Skip to main content

Lisa Robertson - Aset of poetic essays, détourned manifestos, and prose poems that eludes generic classification: The day is our house. Words are fleshy ducts. Description decorates. As for us, we like a touch of kitsch in each room to juice up or pinken the clean lines of the possible. This décor receives futurity as its own ludic production

Cinema of the Present Cover Image

Lisa Robertson, Cinema of the Present. Coach House Books, 2014.

A 25-frames-per-second look at the kinetic, cinematic self by a master poet.
A quorum of crows will be your witness.
And if you discover you were bought?
You note the smell of rain, bread, and exhaust mixed with tiredness.
And if you yourself are incompatible with your view of the world?
And what is the subject but a stitching?
Once again you are the one who promotes artifice.
At 2 am on Friday, you burn with a maudlin premonition.
And rankings and rankings and badges and repetitions.
What if the cinema of the present were a Möbius strip of language, a montage of statements and questions sutured together and gradually accumulating colour? Would the seams afford a new sensibility around the pronoun ‘you’? Would the precise words of philosophy, fashion, books, architecture and history animate a new vision, gestural and oblique? Is the kinetic pronoun cinema?
These and other questions are answered in the new long poem from acclaimed poet and essayist Lisa Robertson. The book is available with four different back covers, designed by artists Hadley+Maxwell.

'Robertson proves hard to explain but easy to enjoy. . . . Dauntlessly and resourcefully intellectual, Robertson can also be playful or blunt. . . . She wields language expertly, even beautifully.'
The New York Times

n this non-linear, self-referential book-length poem, Canadian-born poet and essayist Robertson (Magenta Soul Whip), who currently lives in France, asks, amid a host of queries and interrogations, “What do you believe about form?” From the beginning one must be prepared to “move into the distributive texture of an experimental protocol,” an initially disorienting procession of questions, observations, and images advanced by Robertson. The work’s use of non sequitur is reminiscent of David Markson, as is its invitation to readers to draw their own connections between the poem’s major themes—description, memory, prosody, alienation, and gender, among others. Robertson’s lines, in alternating roman and italic text, flow unceasingly, without overt indications of breaks or stoppages, perhaps providing a response to her question, “How else do you construct a pause in cognition?” Many lines throughout the work are repeated once later in the poem, though never at any regular interval and always with the text style transposed. This shuffling exposes the banality of déjà vu, how shifting the context changes the nature of expression. Or, as Robertson writes, using the language of epigenetics, “You are a position effect.” Is her poem, then, a kind of internal dialogue? Perhaps, and, if this is the case, it underlines her question, “what is the subject but a stitching?” Addressing the self’s perpetual conflict over which desires take prominence (“There’s no logic to what organisms demand”), Robertson even wonders, “To whom do you speak?”One can with more certainty call Robertson’s poem a magnificent testament to the eroticism of thought, one where “the enjoyable gland also dribbles its politics.” The specific gland to which she is referring remains obscure, but that’s partly the point: she’s hinting at the sexual while keeping the door open to an exploration of the physical body more generally. In this way, her primary concerns find their expression in tones and textures that are quintessentially Robertsonian and reveal how desire is intimately entwined with the self’s coming into being. “The way you practice emergence,” she declares, “is through longing.” So, if the irrationality of tension within the self demands a synthesis, then, “[y]our new skin would be prosodic—that is, both esoteric and practical.” Amid all this “brutality of description”—which, for Robertson, “is the traversal of this infinitely futile yet fundamental and continuous space called the present”—the “cinema of the present” becomes that ever-passing surface of time, the sheen of a moment in the description of that moment: “By means of description, a whole profound mass of time became your milieu.” A social environment thus enlarged serves one of Robertson’s explicit goals, that “Feminism wants to expand the sensorium.”This book—which will feature four different back covers designed by artists Hadley + Maxwell, emphasizing its status as an objet d’art—defies review, instead demanding engagement, conversation, and multiple rereads. It may not be a great place to start for newcomers to Robertson’s work, but fans or those who simply relish getting lost in a sea of thought will discover almost infinite depths: “If you speak in this imaginary structure, it’s because other choices felt limiting.”- Alex Crowley

Lisa Robertson’s Cinema of the Present arrives lean and reels in intellection. It’s delicate and circumspect and gutsy at once. Like so much of her work, it astonishes the sentence. It is an attempt to pressure writing away from habitual crutches, as in the trappings of the heavy hitters, not just what we learn in Poetry 101. It is eclectic, rarified, and dense, scatterbrained and philosophical: It tells us that the stakes of writing are high, that writing sculpts subjects as much as it sculpts the domain they dwell in, and that, consequently, there is no trick-bag to rely on, no set of writing techniques we can master and remain content with. Robertson claims that she does not know how to write, each time, then begins. Cinema of the Present attests to this attitude: Writing, it insists, is the attempt to write itself: it is humility, excitation, and persistent process. It is integrity and risk.
While much of Robertson’s work—The Apothecary (1991), Debbie: An Epic (1997), XEclogue (1993), Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture (2003), Nilling (2012), and many, many other collections—embrace a lush, amped-up take on the sentence (the baroque), Cinema of the Present proceeds comparatively economically. It is close to Robertson’s 2010 work, R’s Boat, which in many ways anticipates it.
Robertson’s ‘baroque’ can seem semantically impenetrable: It arises from the creative ‘verbing’ of nouns—“rooms with no middle ground, differently foxed” (Occasional Work)—the use of “improper” adjectives—“Don’t be afraid tulip for time is fat / with our indiscretion” (Debbie)—general adjectival lavishness, or a more general clashing of unlikely but suggestive sentence-parts: “Loose-armed impostors, we’ll hone an incendiary calendar, from the still bosco contrive the days that shall give us History, that saline, perplexed crux: Day of Parked Cars; Day of Physical Secrets; Day of Consonant’s Lip; Day of Lucite…” (XEclogue). But it can also seem exquisitely clear and referential: “[A]nd then the theorist sauntering purposefully from her round hips, her heavy leather satchel swinging like an oiled clock” (Occasional Work).
If Robertson’s language-based interventions are at times rogue and rude, they are also well-informed. Robertson is somewhat of an extinct species, a bit of a Virginia Woolf figure, one of those rare writers who has had a chance to devote her life more or less exclusively to reading and writing, without the intrusion of anything like regular employment. She’s someone who’s survived by being innovative, by being communally embedded, and by scrounging.
She spent years living rent-free in a cabin on Saltspring Island, during which she gobbled up Phyllis Webb, Heidegger, Barthes, Jean Genet, Ezra Pound, and Proust, among others. She is well-read in general, and her influences are as myriad as they are motley: Virgil, Plath, Lyn Hejinian, Rilke, Lucretius, Susan Howe, bpNichol,  etc. She was involved with the Kootenay School of Writing in Vancouver for several years in the nineties, where she became acquainted with key figures in the American Language movement as well as Russian Formalism (Viktor Shklovsky and his injunction to quicken perception by defamiliarizing language), post-structuralist theory, and feminist criticism. Before the Kootenay School, she attended Simon Fraser University, where she took courses from writers like George Bowering and Roy Miki and studied the Canadian avant-garde (a few names to mention: The Four Horsemen, Erin Mouré, and Nicole Brossard).
Of her early, baroque approach to the sentence, Robertson has said: it is a pursuit of a particular internal sound-structure, an attempt to produce a “full knobbly quality, or a torsion or a jaggedness or a swoony kind of movement from syllable to syllable.”[1]  The resultant sentences may not mean in conventional ways, but the fact that they do not only serves another of Robertson’s professed aims: to create sentences that startle, and, in startling, produce new emotional and intellectual terrain.[2] The aesthetic Robertson adopts in Cinema of the Present is less gnarly, and yet it still glimmers; it finds alternative ways to invigorate language:
You are fundamentally forgotten and veiled or you are deeply erased and diverted.
It was a place like the farm, but near the ocean.
You were poverty shivering in an old turquoise city.
(from Cinema of the Present)
The intention animating Cinema of the Present is related: the piece is an attempt to construct a pronoun. The confessional voice that invokes the ‘lyric I’ risks sounding cliché and cheesy, but any work’s organizing pronoun, says Robertson, is in danger of becoming the site of formulaic, dry, taken for granted language; we need to trouble that site if we’re going to keep it. Cinema of the Present troubles its organizing pronoun by making it self-thematizing.
The text begins: “What is the condition of a problem if you are the problem? / You move into the distributive texture of an experimental protocol.” ‘You,’ the pronoun, a few lines down, sets “out from consciousness carrying only a small valise.” The poem, which consists of a hundred or so pages of double-spaced, one-line statements (sometimes questions, sometimes fragments), some of which are repeated in slightly altered form at irregular intervals, continues:
A downtown tree, the old sky, and still you want an inventory.
You were an intuition without a concept.
A gallery, a hospital, an hypothesis.
Pure gesture.
Many of the poem’s subsequent lines likewise explicitly qualify this ‘you’: “You are the silence they exchanged,” “You are a transitional figure who sees yourself as such,” but many do not. As in the above (“A gallery, a hospital, an hypothesis”), some are fragments which refer to the perceptual world, or just the world more broadly (“Atoms, theatres, famines”), and yet the pronoun/subject, situated with its valise at the frontier of consciousness, arguably absorbs them:
Each line that makes up the poem, though it can function independently, can also be read forward and backward (as in ‘you were an intuition without a concept: a gallery, a hospital, an hypothesis, pure gesture’); meaning can cascade forward or backward as many lines or as few as suits a reader’s fancy (you were ‘a hospital, an hypothesis, pure gesture,’ and, as the next line goes, “a gate made of carpet tape”). The poem posits consciousness as spongiform and figures poetry and poetic practice as a gate between subjectivity and objectivity. The “gate made of carpet tape” recurs throughout the poem as a figure for the mind’s immersion in the perceptual vista: it is a gate constituted by all manner of encountered materials: it becomes “a gate made of gas pumps,” “a gate made of bread and screws.”
The subject/pronoun the poem is preoccupied with, then, both surges up from and recedes back into language (“Your pronoun leaks thus”). The statements or fragments that seem to concern it least still become its tissue, and the pronoun, conversely, becomes the poem itself (“It was not your voice at all, but it can’t stop nor does it think”). It is this pivot which allows the poem to produce its meta-commentary: By the time we get to the line “You are banality,” or “You are no longer aesthetical,” for example, we can read these lines as referring to the poem itself. Besides its pronoun-anxiety, Cinema of the Present shares with R’s Boat, its precursor, a willingness to embrace what Robertson refers to as either flat, outright bad, or banal sentences, a willingness, in other words, to embrace everything—“What you wanted: total, gestural plasticity”; “You presuppose a free, opened and unlimited space”— while sequencing these materials in such a way that they come to work aesthetically (which sometimes means that the resulting arrangement has actually opened up a new aesthetic possibility: “at the edges of banality, there is sensing”).
Sequencing may be one of the keys to Robertson’s title, as well: In “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” Walter Benjamin notes that a reality presented through film, which is pure in the sense that it bears no sign of the technology used to produce it, is only pure in this sense because technology has purged it, has edited itself out, cutting shots and assembling shots taken at different times, while mindfully orchestrating transitions between them. Robertson has used the essay in the past to stress the extent to which writers—and this reflects a deep dimension of her own approach—are mindfully patterning, or texturing, a linguistic surface; they are arranging materials, and, like filmmakers, are orchestrating transitions between the text’s moments. The double-spaced lines which make up Cinema of the Present, the arrangement of this text as an uninterrupted sequence of these lines, and the arrangement of these lines themselves make the text, perhaps more than her other works, the book-analogue of film. It exists as the effect of a complex form of visual reduction, as well as of a cinematic sensitivity to time and rhythm.
Gertrude Stein’s “Composition as Explanation,” in which Stein offers an elusive articulation of her own approach to composition, “writing the present,” provides another insight into Robertson’s title. “Writing the present” à la Stein involves, among other things, an attention to time in the work, which is the effect of “distribution and equilibration,” or what, in keeping with the above, we might call sequencing. “To construct a velocity is what you want” (Robertson). It also entails “using everything” (as in the way both R’s Boat and Cinema of the Present do) “by beginning again and again” (Cinema of the Present, like much of Stein’s work, unfurls along descriptive axes—it makes reference to the sensory world, but also to the project itself, its pronoun and the act of writing it—and does so in a playfully repetitious manner).
Stein’s essay also affords a pre-echo of Cinema’s open-ended spirit and structure. Robertson writes, “Curiosity, limbs and momentum: because of form you kept playing,” “You carried the great discovery of poetry as freedom, not form,” and “If you speak in this imaginary structure, it’s because other choices felt limiting.” Stein writes “No one thinks these things when they are making…no one formulates until what is to be formulated has been made” and “Composition is not there, it is going to be there and we are here.”
The open structure that characterizes Cinema of the Present and the vocabulary that Robertson has let loose in the work are also relevant to the work’s thematic content. The diction in Cinema is drawn in part from philosophical sources. There is explicit reference to Nietzsche and Aristotle, an injunction, at one point, to eliminate all contradictions (which is contradicted), and the repeated mention of “the indispensable horizon of all that occurs or appears.” There is even a possible reference to Foucault, the great theorist of disciplinary spaces: “Thus you were led to describe hospitals, prisons, remote villages, monasteries.” And to Hannah Arendt: “So you came to nilling” (nilling being a passive form of willing, or an active form of not-willing).
Robertson has used Arendt as fodder before, in an essay on Pauline Réage’s controversial Story of O. In the novel, the eponymous protagonist, O, is made into a sex slave; more specifically, her boyfriend asks her to be a slave whom many other men—provided they are ring-bearing members of a certain salacious organization (at Roissy)—can make use of as his proxies. O is subjected to excruciating forms of corporeal torture; her body is mutilated, assiduously penetrated, yet at every moment she agrees to her treatment: she submits herself to it. Robertson reads Story of O as an allegory for the formation of the subject through the paradoxical form of agency that is nilling: the subject’s self-conscious self-submission to a power beyond itself (an Other), as occurs in the act of reading, during which the reading subject gives itself over to, and is transformed, however violently or benevolently, by text.
Cinema of the Present, seems, at times, to refer to this reading: It makes mention of “O, Rosy-booted.” Its organizing pronoun is said to want “to wear the feathered mask of a owl” (at the height of her subjection, O is shaved, attached to a dog-leash, and displayed naked at a party wearing just such a mask; she is afterward desecrated in the mask, on a table, as the sun comes up). The degree of permissiveness that characterizes Cinema as a curated space (it embraces banality, and anything: “What you wanted: total, gestural plasticity”), its ‘openness,’ aligns the work with Story of O (something like Robertson’s take on it), as well. O is obligated, as a slave, ordered, to remain ‘open’: her lips must remain parted at all times, for penetration, as must her legs. Cinema of the Present marks itself as likewise radically accommodating, and accommodating in such a way as to enable self-change. “Your problem is again your own transformation,” it says. “You are a transitional figure who sees yourself as such.” “Once again you acquire a new surface.”
Robertson’s whole enterprise is in this way encapsulated in Cinema. The work is concerned with writing’s (contingent and alterable) conditions of possibility, as well as with the subjective possibilities which are related to them. What it is possible to write, in a given time and place, is an index of what it is possible to be, since it is a subject who writes, or since writing is, ultimately, a subject’s possibility. To alter writing is to alter subjectivity: “Only the rhyme of discourse transforms you,” Cinema says. “Still,” it says, “you’re totally in love with subjectivity,” and “Still, at this late date in the political, you remain intrigued by fucking”:
O is fucked by her Other, entered, conditioned and created and, as a subject, beholden. Cinema is open to an Other that takes the form of un-aesthetical, flat-toned language, and, in being so open, is engaged in producing a counter-pressure to a second Other: ‘writing proper.’
In challenging and altering literary norms, Robertson has also produced new possibilities for the legitimate use of language, for language practices, and for the subjectivities that are what they are partly because they engage in these practices. Cinema of the Present persists with this Sisyphean endeavour: “It’s time for your late style”; “That your mouth lovingly damaged the language”; “You would like thought to release something other than laboratory conditions.” Is it any good is the wrong question; how is it changing the terms of our enjoyment is the right one. Cinema of the Present is a threshold experience I pin brilliant. It bites the fruit it invents and brains us, tingling. It is behind-the-scenes, pink wrench-work: It is an action on us. Now.— Natalie Helberg

Lisa Robertson, Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture, Clear Cut Press, 2003.

read it at Google Books

Lisa Robertson’s Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture (2006) is a rich set of poetic essays, détourned manifestos, and prose poems that eludes generic classification. Occasional Work examines the ability of urban architecture to extend beyond the spatial boundaries that separate subjects from their surround­ing environments. Robertson expresses this transgression of limits through three main tropes: fabric, translucency, and delirium.  She uses these tropes to describe the tenor of urbanity and to explore history, memory, and various aesthetic traditions. Robertson demonstrates that this convergence is analogous to the layers of memory that cityscapes deconstruct, excavate, and build upon ad infinitum. - Geoffrey Hlibchuk

The nominal author of these twenty short prose works, the Office for Soft Architecture, is really the poet Lisa Robertson, a Vancouver-based experimentalist whose previous writings have proven that difficult—even near-impenetrable—verse can wink, and dazzle, and charm. (Especially recommended: Debbie: An Epic.) Robertson’s Office writes prose about, or around, or prompted by social history, urban geography, and visual art, especially but not only in Vancouver. Her fascinations generate Occasional Work (catalog essays for galleries, commissioned journal articles, reactions to special events) and Walks (urban stroll-pieces, dérives, pages from a Rough Guide in a dream). Thirteen of the former, seven of the latter, assemble in this palm-sized, vivaciously illustrated paperback, whose pictures include cute postcards, Eugene Atget photographs, and even a paint-tint test. - Stephen Burt

The cold warriors of minimalia would do well to tip their streamlined caps to flâneur and poet Lisa Robertson in her latest incarnation as the Office for Soft Architecture. Her pocket-sized, minutely printed, two-hundred-seventy-four paged, pink Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture not only puts forth a clever, confounding, detailed, and resonant theory of sensing and being in the world, but her writing style, at once gorgeous, flexing, decorated, febrile, special, insistent, and indulgent, successfully dislodges contemporary prose poetry from its well-ironed surreal-ish topos by a return to Decadent audacity and lushness.
For those of us who have not been keeping up with the well-designed lifestyle journals or the catalogues accompanying Vancouver gallery shows of the last decade, this book may seem to have sprung fully formed from the head of the mysterious Office. In fact, the book is multiple, a collection in several senses of the word: a concatenation of pieces which have appeared in the above-mentioned artworld and design publications; a colloquy of subjects as diverse as fountains, suburbs, blackberries, scaffolds, second-hand chain stores, and the industrial ruins around Vancouver; a cross-section of genres such as manifestos, proposals, introductions, site studies, microhistories, and the sui generis ‘walks’; and even, conceptually speaking, a committee of authors, for while all the pieces appear to have been penned by Robertson, the speakers are plural, referred to by the title the Office for Soft Architecture as well as by the pronoun ‘we.’
This tactic recalls the strategically effaced speakers of the essays of Virginia Woolf (and, indeed, reference is made to the feminist dimension of the plural), yet also enacts a Modernist brio, with the ‘we’-syntax implying that the experiences of the Office are universal. In “Soft Architecture: A Manifesto,” an early childhood memory of falling asleep tangled in sheets is presented as the kernel of all subsequent aesthetic experience:
[ . . . ]That way we slowly wore through the thinning cloth. Our feet would get tangled in the fretted gap.
We walked through the soft arcade. We became an architect.
Here, Robertson-the-poet is working hand-in-glove with Robertson-the-theorist (and perhaps these multiple selves are the inseparable officemates). The concept of ‘soft architecture’ is introduced via an inextricability of literal and figurative meaning, revealed and concealed logic. The anecdote of the child falling asleep evokes a missing term, the ‘threshold’ of sleep, which is coincident with the holes worn in the sheets by the child’s feet. The child creates and moves through double thresholds, through the “soft arcade,” which metaphorically stands for consciousness only after it has literally referred to the sensation of the entanglement in the sheets. “We became an architect” elides both registers and moves the elision out of the anecdotal instance and into subsequence. When she declares, a few paragraphs later, that “Memory’s architecture is neither palatial nor theatrical but soft,” her meaning is parseable: Memory is soft because it is experienced as sensation, the membrane of consciousness. Grasping this requires a recollection of one’s readerly progress through the examples, through the idea-architecture of the essay. The reader has walked through the soft arcade, has become its architect.
Not only are all humans potential architects, but this role extends to all animate and inanimate organizers of space. In “The Fountain Transcript,” the fountains of corporate plazas refer to a pre-corporate rhetoric of simplicity and happiness and thus “flood the grid with its countertext.” In “Site Report: New Brighton Park,” a history of the uses of a former municipal pleasure garden, now an unclaimed industrial zone, concludes
The spatio-economic system of Lot 26 functions as a mutating lens: never a settlement, always already a zone of leisured flows and their minor intensifications, a zone of racialization and morphogenesis. On the calm surface of the swimming pool in winter, a village of geese[ . . . ]
Soft Architects believe that this site demonstrates the best possible use of an urban origin: Change its name repeatedly. Burn it down. From the rubble confect a prosthetic pleasureground; with fluent obliviousness, picnic there.
Here the geese seem to serve as the latest Soft Architects of the site, and it is unclear whether the final directive to “picnic” anthropomorphizes the geese—referring to their already anthropomorphized “village”—or calls upon us humans to copy the geese, animalizing us. The boundary is, suitably, blurry.
Transition from literal image to metaphorical figure and back again is a consistent tool of the Office. In a description of the suburbs, “The suburb is memory fattening to russet then paling to flush when it bursts before dropping as whiteness on parked cars.” Here the final image of bird shit is laced so subtly into the sentence that its literality emerges as unexpectedly as if it had graced the chagrined reader’s own windshield or shoulder. Equally beguiling is the conclusion of “The Fountain Transcript,” wherein the Office describes its intention to further its research into the fountains of Vancouver:
We have set out to sketch the terrain of a future analysis[ . . . ] We do expect that each of these economies will find its antithesis in a fountain somewhere, that inquiry will erupt from its own methodological grid like syllables from our teeth and lips. We expect to be deliriously misinterpreted. We fountain, always astonished by the political physiology of laughter.
Here the chain of likenesses blurs—fountains—into a delightful multiplicity of laughing countenances. Fountains, like ‘surprise’ architects, disturb the “methodological grid” of inquiry; disrupted inquiry becomes fountain-shaped, springing off in new directions. At the same time, the sprays of water from a fountain look like language springing from a mouth, and also like laughter; the Office’s body and mouth thus become the sites of both fountains and fountain inquiry—”We fountain.”
Robertson’s facility with metaphor and image, abstraction and literality, forms the ground of her theory, rewriting the perceived world as a plane of utter, and fantastic, plausibility. By selecting topics willingly overlooked by aestheticists, such as chain clothing stores and tract housing, and by awarding aesthetic agency to such non-human species as blackberries, she articulates the world along a new grammar. Yet the Office for Soft Architecture has many mansions, and Robertson’s strengths as a poet extend to description, catalogue, epigram, and lyric euphony itself. These techniques are used and simultaneously theorized. A rippingly bizarre example comes when the Office for Soft Architecture writes an “Introduction to the Weather” for Lisa Robertson’s own poetry collection, The Weather. Here is the Office on that most mundane and conventional of topics, weather (described elsewhere as “boredom utopic”):
[ . . . ]The day is our house. Words are fleshy ducts. Description decorates. As for us, we like a touch of kitsch in each room to juice up or pinken the clean lines of the possible. This décor receives futurity as its own ludic production; this weather is the vestibule to something fountaining newly and crucially and yet indiscernibly beyond. [ . . . ] The weather is a stretchy, elaborate, delicate trapeze, an abstract and intact conveyance to the genuine future, which is also now.
Passages like this—and the book is constructed almost entirely of them—dazzle us into perceiving the world by their lights. This description of weather’s qualities is both far-fetched and indisputable. Weather as a metonym of dailiness must be an idea about days, and thus about the future. With equal agility, but in list form, Roberston convinces us elsewhere that scaffolding—yes, the kind found at construction sites—is the definitive site of modern experience:
[ . . . ]All the ceremonies of transition take place on such a makeshift planking: judgements, executions, banquets and symposia, entertainments and recitals, markets and bazaars, funerals, births and weddings and illicit fuckings are rehearsed and performed to their witnesses on this transient stage, which is sometimes decorated with drapes or swags or flags or garlands, sometimes padded for the comfort of the performing body, sometimes left bare as if to state the plain facts of life. The scaffold is a pause, an inflection of passage. It accommodates us in a shivering.
Here Robertson makes use of a looping referent, in which the category of the catalogue twice shifts; the reader must race to keep up. Since our experience is one of speed, it surprises us to learn that the scaffold is “a pause.” Our cognitive motion is thus suddenly stopped up at this pause, and in coming to such a sudden stop we feel the scaffolding sway with our momentum—”It accommodates us in a shivering.” This passage puts its reader at risk of falling, while holding us in its conceptual crux.
When Robertson’s focus is large, it is thrilling, but when it is small, it is amazing. I admire her swashbuckling mode, but also the quiet recombinant energies that end a two-page list in her “Manifesto.” This passage apparently refers to subterranean, and thus subliminal, Vancouver:
[ . . . ]softness and speed, echoes, spores, tropes, fonts; not identity but incident and the accumulation of air miles; unmarked solitude absorbing time, bloating to become an environment, indexical euphorias, the unraveling of laughter; a brief history of escalators; memory manifest, brindled, loosening; a crumpling of automotive glass; the pornographic, the wrapped; Helvetica’s black dust: All doctrine is foreign to us. [ . . . ]
It is delightful to watch all these consonants leap back and forth in the stream of vowels. The initial overtness of “echoes, spores, tropes, fonts” goes underground to resurface in surprising moments, as when the nymph “Helvetica” is seemingly born from the syllabic orgy of “history,” “escalators,” “manifest,” and “brindled.”
That “All doctrine is foreign to us” is a confounding assertion to discover in the context of a manifesto. Anti-doctrinal doctrines are at least as old as Dada, and Robertson is careful to undercut many of her boldest assertions with a nod to marginality or ultimate failure or impermanence. Given her interest in the marginal, the decayed, the effaced, the ignored, the underground, the overlooked, the discarded, and the ruined, this merely seems all the more perversely orthodox, and makes the largeness of her statements all the more thrilling: “The work of the S[oft]A[rchitects], simultaneously strong and weak, makes new descriptions on the warp of former events.” “From random documents of uncertain provenance, unstable value, and unraveling morphology,” she writes, “we produce new time.” Robertson’s finely stitched poetry and poetics mount to an addictive maximalism. - Joyelle McSweeney

A poet disguised as an architect. A fictional office of architects. Nothing could entice me more. In her book, Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture, Lisa Robertson offers us lyrical research, architectured syntax and ambulatory prose—often described as rococo.
Since its publication in 2003, this book has not left my sight. Its blurring of genres and disciplines permits me to do the same. Its playful perspectives on our conceptualization of the material world (and vice versa) appeal to me as a writer and as an reader of the city.
Throughout thirteen commissioned texts and seven “walks,” the Office for Soft Architecture (OSA) commingles the theoretically rich with unique case studies. In discussing everything from fountains to shacks to scaffolding to thrift stores to horticulture, the OSA sources everybody from Benjamin to Bachelard to Ruskin to Foucault to Koolhaus.
In the text, “Spatial Synthetics: a theory,”originally published in Mix magazine, the OSA writes, “We want an intelligence that’s tall and silver, oblique and black, purring and amplifying its décor; a thin thing, a long thing, a hundred videos, a boutique.” The Office desires for our interior worlds—our mental constructs—to be understood aesthetically. That our perspectives, our intelligences have surfaces.
In “Doubt and the History of Scaffolding,” the OSA writes, “We could say scaffolding is a furniture insofar as it supports the desires of our bodies. … Like furniture it is a projection of our bodies, making us bigger, more limber, more elegant and serious.” A synthesis between architectural space and inhabitant is consistently sought by The Office. The boundaries between interior and exterior are folded delicately back and forth along carefully exposed perforations, and then torn to reveal the theoretical thing and the thing as theory.
OSA allows for misreading, uncertainty, and quizzical pauses through the deftness of its syntax. And it is the shifty syntax which evokes the larger theme, as I see it, of the text: revel in the parallaxes of subjectivity and know that the extent of your delight will determine your experience of the phenomenal world. That architectures are rhetorics for us to read. That reading is a playful act of imagination and critique.
[Now available from Coach House Books, truly perfect bookmakers. However, I do want to mention the original publisher, now defunct, Clear Cut Press. Their books were printed in Tokyo by TOPPAN in a standard Japanese format with colorful dust jackets and built-in bookmarks. Designer, Tae Won Yu, is known for his playful and delicate album designs for many indie rock and pop groups. An art object in itself, I do recommend seeking out the Clear Cut edition.] - 

I adore little books.  Small, compact, unobtrusive, inviting, humble.  They fit in your back pocket, in your breast pocket, and weigh easily in one hand.  Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture is one such book; I, however, foolishly mistook this texts’ humble size for levity.
In a phrase, don’t be fooled by its appearance.  Calvino, Rousseau, Huizinga, Benjamin, De Certeau, Bachelard, Foucault, Aristotle, Derrida, Agamben, Proust, and Levinas are sources which imbue these lovingly constructed ‘occasions’.  For the avid art theory junkie, this is an excellent companion.  Work represented by Sharyn Yuen, Josée Bernard, Petra Blaisse, Keith Higgins, Allyson Clay, Renée Van Halm, Elspeth Pratt and Liz Magor also makes this a lovely catalogue of Vancouver and Canadian artists, all of whom share an affinity for surfaces.  But I would advise against deconstructing and piercing this text too sharply.  Much can be taken from maintaining a soft gaze and a soft mind, where the light folds and clouds of Robertson’s infused theory with the day to day deliver tiny surprises to our roaming eyes.
Moreover, another surprising inclusion in this little art book is approximately nineteen colour and thirty-two black and white photographs: visual saturations of varying degrees that soothe the eye and maintain a triangular delivery of sight, sense and thought throughout the book. The relationship between the two is inevitably reciprocal.
This two-hundred and eighty paged work includes thirteen dense essays and seven ‘walks’.  Of every single writing, it would not be too much to say that each one could harken a reflection, a commentary, a poetics of its own.  Therefore, it is with the lightest brushes of my favourites that I attempt to introduce this book.
*    *    *
Site Report: New Brighton Park catalogues the “inverted utopia” of Vancouver’s first real estate transaction.  Leisure grounds and industrial economies of cement and timber are overshadowed by a looming bridge, which we call this ‘park’.  Robertson suggests that Vancouver began here, with this first monetary transaction of land that has now become a kind of quizzical and faint memory.  ‘Oh right, that place, I always forget about that park,” I think to myself.  The land sold for fifty dollars in 1869 and one-hundred and fifty thousand in 1909.  Japanese-Canadians were interned here.  Exhibition grounds used to dot the space.  It has an outdoor wading pool.
The Fountain Transcript’s first pages are adorned with Maxwell Stephens and Hadley Howes’ hilarious postcards of Vancouver tourist attractions, frothing at the mouth, spitting slimy trajectories, boiling over and climaxing.  Robertson wryly suggests they refresh us, enlighten us, allow us to take a kind of wakeful little nap, but asks, ‘why are they not bombastic?’  She quickly discovers that fountains in Vancouver are private gifts, not designed for public misting.  Rather, these fountains dribble and drool, creating light glossings over the corporate grid – controlled and polite.  They don’t make noise.  Are they moving?  Robertson suggests that “our peninsula [is] a liquid-filled decorative paper-weight.”  In that case then, perhaps we’re tired of all this water.
Spatial Synthetics: A Theory discusses the teflon inflation that looms or greets us at the end of the Georgia Viaduct, a hard fabric inflated with its proposed idea of access.  Robertson suggests that a synthetics of space doesn’t stop the “flow of items and surfaces”, but can be used to articulate “the politics of their passage.”  And what is the response when this synthetic ruptures?  A brief flash of excited chaos amongst harsh winds, as our cell phones snap the liberation of trapped air to its larger cousin.  “What is the structure of Freedom?” Robertson asks.  “It is entirely synthetic.”
Rubus Armeniacus opens with photographs by Lloyd Center and Mia Cunningham, a rich and saturated variety of greys, capturing a plant that lovingly drapes and enshroudes architecture with its impressive thorns.  Imported, hybridized, prolific, stubborn.  The Himalayian Blackberry isn’t Himalayian, of course.  In Center and Cunningham’s pictures of architecture smothered by chaotic surface, we ask ourselves, “who is subordinate to who?”  Like marginalia that overtakes an imprinted text, Robertson suggests that Rubus Armeniacus’ ability to invent it’s own surfaces on, around, and through architecture is a testament to this plant’s “calling of style.”
Atget’s Interiors also includes rich greys in its catalogue of staged Parisian classist interiors.  ‘This is what a stockbroker’s bedroom looks like, a modestly independent woman-of-means’ study, a female labourer’s modest one-room interior.’  Here, Atget is assuming habits, assuming lives.  Robertson asks, “How are we to understand the relation of intuition to habit?”  By favouring intuition, she answers, and its present-ness, sincerity, truth, admittance of change, value of experience, and refusal to clutch the past.  In this way, she suggests that these photographs, or rather, the surface itself, seems to act.  “The pleatings of potential bodies” invites a kind of curiosity into the “neutral support” of a room that knows our ‘moeurs’ better than any other place.  In this safe cradling, we are free to let intuition ornament our space, via furnishings and what those furnishings say about our sense of time, and it’s eventual passing into decay.  This permission to touch that makes interiors dreamlike.
The Value Village Lyric dissects our intentions while “selvaging” in the “House of V” through gauche archival failures, imagining a future self.  These failures come to the ‘House of V’ in large compact blocks, where I imagine they appear from above on a crane, or out of a freightloader that arrives at a back door carefully.  We talk of and display our luck, discuss sorting techniques, and as the author suggests, agree that boredom is the best state for a lucky ‘happening’ to unfold.  We’ve con/formed to a society that capitalizes on the limpid and the tossed, and our new sheaths imbue a temporary giddiness until they too, are set aside.
Finally, Robertson’s Seven Walks invites us into phenomenological reveries that can both soothe and tense the passing of places and experiences.  We walk through Vancouver ports at sunrise and hear the silent murmurings of persons classified as cargo, while trying to forget.  We appreciate the extension of ‘parks’ hidden in cracks: the sidewalk, the building, the back alley, and sit on a stained bench, contemplating, “am I inside or outside the diorama?”  We recall anxious memories of a relationship punctuated by frenetic descriptions of food courses and horrific dessert shops.  We saunter through scraped out factories, trying to figure out the rules of city planners and their gouging tracks.  We take a claustrophobic and short taxi ride from point A to point B.  We get trapped between bridge discardings and a suffocating forest with no guide, and somehow manage to survive intimacy.
*     *    *
Lisa Robertson lived in Vancouver for twenty-three years and saw the surfaces and architectures of the landscape change drastically.  These collection of works are an ethical attempt on her part to “question [her] own nostalgia” for decay, but rather than a brandishing tone, these essays present ever-changing spaces with a loving regard.  “I tried to recall spaces, and what I remembered was surfaces.”  And so she has softened the edges of ‘space’, that boxy and somewhat contentious void.  Moreover, she maintains a common thread in these essays touching on the fear of our own dissolve, the slippage of our history and legacy, our tendency to become frightened and overwhelmed at maintaining the willful ignorance that time really is passing – for us. 

Robertson’s criticality is soft, just like “memory’s architecture”. Her manifesto suggests she reaches for no utopia, yet for every thing that wants to be, and in that she has succeeded well.  This book gives us many pauses to think about the changing city, and the complicated aspects of what was then, is now, and why it is we hang on.  Gentle steering starts and stops amid this light agenda, and we begin to think about our own touchings of skin in the city.  The Office for Soft Architecture is a timely and lasting collection that continues to make us think and re-think our own little theories, and the surfaces we inevitably create
- Rachel Johndrow

What if there is no ‘space,’ only a permanent, slow-motion mystic takeover, an implausibly careening awning? Nothing is utopian. Everything wants to be. Soft Architects face the reaching middle.
If architecture is the language of concrete and steel, then Soft Architecture needs a vocabulary of flesh, air, fabric and colour. It’s about civic surface and natural history. It’s about social space and clothing and urban geography and visual art, and some intersection of all these.
This delectable book collects the rococo prose of Lisa Robertson, the ambulatory Office for Soft Architecture. There are essays on Vancouver fountains, the syntax of the suburban home, Value Village, the joy of synthetics, sca×olding and the persistence of the Himalayan blackberry. There are also seven Walks, tours of Vancouver sites – poetic dioramas, really, and more material than cement could ever be.
Soft Architecture exists at the crossroads of poetry, theory, urban geography and cultural criticism, some place where the quotidian and the metaphysical marry and invert. The most intriguing book you’ll encounter this year.

‘We say, on almost every page and with utmost reverence, Holy shit. … Ever since, we have wanted to think like Robertson, write like her, maybe even be her.’ – The Village Voice, listing it as a top pick of 2004

‘She plucks a subject (object) from the quotidian and banal in order to move through it, uncovering layers of the historical, the lyrical, and the political. The result feels somehow psychedelic.’ – The Stranger

Seven Walks
“The Office for Soft Architecture came into being as I watched the city of Vancouver dissolve in the fluid called money. Buildings disappeared into newness. I tried to recall spaces, and what I remembered was surfaces . . .” Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture, 2003

If urban space is often perceived in terms of grey tones and hard surfaces, then the Office for Soft Architecture insists upon the city as yielding, expressive and immanent. The Office’s ambulatory path through the urban fabric examines civic textures and surfaces, colours and form to produce a reading of space that revealingly insists on the social value of the ornamental, the transient and the weak.
The book titled Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture collects essays on shacks, Vancouver fountains, suburban childhood, Value Village, the history of scaffolding and the persistence of the Himalayan blackberry. There are also seven walks through sites inflected by Vancouver
neighbourhoods, but which finally remain more psychogeographic than specific; narrative walks that meandre through the overlooked and the banal, the quotidian and the extraordinary alike.
Through these perambulations, the Office for Soft Architecture asks us to reimagine the city as potential, creating a speculative space for an alternative thinking about the city and its political subjects. Recorded by the Office for Soft Architecture for this exhibition, these texts exist at the crossroads of poetry, theory, urban geography and cultural criticism.
The Office for Soft Architecture is an ongoing project by Lisa Robertson, a Canadian poet and essayist. Robertson maintains the Office to construct propositions and reports for “the advancement of a natural history of civic surface.” She is the author of six books of poetry, and her prose has appeared in many magazines, catalogues and monographs in Canada, the USA and Europe.

Lisa Robertson's Magenta Soul Whip

Verses, essays, confessions, reports, translations, drafts, treatises, laments and utopias, 1995–2007. Collected by Elisa Sampedrin.

Lisa Robertson writes poems that mine the past — its ideas, its personages, its syntax — to construct a lexicon of the future. Her poems both court and cuckold subjectivity by unmasking its fundament of sex and hesitancy, the coil of doubt in its certitude. Reading her laments and utopias, we realize that language — whiplike — casts ahead of itself a fortuitous form. The form brims here pleasurably with dogs, movie stars, broths, painting's detritus, Latin and pillage. Erudite and startling, the poems in Lisa Robertson's Magenta Soul Whip, occasional works written over the past fifteen years, turn vestige into architecture, chagrin into resplendence. In them, we recognize our grand, saddened century.
'Robertson makes intellect seductive; only her poetry could turn swooning into a critical gesture.' – The Village Voice
'Here as in six earlier glittering books, Robertson proves hard to explain but easy to enjoy ... Dauntlessly and resourcefully intellectual, Robertson can also be playful or blunt ... Though she wields ... language expertly, even beautifully, she also shows an almost pagan delight in embodiment.' – New York Times
'Robertson is one of our most crisply intelligent writers, and the poems and prose pieces in Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip ... continually knock readers off their conventional responses, asking that they follow the curlicues of thought-in-motion the writing displays.' – Canadian Literature
'Magenta Soul Whip manages to exist in a universe of its own making, in which Baudelaire and Lucretius both make appearances, as do Jesus Christ and the adulteress he saved from stoning, a conversational dog, and contemporary Canadian visual artist Lucy Hogg. The book teaches us how to read it as it unfolds for us page by page.' – Jerry Magazine
'[Robertson's] preoccupations are as much lyrical and communicative ... as they are intellectual.' – Quill and Quire

Spatial Synthetics — A Theory

from the Office for Soft Architecture

We want an intelligence that's tall and silver, oblique and black, purring and amplifying its decor; a thin thing, a long thing, a hundred videos, a boutique. Because we are both passive and independent, we need to theorize. We are studying the synthesis of sincerity, the synthetics of space because they are irreducible and contingent. We are shirking the anxiety of origin because we can. We want to really exercise fate with extremely normal things such as our mind.

A city is a flat massive thing already. We're out at the end of a lane looking south with normal eyes. Here is what we already know: the flesh is lovely and we abhor the prudery of monuments. But a pavilion is good. We believe a synthetic pavilion is really very good. Access would be no problem since we really enjoy our minds. Everything is something. The popular isn't pre-existent. It's not etiquette. We try to remember that we are always becoming popular.

Spatial synthetics irreparably exceed their own structure. For example: Looking west, looking west, looking east by northeast, looking northwest, looking northeast, looking west, loading wool, looking west, looking north, looking east, looking west, looking north, looking northeast, looking northeast, looking west, looking west, looking west, tracks are oldest, looking south, looking north, looking north, looking east, looking west, looking west by southwest; thus, space. And not by means other than the gestural. Pretty eyes. Winds.

Now the entire aim of our speculative cognition amplifies the synthetic principle. Everything glimmers, delights, fades, goes. We drift through the cognition with exceptional grace. Attached as we are to the senses, we manifest the sheer porousness of boutiques. The boutiques are categories. We have plenty of time. The problem is not how to stop the flow of items and surfaces in order to stabilize space, but how to articulate the politics of their passage. Every culture is the terrible gush of its splendid outward forms.

Although some of us love its common and at times accidental beauty, we're truly exhausted by identity. Then we sink to the ground and demand to be entertained. We want to design new love for you because we are hungry for imprudent, sensational, immodest, revolutionary public gorgeousness. We need dignity and texture and fountains. What is the structure of freedom? It is entirely synthetic.

The most pleasing object of all would be erotic hope. What could be more beautiful than to compile it with our minds, converting complicity to synthesis. A synthetics of space improvises unthought shape. Suppose we no longer call it identity. Spatial synthetics cease to enumerate how we have failed. Enough dialectical stuttering. We propose a theoretical device which amplifies the cognition of thresholds. It would add to the body the vertiginously unthinkable. That is, a pavilion.

Nilling: Prose by Lisa Robertson

Lisa Robertson, Nilling: Prose, Book Thug, 2012.

Nilling: Prose is a sequence of 6 loosely linked prose essays about noise, pornography, the codex, melancholy, Lucretius, folds, cities and related aporias: in short, these are essays on reading.

I have tried to make a sketch or a model in several dimensions of the potency of Arendt's idea of invisibility, the necessary inconspicuousness of thinking and reading, and the ambivalently joyous and knotted agency to be found there. Just beneath the surface of the phonemes, a gendered name rhythmically explodes into a founding variousness. And then the strictures of the text assert again themselves. I want to claim for this inconspicuousness a transformational agency that runs counter to the teleology of readerly intention. Syllables might call to gods who do and don't exist. That is, they appear in the text's absences and densities as a motile graphic and phonemic force that abnegates its own necessity. Overwhelmingly in my submission to reading's supple snare, I feel love.

"It represents a possible future. It offers a deep respect for the present. It honours me with doubt."
- Sina Queyras via

"I felt myself hypnotically inducted into the whirling galaxy of this book, one of whose foci, indeed, is the mechanism (although that is too cold a word) - the miracle, really - of reading"
- Nada Gordon, via her blog 

  • Lisa Robertson. The Weather. New Star Books. April 2001.

  • Lisa Robertson. XEclogue. New Star Books. November 1999.
  • Lisa Robertson. Rousseau’s Boat. Nomados Literary Publishers. 2004.

Is it odd to begin liking a poet on the basis of a pair of lines? This happened to me with the Canadian poet Lisa Robertson. And though I eventually found that I did my liking on a semierroneous basis, the affinity was secure. I loved these two lines, from a slim untitled poem out of Robertson’s 2001 collection, The Weather.
It was Jessica Grim the American poet
who first advised me to read Violette Leduc
Are you aware that Jessica Grim and Violette Leduc are both real people? I was not, at least until I came across Leduc’s 1964 memoir, La Bâtarde (The Lady Bastard), on the cover of which a pair of female profiles look ready to kiss. I just liked the sound of those names, “Jessica Grim,” “Violette Leduc”; one character arrives with a strange haircut and opinions, the author she recommends could wear boots that cover the thighs. It’s a Nabokovian limb you potentially like your poet to venture out on: a commonplace the site of an unexpected evocation.
We’ll leave aside for a moment the fact that Jessica Grim is an American poet who, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, has published several books and also works as a librarian, and that Violette Leduc (1907‑­1972), besides authoring an autobiography, composed some nine novels and was a friend of Simone de Beauvoir’s: Lisa Robertson’s oeuvre is dense, sonically resonant verse and combinations of verse and lyric prose, and often the result of collaboration or travel—with other artists and across countries, centuries, and literatures, both high and low. The list of her publications gives a clue to her pursuits, which are simultaneously pastoral and modernist: The Apothecary (1991), The Badge (1994), The Descent (1996), Debbie: An Epic (1997), XEclogue (1999), The Weather (2001), Occasional Works and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture (2003), Rousseau’s Boat (2004), The Men: A Lyric Book (2006). What follows here treats three of these collections—The Weather, XEclogue, and Rousseau’s Boat—which show to great effect Robertson’s prized dilemma: how to stage obsolescence successfully, such that its strangeness, anachronism, and even its sometime illegibility, can be read intact. For whatever is obsolete is free for the taking. Which is to say, many abandoned styles have something (beauty) yet to offer; we need their insolvent otherness.
As I have explained, I am an innocent. I believed that Jessica Grim and Violette Leduc were aliases, just as I believed in the legitimacy of an “Office for Soft Architecture,” who had sent, folded into my copy of The Weather, a sky-blue flyer printed with a quantity of text presumably referring to that book. The flyer began promisingly: “We think of the design and construction of these weather descriptions as important decorative work.” But the text veered quickly into a territory I knew to be emphatically foreign to any authority worth its salt, with a nod in my direction, “What shall our new ornaments be? How should we adorn mortality now?” And, the author(s) insisted, now plaintive, “This is a serious political question.” The envoi finally convinced me of its impracticality as blurb:
Dear Reader—a lady speaking to humans from the motion of her own mind is always multiple. Enough of the least. We want to be believed.
Who were the authors of the flyer, this “Office for Soft Architecture”? None other than Robertson herself, writing to the reader from the pages of the book (Occasional Works and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture) which would follow The Weather.
But, to begin at the beginning of The Weather, even if Robertson is an author devoted to taking herself out of order, the book is divided into seven ‘days’ of the week, each section containing one long prose section and a shorter, more traditionally lineated poem. “Sunday” ‘s prose presents phrases commencing, “Here…,” with resultant residual anaphora as guide to their overall meaning: “Here is a church. Here is deep loam upon chalk. Here is a hill. Here is a house.” “Sunday” has, as its grander half, the strange untitled poem to which I first made reference:
It was Jessica Grim the American poet
who first advised me to read Violette Leduc.
Lurid conditions are facts. This is no different
from daily protests and cashbars.
I now unknowingly speed towards
which of all acts, words, conditions—
I am troubled that I do not know.
When I feel depressed in broad daylight
depressed by the disappearance of names, the pollen
smearing the windowsill, I picture
the bending pages of La Bâtarde
and I think of wind. The outspread world is
comparable to a large theatre
or to rending paper, and the noise it makes when it flaps
is riotous. Clothes swish through the air, rubbing
my ears. Promptly I am quenched. I’m talking
about a cheap paperback which fans and
slips to the floor with a shush. Skirt stretched
taut between new knees, head turned back, I
hold down a branch,
Here the poem ends, at a comma. It is a factual, even banal, report on the fortunes of one literary person’s room—and the entrance into it of news, of memories, and of the weather—and, then again, this is pure fiction, each thing an instance of contrived metonymy. Robertson’s is a realism of epistemological concerns: even “[l]urid conditions are facts.” “I,” reader, no longer hold metaphor and perception apart; “I” compare, “I” fail to perceive discretely, “I … speed” impetuously into a fantasy in which reading has become, by virtue of this extraordinary capacity for association, a physical event. Most surprisingly, “This is no different….” “Clothes swish through the air”: the phrases borne toward the reader are a carousel of styles, and the shuffling of these costumes, the “shush[ing]” and “fan[ning]” of their physical manifestation as pulpy pages of a novel, “quench[es].” Yes, the “outspread world is / comparable to a large theatre,” but its materiality has become analogous only “to rending paper, and the noise it makes,” just as mortality is a detail, “pollen / smearing the windowsill.” Here everything returns to the book, carried as if by an irresistible wind. Who knows where this weather originates; Chaucer invented a House of Fame to explain it.
“I think of wind,” writes Robertson, portraying herself in a janissary pose at the climax of her long stanza—legs open and “head turned back”—she makes way for whatever’s arriving. Which is to say, a lot of reading went into the composition of The Weather. Robertson writes in her appendix that the book resulted from “an intense yet eccentric research in the rhetorical structure of English meteorological description.” Sources include BBC forecasts, and a number of rare, weather-related tracts: “Mr. Well’s Essay on Dew, Luke Howard’s Essay on the Modification of Clouds, Thomas Forster’s Researches About Atmospheric Phenomena,” among many others. By way of these tracts, weather returns to the séance prop closet in The Weather, less phenomenon than diction—which diction is needed (a grant or two probably had to be written to give Robertson time enough to hunt it down) to describe a gorgeous and fleeting consciousness, one unharnessed by memory and receptive only to marks made by the immediate. This is the obvious consciousness of the long prose poems, but it is also the finely balanced syntax of their lineated partners and of a final poem, “Porchverse.” The stanzas of “Porchverse” are spare and beautifully broken and talk about transformation—how things “go”—as in this fine report on the necessity of stillness in a speaker who wishes to bear witness to flight:
Then refused so lucidly as when
I saw a dog
run a doe
to sea.
Robertson’s 1999 collection, XEclogue, was already hot on this theme. And, indeed, hotter, as Virgil’s shepherd Corydon observes in the second Eclogue,
torva leaena lupum sequitur, lupus ipse capellam,
florentem cytisum sequitur lasciva capella,
Lion eats wolf eats goat eats flowering clover: we consume and are in turn consumed. Where The Weather sidesteps this chase and takes a position of third party observer, XEclogue takes enthusiastic part, in ten chapters each titled Eclogue. Robertson introduces her work here with the following excuse, “I needed a genre for the times that I go phantom.” By “go phantom,” Robertson means an inability to find herself reflected in the world around her, social or otherwise. This inability is often called Liberty, according to Robertson, and its symptoms include “illusions of historical innocence” and weird attempts to recognize oneself in “proud trees” and “the proud sky” (Robertson is less interested in flags and eagles). But Robertson has discovered that she has “an ancestress,” a woman of the landed class who is both dead and moving rapidly through the psychic woods, and who can offer advice about how to escape the numbing tropes of Nation and Nature: 
Ontology is the luxury of the landed. Let’s pretend you “had” a land. Then you “lost” it. Now fondly describe it. That is pastoral. Consider your homeland, like all utopias, obsolete. Your pining rhetoric points to obsolescence. The garden gate shuts firmly. Yet Liberty must remain throned in her posh gazebo. What can the poor Lady do? Beauty, Pride, Envy, the Bounteous Land, the Romance of Citizenship: these mawkish paradigms flesh out the nation, fard its empty gaze. What if, for your new suit, you chose to parade obsolescence?  
Political correctness has turned out not to be an entirely excellent exit-strategy for the twentieth century.
XEclogue is a discussion of this departure, among others. The book forms a basis for the work Robertson executes in her later collections, but it is also millennium-appropriate: full of richer language, speculation about the body politic, and contrived scenarios designed to help the reader entertain a more glamorous notion of self than “the Romance of Citizenship” normally affords.
XEclogue concerns a tripartite dramatis personae: a worried individual named Nancy, the brave and multifarious Lady M, and a gaggle of sex objects known as the Roaring Boys. What results is a series of letters, dialogues, complaints, and stage directions, which lead to the eventual reformation of Nancy, who initially proclaims: “I need to assume my dream of justice really does exist.” Just as Virgil simultaneously mourned alongside farmers who had lost their farmsteads to soldiers and poked fun at them in the Eclogues, Robertson shows she thinks psychology is a predicament and an opportunity. In this description of one of the Roaring Boys, it is difficult to tell when she is talking about the way he thinks and when she is referring to his looks: 
Roaring Boy #1 is skinny and pure as the bitter white heel of a petal. Spent lupins could describe his sense of mind as a great dusky silky mass. Yet a feeling of being followed had taken his will away. In an age of repudiation he would exclude sullen indolence and reveal his lace. […] When he closes his eyes he asks: Shall I be sold up? Am I to become a beggar? Shall I take to flight? He is skinny and pure as a calling.
In passages like these, Robertson revitalizes prose and raises the question, if so much is possible in language, must it refer to a world at all? Robertson’s reply is that language must at least refer back to itself and, then, pointedly. She shares the literary conversation which nourished XEclogue at the book’s conclusion: eighteenth century “poet, traveler, and political critic,” Lady Mary Wortley Montague, Frank O’Hara, Virgil, anonymous fourth century ad Latin songs of the Pervigilium Veneris, Rousseau’s Social Contract, the Slits, the Raincoats, Patti Smith, Young Marble Giants, the Au Pairs, L7, Marguerite de Navarre, and many, many (it appears) others.
In spite of this careful acknowledgment of authorship, 2004’s Rousseau’s Boat finds Robertson toying with the remarkable notion that much of what makes the experience of writing powerful is her own lack of authority: 
Here/ freedom has no referent. It is like/ an emotion. This is for/ them then. This is a passive narrative. I feel/ it could be useful. I’m forty-one. It/ gets more detailed. I feel an amazement.
The book is a short one. Its back cover bears a quote attributed to Jean-Jacques Rousseau in which that thinker describes the way in which the perception of moving water can replace thought: “I felt in myself so pleasurably and effortlessly the sensation of existing….” It’s also a pleasure to hear the poet mention her age, “I’m forty-one.” And then, the astonishing way she bears this statement out: “It / gets more detailed. I feel an amazement.” Robertson displays a talent for the sweeter side of generalization, for unknowingness. The two large poems in the book, “Face” and “Utopia,” are full of hauntingly general language, which is no oxymoron. The poems repeat lines, and much of their power stems from the subtle accrual of sense produced by freely appearing refrains. Thus the reader becomes a subject born along in Rousseau’s boat (these languid poems), batted by lines which softly suggest the fact of mortality. 
The effect of the downflowing patter of shade on the wall
was liquid, so the wall became a slow fountain in afternoon.
Our fears opened inwards.
Must it be the future?
Yes, the future, which is a sewing motion.
And Robertson keeps coming up with dates (“It was the spring of my thirty-fifth year,” she writes, or “It was 1993”) which are proof of the simple effect of sadness that precision can give. For the facts are outside the poem, and the poem itself travels away from standard referentiality, teaching thought to refer to itself: 
This is one part of the history of a girl’s mind.
The unimaginably moist wind changed the scale of the morning,
Say the mind is not a point of origin, but a skin carrying
sensation into the midst of objects.
Now it branches and forks and coalesces.
In the centre, the fire pit and log seat, a frieze of salal and
foxglove, little cadmium berries.
At the periphery of the overgrown clearing, the skeleton of a
reading chair decaying beneath plastic.
Lisa Robertson knows where she is headed, but this is not the only reason that she is a trustworthy writer. Her work results from a reading practice in which words continue to disturb the poet, who is always just beginning to accept that there is more justice in literature than outside it. - Lucy Ives

It felt like dense fog. What is fact is not necessarily human. Memory 
anticipates. Authority flows into us like a gel. We cross the border to confront
the ideal. Streaky cloudy at the top of the sky.
The weather is a condition, an atmosphere, a reflector, a manner of addressing the space. Language chasing language chasing thought. Through variegated fields in smooth trips, tripping agile acrobatics as trapeze, lovely ease with some catch. As readers of the weather we are caught in the syntax of broken cloud movement, in the desire for accuracy of description, emotion, perception, belief, in the space outside our bodies, within which our bodies occupy an inquisitive niche. Figures, objects, forms, bodies: the space between or formed by, the space along the edge of, occupied by, held open for: shifting elements in an expanse. The weather is an evaporating theory, tide-like frontal recession advancing in subtle maneuvers, negotiated minutae reportage tinged with largesse....
we excavate a non-existent era of the human. Everything is being lifted into
place. Everything is illuminated; we prove inexhaustibility. Far into the night
an infinite sweetness; beyond can be our model.
As a model, diffuse: as a sky. As a model, an antecedent diffuses roughly or refuses. In words the weather corrects itself cumulatively, meanings more placed than replaced in a text ribboning out--jutting forth, doubling back--beyond itself. "Pattern undercuts the slamming heat; we speak into the dark and make corrections: Shadow for Hour. Tantrum for Lyre. Lure for LightŠCurious for Lucid. Door for BridgeŠWhen accuracy comes it is not annihilated; we're economical with our sensation." The accuracy of the weather: not static. As a model, as a mode, as a mutant spiral doubling back into rigorously formless patterning: "Every system's torn or roughened. Every surface discontinuous. Everywhere we are tipping our throats back, streaming and sifting." The weather a form of praise, a form of forming, a form of sincerity, a forum for noticing within the confines of time and place: the days of the week, a residency, inhabiting time and tone, logic's lodging and longitude under cover or consideration, a porch, some verse, perseverence.
Sometimes, just what I praise, I believe. Words
take a verity to paradise.
The paradise of veracity tilts, flickers, stutters like snapshots in sequence. Description feeds: voracious nourishment in repeated attempts, belief the casualty, belief the cause, belief the hinge, no ease in paradise. "Not for whom do we speak but in whom. Umpteenth agony. We rest on the uncertain depth. Speak to us non-responders. Where can a lady embrace something free blithe and social. By our own elasticity." The weather is on and in and through the world: the social adorns, the social pokes through, the social a discussion before belief. Experience filtered through the weather or the weather a window through which to read experience: the weather a log, the weather an incident, the weather an insistence, the weather the attempt the description the nourishment the beyond.

Sometimes I want a corset like
to harden me or garnish. I
think of this stricture--rain
language, building--as a corset: an
outer ideal mould, I feel
the ideal moulding me the ideal
is now my surface just so very
perfect I know where to buy it and I
take it off. I take it off.
-  Jen Hofer

XEclogue book cover

Lisa Robertson's Fractured Pastoral: Reading XEclogue
Benjamin Friedlander: Nature and Culture: On Lisa Robertson's XEclogue

The Weather: A Report on Sincerity by Lisa Robertson

I'm interested in the weather. Who isn't? We groom for the atmosphere. Daily we apply our mothers' prognostics to the sky. We select our garments accordingly; like flags or vanes we signify. But I'm interested in weather also because cultural displacement has shown me that weather is a rhetoric. Furthermore, it is the rhetoric of sincerity, falling in a soothing, familial vernacular. It's expressed between friendly strangers. I speak it to you. A beautiful morning. You speak it back. The fog has lifted. We are now a society. To say insincerity is foreign to weather is precise. Weather is the mythic equilibrium of the social, rising and falling in the numbly intimate metres of the commonplace. For a long time the rhythm's opaque to the stranger. Haltingly you begin to sing, during the long cab ride from the airport, the long chorus of place. You enter a new weather, an unfamiliar system of sincerity. You learn it by example. You begin to adjust, to settle; put in order; regulate. But you are a spy in sincerity. The real knowledge of weather is indigenous.
Should it come as a surprise that Britain's most profitable television export is not costume drama but weatherporn? Weatherporn. An atmospheric condition dallies with some lives and we drink its lusty spectacle from the screen. Description pries up, frees itself, briefly phatic, expresses a gestural plenitude, framed by but untied to the sociality of objects. This loosening is diction as rhythm. It crosses borders. The weather becomes a flickering social prosody. As it abstracts into rhythm it becomes commodified, universal. Really. It was a fireball, right through the front door, and out the back.
It's real. It's mythic. It's wild. It's a vernacular. It's didactic. It's boredom. It's ceaseless. It's a delusional space.
Stacy Doris says "In terms of geographies and nationalities, the best bet for poetry is delusional space. . . Any poetry that doesn't somehow begin in a realm of wild fantasy is not worth the writing." This weather's the wild fantasy. It seizes us. Together our faces tilt upwards. A wild dream of parity must have its own weather and that weather will always have as its structure an incommensurability. If each forecast is a fiction I prefer to add to that fiction alternate delusions-- a delusionary politics that describes current conditions as it poses futurities. I mean it.
Here is want I want to say. Sincerity has a rhetorical history. The history of the description of weather parallels the history of sincerity as a rhetorical value. The delimitation or purification of diction is common to both. Part of this delimitation is idiomatic; part derives from a tradition of quotation, of genre. When Virgil described the weather prognosticatons in The Georgics, he quoted Lucretius and Aratus' Diosemia, which in turn referred to Hesiod's Works and Days. James Thomson, in The Seasons, quoted Virgil, both structurally and substantially. John Clare learned an ideology of directly observed description from Thomson, as did Wordworth. Etcetera. But parallel to the literary and idiomatic geneology of the atmosphere, was the standardization of scientific rhetoric, the language of natural philosophy and early meteorology.
Here is a small history of that sincerity. In 1667 Thomas Sprat, the historian of the Royal Society, included in his account of the principal body of the new sciences a substantial manifesto on style. "The Purity of speech, and greatness of Empire have, in all Countries, still met together" he says, calling for "a close, naked, natural way of speaking, positive expressions, clear senses, a native easiness: bringing all things as near the mathematical plainness, as they can: and perferring the language of Artisans, countrymen and merchants, before that, of wits, and scholars." The purification of English diction was integral to the institutionalization of scientific discourse, but also to the normalization of national conduct, distinguishing English, and the English, from the rhetorical eloquence, the corrupt and feminine arts of pleasure and ornament that Sprat sees spread throughout neighbouring latinate languages and nations. He describes "The general constitution of the Minds of the English": "They have commonly an unaffected sincerity; that they love to deliver their minds with a sound simplicity. . . a universal modesty posseses them." For Sprat, sincerity, reason and plain speech are natural to the English people by blood, and by weather:
          "By position of our climate, the air, the influence of the heaven, the composition of the English
          blood, as well as the embraces of the ocean, seem to join with the labours of the Royal Society, to
          render our country a land of Experimental Knowledge. And it is a good sign that Nature
          will reveal more of its secrets to the English than to others because it has already furnished them
          with a genius so well proportioned for the receiving and retaining its mysteries."
So climate is blood. The stylistic sign of sincerity, apart from the plain diction of common people, showed itself in a rhetorical economy: the experimental philospher must maintain "A constant Resolution to reject all the amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style; to return back to the primitive purity and shortness, when men delivered so many Things, almost in an equal number of Words." Nor was this economy merely metaphorical. One of the pragmatic purposes of the Royal Society was the improvement of manufacture; experimental philosophers were to propose better use of the new materials originating in America and elsewhere. Says Spratt "it has been the constant error of men's labours in all Ages, that they have still directed them to improve those of Pleasure, more than those of profit. . .what prodigious expense has been thrown away about the fashions of clothes? But how little endeavours have there been, to invent new materials for clothing, or to perfect those we have?" English inventiveness, plainess, reason, and sincerity made an efficient structure for the economical administration of manufacture, trade, and colonies. A formal Academy would not prove necessary. The 18th century blossoming of the sciences extended through all aspects of the political economy of the nation and its colonies, the new scientific rhetoric proving the ground for the radical nationalist literatures of the late 18th century. The public for the purified diction of Wordworth and Coleridge was already established in the late 17th century. Sincerity is a market, a decisive method, a nationalist politics, and an ethnic signifier. Lyrical Ballads are ethnic weather. They wear a blue bonnet. They read the weather signs for bombers.
The best parts of manifestoes are their lapses and practical failures. Wordsworth, in the Second Preface to Lyrical Ballads says "The language of these rustic men has been adopted. . .because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived; and because. . . being less under the influence of social vanity, they convey their feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions." Wordsworth was applying the Royal Society's notion of plain speech to poetry. The transposition of the rhetoric of sincerity from prose style to poetry wasn't entirely elided; Wordsworth stressed that good poetry and good prose have a common diction. He claimed as well that all knowledge, including the sciences, belongs in poetry. He wasn't the first to make this claim; he was reiterating an important theme in literary criticism. In the 18th century Thomas Aikens and Joseph Trapp wrote and lectured on the advisability of bringing the discourses of the new natural sciences into poetry. For these critics, the natural sciences would supply poetry with newness, variability and change-- the concern was pointed towards content. For Aikens and Trapp, the traditional form of the georgic would provide a structural ground on which descriptions of specifically english nature could unfold. The new style of descriptive rhetoric in the sciences didn't immediately replace poetic diction, but it did supplement the poem's content, previously a non-contentious iteration of classical formulations and phraseologies, with new values of authenticity and regional truth and specificity. In constituting this separation between content and form, Aiken and Trapp attributed to the poet a new agency, the potential of subjective choice. No longer genre-driven, the composition of poetry now included in its compass the possibility that content was a matter of individual choice, and the measure of the poem was no longer tradition, but authenticity. Wordsworth extended the trope from content to diction-- now the lexical choices and phrase formations enacted by the poet reflected the poets own subjective status rather than the learned apprehension of a tradition-based rhetorical economy. But Coleridge later pointed out how Wordsworth's poetry consistently exceeds its own claims for a pure diction, and accompanying proprieties of sentiment and structure, and that the poetry's value lies in the particular textures of Wordsworths transgressions of his own theory. Early 19 century scientific description also overflows its own rhetorical programme and stylistic norm. I've been monitering this overflow, specifically within the meteorological literature pertaining to clouds.
Clouds presented a specific formal difficulty to description and nomenclature-- if, as Sprat advised, the relation between objects and words should be equivalent, economical, the cloud challenged the propriety of this equivalence since its appearance as a thing was so ephemeral. In fact for a long time a cloud was not a thing. Clouds couldn't be seen for the sky. Robert Hooke, who reported to the Royal Society on A Method for Making a History of the Weather, proposed a lexicon for the sky. "But as for the faces of the sky, they are so many, that many of them want proper names. . . Let Clear signify a very clear sky. . . Checquered a clear sky with many great white round clouds. . .Hazy, a sky that looks whitish. . . Thicke, a sky more whitened. . . Overcast, when the vapours so whiten and thicken the air that the sun cannot break through" and so on, through the terms Hairy, Watered, Waved, and Lowring. The trouble with Hookes proposed diction was that it could not perceive clouds structurally, but looked at the sky as a face, a single figure to which the meteorologist could apply an interpretive phenomenology. The struggle was to see a cloud as particular, so that it could be enumerated, measured and described.
Then in 1796 Luke Howard invented clouds. A young Quaker man who was a chemist by trade and training, he belonged to a society of amature natural philosphers who would weekly meet to make reports on their observations. In a biographical letter to Goethe, he said of himself "My pretensions as a man of science are . . . but slender: being born, however, with observant faculties, I began even here to make use of them, as well as I could without a guide." His observations of clouds occured on his daily walks between his home and his chemical laboratory and were presented to the society, published in Tilloch's philosophical magazine, and later in the book Essay on the Modifications of Clouds. The names cumulus, cirrus and stratus resulted from his observations.
This is what dignified Howards observations: he was able to invent a structural typology which could account for change. The face of the sky was revisioned as "certain distinct modifications." The basic three cloud types corresponded to zones or depths of the sky as well as to structural types-- cirrus, to the high, fibrous wisps, Cumulus to the conical heaps of the middle ground, and stratus to the horizontal sheets of mist which hug the earth. Clouds were translated from figurations, to-- not quite objects, but objective modifications. Weather became a system. These distinctions have become so very normalized that I think we can't really understand the absolute novelty of understanding clouds in terms of structural typology. After Howard, clouds were seen for the first time. Howard's nomenclature provided a lens. It entered the public knowledge quite quickly-- and the importance of his system can be somewhat gauged by its immediate use, not only by other meteorologists, but within the literary and visual arts. After Howard, Shelley, Coleridge and Goethe wrote cloud poems. Goethe gave the cloud treatise to the German, and Danish, romantic painters. In Modern Painters, Ruskin wrote long treatises on the perspectival representation of clouds. Constable completely reassessed his representation of skies, spending a full year doing little other than outdoor cloud studies, often 3 or more in an hour, with meteorological notations scrawled on the backs. People spend their lives researching and annotating these influences. I won't. What I want to notice here, though, is how the propriety and economy of Howard's system was almost immediately bloated with a descriptive and identificatory excess, which nevertheless managed to respect his proposed typology and structure.
After Howard, individual meteorologists gravitated towards specializations in the accounts of specific cloud types-- with some this is a stated objective, with others, a discernable inflation in descriptive balance. Rev Leonard Blomefield, for example, spent 30 years in Cambridgeshire observing the stratus formation. . . His accounts are not so much remarkable for the cloud descriptions in themselves, as they are for his strangely methodical obsession with low and creeping mists. Rev. Blomefield identified with fog. He observed its formation on a large grass meadow in front of his vicarage, and when as he described "circumstances were likely to favour the formation of fogs and creeping mists," he would place, at the far end of the field, a chair and a small table supplied with thermometres, hygrometer and notebook (kept always ready in the vicarage for this use). He would sit in the meadow and observe, taking account of all that occured relating to the fogs and creeping mists, from their first appearance to their dissappearance, if they did not continue all night. He explained, in his characteristically precise yet underdetermined manner "The way in which stratus gradually spreads itself sheetlike over a meadow, or at other times extends in lines and bands from one meadow to another, is very striking." He was inspired in these observations by his colleague Mr Wells, who wrote the "Essay on Dew". Wells also observed his chosen phenomena almost every night of his adult life. He described his method-- "Upon one serene and still night I placed fresh parcels of wool upon grass every hour, and by weighing each of them found that they had attracted dew." And so on. I can't help but read into these accounts a marvelous identificatory excess-- an identification which aligns itself with a method, in all its excessiveness, and which subsequently bleeds into a rhetorical economy of description.
Thomas Ignatius Forster, writing immediately after Howard, focussed at length on the Cirrus formation. His attempts to precisely describe the cirrus cloud reflect the need to extend descriptive grammar towards a rhythmically paratactic prolixity, when the object of description itself is in a state of constant transformation. Cirrus is the most formally variable of the modifications, and in traditional weather lore tends to be referred to using various animal and plant analogies-- Mare's tail, Mackeral back, the sea tree. Forster's cirrus description, rather than carrying out Sprat's economy of a word for each thing, refers to folkloric likeness, proceeding by a figurative logic of analogy and accretion, interleaved with a discordantly geometrical diction. Here is one sentence of his cirrus: "Comoid tufts, like bushes of hair, or sometimes like erected feathers; angular flexure; streaks; recticular intersections of them. . .which look like nets thrown over the firmament; forms of arrows; stars with long fibrous tails, cyphen shaped curves, and lines with pendulous or with erect fringes, ornament the sky; still different appearances of stars and waves again appear, as these clouds change to cirrocumulus or cirrostratus, which modifications also seem to form and subside spontaneously, in different planes, and with the varied and dissimilar appearances of flocks at rest, fleeces of wool, or myriads of small specks; of long tapering columns like the tail of the great manis, or of mackeral back skies, or of striae, like the grains of wood." Forster's cloud-sentence proceeds by a series of phrasal modifications, miming the process of transmutation in the clouds themselves, even discernably within the real time of those observed fluctuations. In this instance sincerity accrues by ornament, expansion, its rhetoric stretched to the point of contusion, within the authenticating timeframe of the plein air descriptive sketch.
This book of Forsters was in the personal library of the East Anglian John Constable, a painter with a lifelong engagement with the representation of weather conditions within landscape. In 1820, shortly after the second edition of the Forster book, and the publication of Howards Climate of London, which included his theory of cloud modification and nomenclature, Constable began a two year detailed study of clouds. He produced a huge body of oil sketches on paper, executed out doors, representing cloud types in relation to larger weather patterns. This sketches, sometimes produced in 15 minute intervals throughout a series of days, serve as a sort of real time filmic meteorological sequence. On the back of each, Constable scrawled a notation of accompanying weather conditions-- for example "Sept. 10, 1821 Eleven o'clock sultry with warm gentle rain falling large heavy clouds a heavy downpour and thunder". Then, half an hour later-- "Noon, Gentle wind at west. Very sultry after a heavy shower with thunder. Accumulated thunder clouds passing slowly away to the south east. Very Bright and Hot. All the foliage sparkling." But similarily to the way these small scale sky sketches served as reference for the later representation of skies in his fullsize canvases, the brief weather annotations sometimes extended to full length descriptions with stylistic parallels to the prolix meteorological literature he perferred:
          "It may, perhaps give some idea of one of these bright and silver days in spring, when at noon large
          garish clouds surcharged with hail or sleet sweep with their broad shadows the fields, woods, and
          hills; and by their depths enhance the value of the vivid greens and yellows so peculiar to the
          season. The natural history, if the expression may be used, of the skies, which are so particularily
          marked in the hail squalls at this time of year is this: The clouds accumulate in very large masses, and
          from their loftiness seem to move but slowly; immediately upon these large clouds appear numerous
          opaque patches, which are only small clouds passing rapidly before them, and consisting of
          isolated portions detached probably from the larger cloud. These, floating much nearer the earth
          may perhaps fall in with a stronger current of wind, which as well as thir comparitive lightness
          causes them to move with greater rapidity; hence they are called by wind-millers and sailors,
          messangers, and always portend bad weather. They float midway in what may be termed the lanes of
          the clouds; and from being so situated are almost uniformly in shadow, receiving a reflected
          light only, from the clear blue sky imediately above them. In passing over the bright of the large
          clouds, they appear as darks; but in passing the shadowed parts, they assume a grey, a pale, or
          lurid hue."
This is a note written for the painting Spring. It is remarkable, to me, for its nuanced description of movement, the specific movements of clouds and light, coming from a painter whose primary medium could only be static, planar representation. Constables concern was to find a method of representing skies and weather as temporal phenomena, as metred fluctuation. His life long project was a natural history of the skies. Observational methodologies of natural history, and the descriptive rhetoric of modifications, were translated to a chiarascuro rendering of cause and effect. Constable's was a pictured prosody of weather.
What these natural histories of the sky share, in spite of stylistic modifications and developements in the rhetoric of descriptive sincerity-- and the dogmas and transgressions of that rhetoric--, is a participation in a broad cultural project, the enlightement project, to collectively describe and test the parametres of Truth. Even in the early Wordsworth, the methodological project, the experiments in diction and address, the romance of the perceiving subject, are aligned with a sceptical conservatism concerned with the description and promotion of static, enduring values. We see, in the history of clouds, the shift from description as ontological figuration, to description as notation of situational modification and change-- the delimitation or formalization of cloud nomenclature permitted perception to begin to annotate patterns of temporality, rather than properties of objects. Clouds, in a sense were invented at the point when sincerity ceased being a rhetoric, as in Sprat, and submerged itself in the cultural ontology of Romanticism.
Yet in the small, named, quantified world of the description, temporal improprieties can be observed. Like a little weather demonstrating formal inexhaustibility, the empirical description is the site of its own transgression. So it is sincere, and it is a model of uninterpretability.
What I want to do is to infiltrate sincerity-- not to dissolve it in sceptical critique, but to lift it from its maudlin imprisonment, return to it the rhetorical play of idiom, of scale, enjoy its identificatory intensities and climates as conditions or modifications that pass over the face. I am a spy.
The history of meteorology shows that the idea of "the weather" has consistantly been appropriated to a dominant status quo. In the enclopediac empire of taxonomies weather gained a scientific nomenclature. In the culture of warfare, forcasting was absorbed into governmental budgets. In the incipience of the nation state, as governments gained economic interests in aviation and agribusiness, the weather became a department of government. At the same time weather's everyday rhetorical status as commonplace, as phatic utterance, assured that the sociology of weather appears as nature.
Part of what I want to ask of the rhetoric of weather, is what other ideologies may it absorb? May I cause the weather to absorb the wrong ideologies? The issue is not to defamiliarize the language of weather, but to appropriate its naturalizing function to a history, an utterance, which is delusional insofar as it is gendered. A wild dream of parity must have its own weather and that weather will always have as its structure an inexhaustible incommensurability.
I'm interested in sincerity. Its usually invoked as a stoical value, a holy humanness. Moral and national weight attends it. I'm interested in studying sincerity because I want and don't want it. I mean, I want to be believed. But I also want to write through spaces that are utterly delusional. I need to be able to delude myself, for as long as it takes, as long as it takes to translate an emotion, a grievance, a politics, an intoxication, to a site, an outside. Sincerity says that identity is moral. I need it to be a tent, not a cave, a rhetoric, not a value. There's also the fact that my sex is a problem within sincerity. I want to move on. I want a viable climate. I'll make it in description.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Daniel Y. Harris has composed a wild poetic drama through realms of eros and spirituality. His writing is simultaneously playful and profound, transmuting ancient symbols and concepts into a contemporary wisdom, heretofore unknown in poetry

James Reich - Giving voice to one of the most enigmatic characters in the literary canon, Reich presents meticulous and controversial solutions to the origins, mystery and messianic deterioration of Mistah Kurtz: company man, elephant man, poet, feral god

Anne Boyer - a book of mostly lyric prose about the conditions that make literature almost impossible. It holds a life story without a life, a lie spread across low-rent apartment complexes, dreamscapes, and information networks, tangled in chronology, landing in a heap of the future impossible