On Lisa Robertson's Nilling
When I said in an earlier last post that I go to poetry to think, Lisa 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.
Sina Queyras grew up on the road in western Canada and she has since lived in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, New York, Philadelphia, and Calgary where she was Markin Flanagan Writer in Residence. She is the author most recently of the poetry collection MxT (2014) and Unleashed (2010), a selection of posts from...