Notes and Theses on Boat
I am reading Lisa Robertson's book-length poem Boat. I am overcome by words. They seem to be dug into the page, into my chest, a placement of singular truths.
A slight pause where the middle of the page separates words in two. Much like the space between pages exists unquestioned, where there is no meaning given to the pause, the sliding of the eyes from the bottom to the top, a motion that happens rarely in contrast to the movement back to the beginning of the last line, and even when compared to the stationary movement toward the beginning of the next page. Except that there is meaning in that pause, lining the gap, as these wilful spaces recreate the arbitrary delineation of words and spaces. The reading process is halted, we receive indetermination.
Space inside words is as important as space between words.
Already there has been talk of conflict, opposition, dissent, resistance. And belief.
I have forgotten the remainder, I start over.
Perception, body. Resistance and organicity within them. No conditional statements. Ends, the destructions of self, the constitution of self by the myths that run through. Bodies are the reverse of images.
Ancestors are only ever chosen. They are too many for us to count on them. Belief is an accompaniment.
This first section, “The Hut /,” seeks, establishes cohesion in solid, finite moments.
Not a method, not a style. A manner. A reversal, someone turning their back, and another, turning again to become someone else, a few steps away, further. A deliberate passage of time; its halt, trembling with inertia, then stillness: materiality imposing itself. Full of the next rotation. This poem is full of passages: “fleas move from bod y to body in the night” (33) but this book is full of daylight.
Tangible and then just shy of the tangential: Robertson suggests a theory of representation, layers it onto a(n also incomplete) theory of perception. Theories that point to refusal, and to action.
Developing a closeness to herself in the past, Robertson's reading of her old notebooks carries them into the future. A self recreated through its past geneses.
Creation is an attempt at believing and accepting dissonance between beliefs and realities. It destroys the gaps whence it emerges, has nothing to offer in their place but balance.
Desire felt for or upon, an exposition to the elements. No, lust. Uncertainty is the emplacement of subjectivity. Abstraction can be brought back to its concrete form.
There is no effective distinction between freedom and anarchy. Unless order is wanted and only then will it be found wanting.
Writing is never the same: “I let the fire burn down, m y hand is cold on the pen / the dog whin es as I write / using the instru ment of my body / using the failu re of emotion” (41). “This is how writing beca me the story of my body / other bodies spoke in the breaths of my body / they expanded benea th my shoulder blades / in the long duration of my n ext breath writing burned / on the surface of my breasts / swimming into the ocean wh ich is also a kind of writing” (53). The writing is incantatory, blunt. Emotions are not mutually exclusive, nor are they a heap.
A lightness, a tossing aside of the most serious phrases, of self. Almost humour. Rimbaud as a woman. Possibilities.
There is a solitude that is heresy, there is no interpretation without others: both are exits, both are material for politics, the kind that will make itself expressivity, diverse, mutable (a change of skin, or the fluctuations of a changeling?). Writing, knowing, believing: questions of style and materiality. Solitude can be an art, an improvement.
Solitude, like love, can be received and practiced. Like gestures, they can be welcomed. Or lost or, in the absence of synthesis, be dropped. Always in the presence of others.
If writing defers time, reading accelerates it, closes the gap. A drinking and not a lighting, an incorporation. Reading our own writing casts us in a mold that almost fits, in an approximation of comfort. There is surprise then in finding ourselves comfortably cast in molds prepared by others. From there we can jump ahead of ourselves, attempt.
“Most of what we h ave can't be burned.” (58) A defiant axiom, after measuring her surprising distance from flowers, plants, trees, which form a network and are not metaphorical matter.
A frequent movement between the concrete and the ideal, the past and the immediately lived, and such sharp images: “Possible tin hut with b lue plastic rain barrel / copious tree-top of hard green peaches / moss-clad corrugate d asbestos shed roof / rain-blackened cinderblock of the dea neighbour's workshop / dense grove of river-bamboo / my piffling, squand ering disputation” (64); all the gaps line up.
The idea of a politics without legitimacy can become our revolution. Without legitimacy, that is, without principles, without order. Separation holding together; the holding together a separation. The starting point in the feeling of coming together apart. The remembrance of love, its action. If imagination is not in the person, then how could freedom exist but as liberation from and through each other, but as the liberation of love? Politics is simply a concept, a complex, a nexus.
Suggestion, statement, axiom? Political refuge is a mutual temperance of resistance and desire. Political refuge is the refusal of force. Political refuge is found in sonnets, the liberation they initiate. The resistance of what we can hold, the desire for what we can hold. Freedom in the abnegation, the being held and holding at once (I make my friend Emmanuel say up-hold, but really it’s holding up and carrying one another and the world, all the while being held up and carried by the world).
There are implications to this recognition of the moral experience of animals, this breathing in of moral abundance, grief and pleasure inhaled together: an exhalation of limits, an opening toward transmission.
There is much opening then in this section, “The Hut /,” which is traversed by a gap in the center of each line; in “Face /,” which follows, single, punctuated lines instead give the impression of a series of closures. The motif of wholeness and splitting, togetherness and separation is present instead in the alternance of regular font and italicized lines, which suggest a dialogue, an answer to the preceding line. The initiative continuously shifts between the fonts: the internal dialogue is not a linear exchange, an exact alternance; like a true dialogue, each speaking part passes into the other perspective. Robertson pushes alternance into its opposite, repeating non-italicized lines with italics, offering different responses. The effect is a rebuttal to the law of non-contradiction, an escape from coherence into cohesion. Every line is a matter of unassailable certainty, every line is rendered fragile by the subsequent line. The outcome: “I know only one thing: I, who allots her fickle rights.” (twice: 84, 87)
Mobilization must include the rescue of the mobilized; rescue demands the mobilization of the rescued. The body must come first, can only come first. This is freedom; this is love. There are realms beyond, beneath, before freedom; this knowledge, once experienced, abridges freedom. There is then a form of giving, our rights a matter of generosity toward others, our rights the matter of mobilization and rescue, our own and those of others. There is certainty.
The difficulty of leaving a section read, to leave it be, to let it in, simply. To know that it holds more than has been packed away, to know it may already be at work weaving new patterns, to know it is lying dormant and can remain dormant.
The title of the section, “On Mechanics in Rousseau’s Thought /”, is impossible. I recall a passage in the Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes that allows us to feel his distress with ongoing industrialization. I had pictured Rousseau getting up from a nap beside the road, brushing off some grass, seeing chimneys, soot, black smoke, in the distance of imminent, despairing, standing for a moment in a well-lit forest where centuries later I would crouch to tie my shoes as vehicles pass me, Paris and its soot and its cleaning having engulfed the location – Rousseau’s terror, an immense sadness, larger than him alone. A passage in the Confessions in which he describes his surroundings, pristine save for him and those who rent him his house and those who pollute his mind with games and the self-hatred that comes when a paranoid person is bullied, caught in someone else’s game, a ball on a billiards table. I recall a house on what is almost a small island, a pond of sorts circling parts of it, trees upon trees, branches a reminder of gravity, sunshine through this greenery. A distant memory then, my imagination neither within myself nor in these books. I am tempted to say that there are no mechanics in Rousseau’s thought, save for a mistrust of mechanics, a profound knowledge of the destruction it brings to our capacities, of the rearrangement of our capacities, their lack of foundation within us. Alienation. This weaving on a loom, on whatever has since replaced looms.
“The wrongness is philosophical,” Robertson writes, twice (91, 96). Theology is certain, but wrong in its philosophy; or, the wrongness in senses, in sex, is philosophical, the rest is right but inhibited. Or: the wrongness in Robertson’s notebooks is philosophical, the rest, the certainty, the body, is right. Another philosophy, then, through poetry, as feminism, death, and rhetoric enter the poem (94). All against the mechanics in Rousseau’s thought.
Contradictions are not to be resolved. Contradictions are not to be deepened. We can follow them, trace their trajectories with one finger, pleasurably, but without getting very far. At the end of this finger, a philosophy that is not wrong, a philosophy that is not the continuation of habit, that is not already public. Many orientations and qualities at once, but only one at once.
Phonemes that spread, the difference between elegiac and scripted dissent. Life is thoroughly political as experienced through this poem, but also corporeal, aesthetic; it is political in the manner in which it is also corporeal and aesthetic: entirely, and not solely, and not strategically or through representation (at least the kind without imagination). “While the vote is against renewed empire, or capital temporarily / Each wants to tell about it but not necessarily in language” (102). And the pivot here, the uncertain and uneasy placement of temporarily, transforms the phrase and all of political life, a finite opposition, or a finite exhilaration. Decision or joy, depending on the line break; a breath that is a sigh, or an exclamation. And this section, titled “The Present/,” has no form but the succession of lines, long and short, separate but continuous, as close to narration as this volume gets, but in a haze, in a dream, a trance. Immense images: “Like a boat floating above its shadow / Build here the soul of thread” (104). A section of abandon, a saying yes to that requires many refusals. Invention is not volition.
There is hope only where there is acquiescence, enthusiastic agreement, joyful collaboration with the world in one of its orientations. There is hope only where joy is so strong that nothing is a sacrifice, so wide that refusals are already inscribed in the structure of our relations.
Abstraction, body, feminism, politics, resistance, perception, sex, style. The same themes recurring, facets appearing under different lights, taking on new shapes and colours according to those that are placed nearby this time around. In the section titled “A Cuff /” they arise within longer narrative stanzas, their interrelations less apparent but more felt. The understanding, the epiphany, the lesson, the explanation – the transformation – never come, not even in the form of reflection on the past. This is an anti-narrative then, one where nothing is built or created, where no self gains wholeness and coherence. The self, like the body, “is both in ruins and still under construction” (123). It is shaped, it obeys, it oscillates “Between stability and volition” (122). “Discontinuity, seepage, and the disobedient will / Sit in the familiar light / Of the person / Without being specifically summoned” (113): there is an excess in willing, wanting, desiring, that has nothing to do with its object, that evades and works outside the boundaries of the self, bringing it somewhere else toward another (it)self. A form of non-identity. Yet Robertson also traces “the non-identity of servitude / the part that makes its own use of an effacement / Won't ever be revealed” (122). Non-identity, she also tells us, is erotic or feels erotic; there is a drive toward, a desire for that which is not finite, held within itself, complete, understood.
Resistance and servitude are more than and not quite processes. They are unavoidable in many dimensions of human life, notably in language, but also in the presence of government. In servitude we hide away part of ourselves, a part that can always resurface depending on our circumstances, our perceptions, actions upon us and those we can lead upon and with others. It is still our self that lets in this outside force, although we might have wished to favour a different part of our self. Servitude installs itself in this gap, this movement of part of the self away from the rest. Resistance is the work of this sublimated, effaced, quieted part of our self, a movement toward that which is not yet. Resistance is creation. Poets have discussed this creation. We don’t see the transformation.
The constant return to notebooks. The publication of earlier versions, their lengthenings, this book that begins with the day and necessarily and beautifully ends in a prolonged night. A reciprocal movement between the self that was, the self of the past that is being remade, the self of the past that is present and is being constructed and is decaying, full of parts that cannot be detached or abandoned. Favoured, perhaps, leaned upon more than others; or neglected, surprising, unfamiliar. To be 40 and 60 at once, in 2001, 2021 (or to be 35, to be in 1993, in 1962, in 1980 – all equally distant and proximate). Time folding upon itself, accordion-like, as she reads herself: “How simple it would be to speak together.” (130) Breath traversing breath.
This section, “Utopia /,” is the most demonstrative of the collapse of time and space that occurs in imagination and representation (and all sections show that awareness). Utopia is the radicalization of this collapse, the adoption of this collapse as method: “I'm on the inside of anything I can imagine. / I wanted to distribute the present, not secure the future. / What could I say that was lasting?” (133) Utopia begins with perception, and Robertson's poem is full of perception, in all its richness, its various points and modes of access to what we are not, generously detailed. It stays on the skin; it lies beneath the skin; it is this weaving through pores, between skins, threads in tension but always with more (to) give.
Utopia is a state of tension, the heart moving toward the future faster than the rest of the body, the body perceiving what is already no longer occurring. Securing, finding stasis, stretching, coming to thoughts that stick, thoughts that may move bodies and become institutions – this building of inertia and dream of perpetual movement undoes any space for utopia. Utopia is a space within, already present and allowing for presence, its sharing, its additive and shifting repetition; a present, but in new shades, textures, until it is no longer what was present, and another present can be shared.
I am not doing justice to the vastness of the poem, it is not entirely political (then again, it is never not political), there is much more sex, girlhood, aesthetic communion, wonder, questioning, non-animal beings. The reflection on time is immense and leaves no room for the easy nostalgia of slippage. The reflection on style, as well, serves as a distanciation from oneself. And always, always the body (which may be the titular boat but also requires a boat, a metaphor and description, to navigate the world). Light and shadows have physical textures. There are the wildest and most perfect jumps: “Tansy, thistle, foxglove, broom, and grasses shoulder high, some bent plum trees persevering, the pear tree chandeliering, geodesic components rusting in second-growth forest. / This is one part of the history of a girl's mind. / The unimaginably moist wind changed the scale of the morning.” (142) Most of the poem functions in this manner, building on itself, returning to past themes and ideas, revisiting them in different weather, in different presents, within new patterns.
Obviously then the second-last section could only be a palinode, contradicting and evacuating the entire exercise. Otherwise, why return to the notebooks time and time again; otherwise, why write a new poem in their proximity?
Concepts and thoughts and ideas and perception do not have borders. We affix boundaries to them as a matter of survival but constantly pass over them, with no way of knowing where their stretching end and where we break into another. No circle is concentric to others, or fixed in time or space. There is only the illusion of shape and the body is much too real. We live in the spaces within and between words as much as the spaces they allow us to inhabit together. We reason, we express, we escape. There are still governments, kings, states. There is simply more space between them, and us.
A last section, its own notebook.
A breath before ending, a blank page before continuing – “the half-breath of the ‘yes’ / The other half yours.” (166)
Jérôme Melançon writes and teaches and writes and lives in oskana kâ-asastêki / Regina, SK. His most recent chapbook is with above/ground press, Tomorrow’s Going to Be Bright (2022, after 2020’s Coup), and his most recent poetry collection is En d’sous d’la langue (Prise de parole, 2021). He has also published two books of poetry with Éditions des Plaines, De perdre tes pas (2011) and Quelques pas quelque part (2016), as well as one book of philosophy, La politique dans l’adversité (Metispresses, 2018). He has edited books and journal issues, and keeps publishing academic articles that have nothing to do with any of this. He’s on Twitter mostly, and sometimes on Instagram at @lethejerome.