R’s Boat

Lisa Robertson

The University of California Press

2010

Saturday, April 17th, 2010

Michel de Certeau dedicates his multi-disciplinary work of theory, The Practice of Everyday Life, to “the ordinary man. The common hero, an ubiquitous character, walking in countless thousands on the streets”—and then launches into an assessment of the place and circumstances of everyday man’s everyday being. De Certeau finds that our contemporary condition has made it nearly impossible to access a non-mediated experience of the everyday, and his project results in an attempt to pry into spaces that have been colonized.

One of the most radical aspects of this assessment of post-modernity is to take as subject not large, institutional systems (of justice, economy, libido, art, science, etc) but the everyday, a space we might have thought to be so insignificant and boring as to plod along under the radar of representation. Among these assessments, de Certeau includes a critique of what it is to write the everyday and to write within the everyday. At one time the blank page served as sacred space for writing the self and the world. In this once-upon-a-time, the page,

a space of its own delimits a place of production for the subject…a place where the ambiguities of the world have been exorcised…In front of his blank page, every child is already put in the position of the industrialist, the urban planner, or the Cartesian philosopher—the position of having to manage a space that is his own and distinct from all the others and in which he can exercise his own will.

Not so, any longer. Such world-and self-making in the modern world is no longer possible, for writing has become “a principle of the social hierarchization that formerly privileged the middle class and now privileges the technocrat. It functions as the law of an educational system organized by the dominant class.” To face the page is to necessarily re-entrench the dominant norms, and so the fundamental problem becomes how we might write without perpetuating such systems.

If to write is to be or, is, at least, to articulate the nature of being, this problem becomes voluminous. In no other genre is this as apparent as in autobiography. To write a life is to construct a life, or to articulate the how of what has been lived. The problem becomes: how might autobiography be written without templating established narrative?

This is the question Lisa Robertson addresses with R’s Boat, which sets the book among other recent grapplings with the genre, such as Lyn Hejinian’s My Life and Juliana Spahr’s The Transformation. In an interview with Sina Queyras posted on harriet, Robertson calls the project a non-self-referential biography mined from over 60 of her own notebooks and arranged into the 6 poems that span the book’s 81 pages. Setting her focus on the peripheral, the unattended to, the everyday, Robertson writes of “Scripted dissent/Citizen-nerves/ Violet stems of thistles/ Cement buildings unlit/ Odours of hallways” (“On the Mechanics of Rousseau’s Thought”). Literally using the writing of a life as material, the book purposefully contrasts with the autobiographical tradition we attribute to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who shadows the book in epigraph, and title—the title of the volume, of one of the poems (the above quoted-from “Of Mechanics in Rousseau’s Thought/”), and of a chapbook (Rousseau’s Boat) which consists of 2 of the 6 poems and was published by Nomados).*

According to Rousseau, and to the tradition of autobiography that is his legacy, to write autobiography is to narrate the plot, based on feelings, of one’s life. “I felt before I thought,” his Confessions confess. Through temporal succession, he has taught us, the self comes to be—necessitating the primacy of plot and resulting in an investment in framing life in terms of cause and effect. Written as Rousseau would have it, I am who I am because of X or Y experience, which folds nicely, later, into Freud, while standing in sharp contrast to Stein (that other genius of autobiography): “I am who I am because my little dog knows me.” Further, following Rousseau, we find ourselves insisting that the plot of our lives inheres in the events themselves, rather than admitting plot to be a constructive device. That Robertson turns the conventions of autobiography on their head is everywhere apparent: just compare the two titles. For Rousseau autobiography is synonymous with confession. For Robertson, life-writing is a skiff set adrift at times purposefully, and at times meandering, out to sea.

As such, Robertson engages the materials of life without building them into a narrative that imbues them with supra-resonant meaning. The difficulty of this task can be seen in the tradition of the still life, a form that has staked its tradition on the ability of everyday objects to embody grand scales of meaning. The banketje (banquet pieces), the ontbijtjes (breakfast pieces), the bodegón (pantry or tavern pieces), the flowers, the food, the cutlery, the game—all expressive of a message, such as the (ever-favorite) brevity of life—vanitas. Regard the symbolic elements of this bodegón by the 17th century Spanish painter, Francisco de Zurbarán:

Even work done with the contemporary everyday object in mind, such as the still life, below, from a series called “Selected Contemporary Monuments” by Vajra Spook, soak everyday objects in extra-ordinary splendor, using such splendor to fold, ironically, back in on itself.

To represent—on canvas, digital print, or page—lifts the everyday out of its context, rendering it different than it otherwise would have been. But how to catch this moment of consideration in that sweet spot just before observation turns the moment into what it is not? Regard the following from “Utopia/”:

What I found beautiful slid between.

We die and become architecture.

The season called November addresses speech to us.

The crows are still cutting the sky in half with their freckling eastward wake.

The quiet revolutions of loneliness are a politics.

Some of us love its common and accidental beauty.

I take the spatial problem of heaven seriously.

I look up from my style.

How do people work and sleep?

From this passage we can see that Robertson’s technique is not to eschew the metaphysical resonances of autobiography (here we have statements of beauty and politics), or personal assertion, both philosophical and emotional (“I take,” “I look,” “I found”), or the autobiography’s penchant for placing things on a time line (“The season called November addresses speech to us”). These foundations of autobiography, and of a life, are all here. Robertson refuses, however, the conventions of autobiography that asks its writers to give these elements a plot of context, a delineation of cause and effect, a narrative of definitive meaning.

The efficacy of such refusal is significantly indebted to Robertson’s form. In all but the last poem (called “Pallinode”), Robertson employs double-spaced lines with a slightly larger gap for breaks in stanzas. Even simple lines feel saturate, but the overall sensation is one of airiness and space. Regard, for example, the beginning stanza of “The Present”:

You step from the bus into a sequencing tool that is moist and carries the scent of quince

You move among the eight banner-like elements and continue to the edges of either an object or a convention

And in Cascadia also

As in the first line of a nursery rhyme

Against cyclic hum of the heating apparatus

You’re resinous with falsity

By capitalizing the first letter of each line, by employing generous space between lines, and by crafting each line as an autonomous grammatical unit, Robertson is able to free-float each line, a singularity on a field of white. As such, the relations between them feel quite distant. What does moving “among the eight banner-like elements” (aether, air, earth, fire, water, mercury, sulfur, salt?—a nod to the ever-changing configuration of what it means to be fundament?) have to do with “Cascadia” (region, mountain range, plant genus, the dream of a trans-national republic?—another shifting name)? We feel we can only guess at the connections. With no master narrative, there is a sense that any story we might come up with is suggested only in virtue of the fact that the primary nouns of each line have prolific significance—and the lines share a page. This type of connection is not insignificant, but do the moments of a life really play out so unleashed?

However, if we read this stanza as a through-line, as a sentence, over-riding its white space, the relationship between the lines tightens and we see the stanza’s hinges of connection: you step, you move, and in Cascadia also, you are resinous with falsity. To re-say: yes, we are all always ever shifting, but some properties, fortunately or unfortunately, remain the same. A lot happens between these hinges, of course, but by eliding lines and imagining-away the white space, congruent architecture juts through. This kind of formal work enacts the experience of a life. When we are in the daily moment of the line, all that exists is the line. When we stand back, scouring through the notebooks of our days, we see a pattern emerge.

This toggling back and forth between perspectives on perspective is, in many ways, the essence of such a poem. And it gets at the root of writing autobiography that enacts a sort of quantum “intrication” (a favorite word of the poem that even gets featured on its own line), questioning the effect that such acts (of toggling, of writing) have on the life that was, and still is, being lived. Does the “sequencing tool” named in the first line of the above stanza reveal a pattern that is embedded in a life’s essence—or does the act of sequencing itself create the sequence? “The Present/” begins with “you,” transforms to “she” and traverses to “I” and “me.” Can we, to ourselves, be all three? The work of R’s Boat proposes the answer “yes” to all of these questions, leaning steadily in, towards the ever-shifting complexities implied by everyday life.


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*Publishing full-length books that include work previously published in chapbook form is, of course, common. However, in this particular case we might see such variations of collecting and publishing the same “story” as part and parcel with the project itself. What better way to jostle the tradition of autobiography than to publish two versions of an autobiography? What better way to foreground the collection and arrangement of the materials of a life than to insist that a life of 2 poems is different than a life of 6, albeit only by an “ousseau” or “obertson,” which, then again, may be all the difference that there is in the world.

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2 Responses to “R’s Boat”

  1. Steven Henry Madoff Says:

    Actually, I think that Cascadia may refer to Brenda Hillman. And Robertson’s strategy as a narrator or simply as a describer of things would seem to have a lot to do with Hillman’s writing.

  2. Stephen Yenser Says:

    A thoughtful and engaging review, Karla. And thanks much for introducing me to Vajra Spook.

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