Poetry News

Recent TCR Post Looks at the Feminist Formation of Lisa Robertson

By Harriet Staff

Speaking of Venus: "[Lisa] Robertson’s Venus is no goddess or muse. She’s a fallen angel who puts on many guises. She’s a 'freelancer and a renter'...." Pauline Butling writes about Robertson's work in a recent Capilano Review blog post (did you know LR is blogging there? and George Bowering?). Butling does us a favor and "pick[s] up on Lisa’s account of her feminist formation in the late 1980s and early 1990s while she was associated with the Kootenay School of Writing." This account and much more is readable online in the form of interview outtakes from TCR issue 3.15, as we mentioned not too long ago. Butling gives us the basics:

In response to Ted Byrne’s question about the relationship between her “polemical feminism” and the KSW’s Marxist orientation, Lisa explains that she disagrees with the notion that “feminism … might be inherent, or cease to be problematic, in a more evolved Marxist discourse.” She and other young women writers associated with the KSW at that time realized that they needed a polemics of their own to sustain their work and to counter their role as sex objects. She explains, “when you’re a young woman, when basically you’re just being eroticized by everybody around you, because that’s your function as a young woman, to be the cultural Eros that can’t be anywhere else, and that’s all that people really want you to be, and you’ll to come to an event and look sexy, or say something sexy […] you know you’ve got to be something different”

Being “different” for them meant developing distinct feminist writing practices, not defaulting to a feminist essentialism, even a strategic one.

History note: Naming themselves “Giantesses,” Robertson, Stewart and Strang formed the Barscheit Nation, started Barscheit magazine, and issued a Giantess manifesto:

1. Dissensual language is a machine of enchantments
2. This machine, with all its anarchisms, is a means of locomotion toward polysexual futures
3. Wrenched history is our machine’s frontier.

Butling then breaks down one of the poems from the issue, which is where Venus comes in. Here's more:

Which brings me to Lisa’s “Duet” of two poems in the current TCR, in particular the “Song” of Venus. Here she takes on the Botticellian image of Venus rising up from the sea to become the gold standard of female beauty. The poem begins with the exact opposite—a trashy, “indigent Venus” sporting a “thrifted peignoir” but who is nevertheless part of the whole Venus package (i.e. “indivisible” and “incommensurate”).

Sang indigent Venus with shimmering wet-data
Venus robed in thrifted peignoir
Indivisible Venus of colonial backwater
Incommensurate Venus in zoological foray with requisite miniature dialectics
Plus bibliophilia

Also the first line echoes even as it redirects Milton’s invocation, “Sing Heav’nly Muse” at the start of “Paradise Lost.” Robertson’s Venus is no goddess or muse. She’s a fallen angel who puts on many guises. She’s a “freelancer and a renter,” she’s an object of marketing, a creature of excess, a style, a body, an icon, an acute observer, a passive object. At the end of the poem all of the above and more come together to form a “vast glittering brocaded fabric” that she hoists to conceal her from the totalizing iconography.

Here is a vast glittering fabric brocaded with all the forms of life
The whole formidable apparatus
Bucking and flapping
With the help of this fabric
I want mostly to hide from totality
And have the sea be my emotion
Free, generous and serious
Like the asymmetry of compassion.

What strikes me about this poem, however, is not so much its theme of dissent and liberation, compelling as it is. I’m interested in its “dissensual language” and “wrenched history,” to repeat two key phrases from the Barscheit Manifesto. The poem proceeds via disjunction and collage, dissociative leaps and abrupt segues that verge on incomprehensibility (“I hardly saw anyone moving in the streets. [/] Was it my bed or my sleep, that whale”).

More, including some thoughts from Robertson on lyric subjectivity (which could easily be aligned with the intentions of the exciting Lyric & Polis: A Symposium of Poetry and Poetics, about to take place in the UK), here.

Originally Published: February 16th, 2012
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