the fabric of its projection

tears against

All the provisions

I can bring to bear —

The distant groaning metal

of non-being, the self

Afloat in a saucepan

of burning sugar, myriads

Of little salts, shaped like

double wedges

Diffused through water

earth and ether.

A flock of what

resonates through the low thatch.

Retrieve the sample

as a dog would, its noble and


Shoulders versus

the booming cataract,

Because it knows nothing else,

because I know nothing else.

 from The Climax Forest (Leech Books, 1995)


‘Today then is the morning when the verb to enter will seem wrong,” writes Toronto poet Steve McCaffery, in The Black Debt . “Plus the problem of what colour for the sky seemed wrong. Sky being wrong and wrong being day.” That the problem of making meaning cohere in language is not theoretical sophistry but common struggle has, this week, become painfully obvious. An extraordinary political silence is stuffed with images crafted by terror. What can a poem mean in such a context? Indeed, what can language say? We simply count — the lost, the wounded, the hours.

German-Jewish critic Theodor Adorno claimed that lyric poetry reached its end with Auschwitz. Paul Celan proved him wrong with poems that voiced the terrible exile of the body, the exile of all compassion from the forms of political life. He believed that it is the poet’s specific work to bring into the world’s language the texture and condition of its own political demise: “Eternity decays.” The lyrical poem makes the temporal breach of that decay audible.

This is the seriousness that Peter Culley brings to his writing. He gives us the utterly anxious pause where meaning can’t yet find its story, where the speaker can only come to language by descending to an irresolute specificity — gouged lawn, saucepan, smell of burnt sugar.

The excerpt here comes from a longer poem, which begins in a resonant mock-bathos: “Between the cannon/ and the father,/ Between the thicket/ and the cave of light,/ A large rectangle/ of lawn, deeply scored.” The poem, too, scores itself into the page, to make a temporal trench through which our own ambivalence pours.

Culley’s poetry is remarkable for its suspension of rhetorical elegance, together with all the stubborn rawness of the refusal to stop seeing. The inconsistencies and ravelled edges resulting from this charged refusal are themselves the troubled condition of “being,” which is but one refraction among many in natural history.

The Provisions is an early sequence in Peter Culley’s long work-in-progress, Hammertown , a serial that borrows its title from French experimental novelist George Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual . Buried in Perec’s tangled plot is a semi-fictive Vancouver Island fishing port depicted on a picture puzzle — “a place called Hammertown, all white with snow, with a few low houses and some fishermen in fur-lined jackets hauling a long, pale hull along the shore.” Culley imports the avant-garde fantasy of the wilderness outpost into his own descriptive project: He conflates Hammertown with his hometown, Nanaimo, B.C.

His landscape is equally a product of cultural memory, real estate development, individual perception and geology. The lapsed economy of Culley’s place and its seeming insignificance in contemporary cultural and political movements ironically lend Hammer- town a potent metaphorical power. The moving filaments of Culley’s witnessing attention among the weathers and ephemera of the hinterland begin to expose the speciousness of centrist self-regard.

The lyric poem is now a very minor cultural form. But its integrity can be located in the precise and difficult description of the shape of between. Culley dares to give language to this interregnum, this morning which has used up all the verbs. It is importantly minor, what he can do. –Lisa Robertson

Lisa Robertson

Originally published in the How Poems Work series in the Globe & Mail. Check back for more of these original pieces from Lisa Robertson and others. Also look for new poems from Peter Culley.