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Lisa Robertson: improvisation and wandering
And so, having interviewed (and spent a few days with) one of the writers whose work I have most loved, most lived with, I now find myself faced with a loss and a gain. I gain a friend, but a person cannot stand for “poetry” if the person is now a person.
And from my chair: a delicate improvisation unfurls raw. It was good. It was
I interviewed Lisa for three hours or so, then the conversation went on, walking, eating, dress shopping, the slower and more interrupted space of afternoons with kids. Because she spoke about the improvisatory experience of collaboration (with Stacy Doris, Alison Clay, and Nathanael especially), about sociability as an improvisation that opens one to juxtaposition, the unexpected, unplanned, I asked her why not actually improvise? Though I wasn’t really sure what I’d meant by the question.
The night before the interview I’d had a dream: It was morning and I walked into the kitchen to find her already dressed (in a smart hat and short jacket), and walking out the door. “Where are you going?” I say, a little dismayed, “What about the interview?” But with an enigmatic little smile and a wave she is gone. A bit later I see her through the kitchen window. She is sitting on the ground under a bush, writing in her notebook. She has friends: a group of circus-y people, some children, a large bald man. After writing, she spreads a woolen blanket on the ground and lies down to sleep.
Later, the bald man comes into the house, foraging for food. “Did you see a woman,” I ask, “out there writing in her notebook?” “Huh?” he says, “No, I don’t think so.” He’s opening cabinets, drawers. I try again: “She’s a small woman, in a hat, seated on the ground, writing in a notebook. Maybe she took a nap?” “Oh!” he says, “you mean—.” And he says a word that is not English, a word I remember from Lisa’s books. It might be Italian or Latin and it means female wanderer. Yes, I say, that’s her.
When I wake up from this dream I open Lisa’s new book Nilling and read the following:
“In heavy and worthy houses, I feel a violent dismay. It gets harder and harder to be female in one’s life in such a house. What has commodiousness become? I abandon the house for the forbidden book.”
“Something can change. The dispersed rhythm of wandering – musical and conceptual – is what its folds conduct. Rhythm is a figured, embodied improvisation, not a measure.”
That night she gives a reading at the University of Denver. She begins the reading by describing our day together, flowers, kids, conversation. And then she tells everyone what I’d said about improvisation. She presents it as something of a challenge. And so, she goes on, not just to prove to Julie that I can, I will improvise this reading from my notebook.
She reads (astoundingly) from a large book (the one in the dream was small), fluidly, as if the poem is already constructed, always has been. But there are pauses when she flips pages, at random it seems, when she selects new material to begin again and begin again.
“The new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting,” says Hannah Arendt, the “theorist of beginning,” and one of Lisa’s primary guides.
Improvisation makes a softening, a widening. It makes a rhythm (not a meter) out of thinking, out of choosing. As she reads, I write (one hand on my daughter’s knee to keep her from rustling or wandering) and I am unsure which of these words I heard, which came from the elsewhere that is “my” memory or thought (“plurality is the [human] condition” says Arendt):
A wall of lilac pushed its scent into us as we walked across the street, holding hands with the girl, carrying the shoeless smaller one, on the summer night (it’s not really summer). Crescent moon low in a clarity. It was good. It was
inadequate. We were eating boiled flowers were we running from our own bodies, making of health a project? Are we a beginning that is also a death? She delays form. She puts form on an infinite
track. “I cried for death in general” and am reminded of the dancers with their hands on the floor, a line between their eyebrows, concentrating on time and its passing.
I’ve had the good luck to be a bow. For an arrow.
Under a cherry tree in full bloom, an absurd
and burning organism: that is my body: or the earth.
It was good – but only April – and everything in the garden made me fear it
Can there exist, she asks, a quotidian practice without a stabilized identity?
That practice is the practice of the wanderer, the improviser, the interviewer, the interviewee.