'Do it like this'
Lisa Robertson's '3 Summers'
One must swim in language and sink, as though lost, in its noise, if a proof or a poem that is dense is to be born. — Michel Serres
I want pause in vocation. Venus
chatoyant in the formal dream
please tranquilize efficient Mars and his
efficient interests. Do it like this: — Lisa Robertson
In her 2012 book of prose essays, Nilling, Lisa Robertson cites Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind at length. Robertson says, “for Arendt, thinking resembles tracking, a kind of place ‘beaten by the activity of thought,’ which turns to ploddingly follow a course towards a pause.” Robertson’s book also addresses the possibility of recess: “I want pause in vocation,” begins a passage from “On Physical Real Being and What Happens Next,” where the pause represents a space that deep thinking can take (43). Her affinity with Arendt, here and elsewhere, illustrates the intellectual demeanor of Robertson’s work, and also opens up a way into her new book of poems, 3 Summers. This new collection, like Arendt’s meditations on thinking, attempts to “claim a utopian space for thought.” Like Arendt warned of the dangers of the unthinking subject or the absence of thinking, Robertson’s new collection asserts the power and importance of a critical and inquiring mind. 3 Summers is, in and of itself, a form of protest and place of resistance against the “tiny battered civilizations” (25), or the “old men’s docile gadgetry” — “I don’t buy it,” she adds (10).
This is my first extended encounter with Robertson’s poetry, and so I gravitated towards her prose in search of an entry point (and Robertson’s prose is a pleasure to read). Having done so, I have the feeling that some of the ideas that sustain her new collection of poems — language, form, the status of thought in a neoliberal era, the (female) body, the patriarchy, Lucretius, to name a few — are evident in these earlier essays. They have — as good ideas are wont to do — been cogitated and ruminated upon over the years since, and they come to be instantiated in this new collection with her usual integrity and piercing intellect.
In her essay “Lastingness: Réage, Lucrèce, Arendt,” Robertson quotes Arendt on the human drive, or the “will,” where Arendt argues, “the body is no more than an executive organ of the mind.” This is perhaps where Robertson departs from Arendt’s thinking; for Robertson, the female body is — contrary to Arendt’s psychic “organ” — the way of, the way through, and the way with language and linguistics. The body is the place in which otherwise “invisible” or “imperceptible” thought, the “no-place of the mind,” finds outward expression. The body is also the locale of desire, “women’s erotic intelligence,”  and the body-in-thought, for Robertson, signifies a coming into being (aka Arendt’s “natality”). Here, corporeality and the “hormonal forest” (57) reposition the body as the starting point of thought, rather than resigning it as secondary to the thinking mind, à la Decartes. From “The Middle”:
What can really begin?
Because time in the body is awesome
and skepticism fragile
this would be a wealth:
with supple amplitude
to breathe impersonal
in hormonal forest
not discriminating as to the cause
the rain making a tiny draft of coolness
which fans the problem of solitude. (57)
This “hormonal forest” features in several guises throughout the collection (“this work will be called the linguistics of the hormone”; “the poem is a hormone” ; “Everything will be a hormone”). The hormone here signifies the imperceptibility of process, something that governs from “the middle” but cannot be seen. But Robertson seems to want the hormone to be made perceptible, to be externalized and utilized by the thinking body — “I began to bark through the door of my body” (54) — and to use this as a point of departure from the Cartesian tradition: “Unmotivated by any bodily movement / Marx finds in Lucretius the defiant probability. // The I-speaker / on her silken rapture / spills into history” (44). Venus pops up now and again, in conversation with Marx and Lucretius, in all her “silken rapture”: “go Venus go vernal go turning go / darling by folding sky by buoyant kiss” (42). Meanwhile, the poet takes Marx to bed, literally — “I lie in bed and read Marx” (42, 70). Lucretius gets lost in translation; “On Physical Real Being and What Happens Next” contains a collection of translated first lines from introductions to English translations of Lucretius’s De rerum natura.
While the “problem of solitude” haunts some of 3 Summers, Robertson seems to try to upend the binary of self and other. The I, and the I’s body, in these poems is neither alone nor in company, but rather exists in a kind of atemporal transliteration. This rendering of timelessness (“only time is style” ; “Duration isn’t singular” ) seeks to exemplify the kind of ongoingness or borderlessness of a utopian body — “what can really begin?” From the middle of “The Middle”:
The work will be called the linguistics of the hormone.
As for the completely human and dandiacal gland, trans-corporeal
it became literature
and the body is impersonal, in contradiction
which is form. (64)
This borderlessness is mirrored by the rhythm and enjambment in some of these poems, particularly “On Form,” which ekes out both the breath and the linguistic imagination of the reader and brings to mind something of Stein’s continuous presence. Completely empty of punctuation, this seven-page poem is a kind of formal tirade with form, both poetic and bodily, at its core. Here’s an excerpt, or a kind of effort to pause the rolling stone:
fox a foxtail a lizard as psoas
a small flask of modern oil at the throat
the repeat carries between bodies
what’s made in this space are theories
and thymus a rising of beneficial
smoke as thorax as guitars the hairs
exact and between bodies form’s
not ever without stupendous body
so the repetition is never exact
this is why form is always learning
as it moves across surfaces as
on the cleft above the lips to be
repetition is never exact this is why
form is learning or becoming or how (33)
There is so much body in here and elsewhere in the book. Here, there’s the thorax and throat and lips and hair and psoas feature; elsewhere there’s a whole lot more: spleen, limbs, eyes, liver, tongue, vertebra, saliva, cunt, lesion, gland, rectum, anus, sphincter. The body as material for approaching the world, and the body as material through which the world approaches.
At the same time, the body has only language through which to speak. While Robertson’s poems play and luxuriate in the inherent (im)possibilities of language, pushing meaning to its edges and exploding syntax, turning the lyrical tradition on its head time and time again (and towards the “lyrical conceptual”), one can also taste the deep level of distrust of language that echoes through this collection. She seems to be saying, like Arendt before her (who, in The Life of the Mind, quotes Hegel, saying, “the This of sense … cannot be reached by language”), that while language can get us somewhere, it will only get us so far. All these names for body parts, all these various efforts at translation, are only an attempt to get at a language — or any system of communication — that might illustrate the ongoingness or borderlessness of actual existence. And the language that she uses to get at this ongoingness is already, at its heart, deeply patriarchal; it is about naming, attributing signs to meaning, rather than exploring the complexities of an emotionally attuned and nuanced existence — the “hormonal forest,” so to speak.
The incredible thing is that she pulls it off: she manages to use this inherently problematic system of signification to rally ideas of a dimension that lies beyond it. Her poetry is agrammatical, four-dimensional, and throws the flawed Cartesian mind-over-body narrative that has dominated our intellectual landscape for several hundred years off its central axis. Robertson’s 3 Summers picks up the masculine baton of the lyrical and philosophical traditions (naming a litany of men that have dominated this intellectual history, in no particular order: Swinburne, Ovid, Nietzsche, Tennyson, St. Jerome, Marx, and last but not least, Lucretius) and she uses it to carve out a “hormonal forest” amongst the “indexical work” (66), amidst the “immunity” of the “political economy” (15). The poet reads Marx in bed because “an obscure object lives in me”; she declares she is “sick of language / cut radiant gentle and frank / little angle of dissolved rhyme” (70). Robertson has Venus and Aphrodite tussle with Marx and Lucretius. And with a further swipe towards the insidiousness of late capitalism or neoliberal economics, she adds: “what if language is the suppression / of vitalist co-movement / by the military-industrial complex? / What if language is the market?” (70). There is an air of conspiracy about some of the lines that might thrill even the most politically pessimistic in us. If language is the market, then John Cage was probably right: syntax is the army.
By way of final comparison, and in fitting with the mention of Cage, I turn here to an essay in Nilling. In “Disquiet,” Robertson muses on soundscapes and noise, the “multiply layered sonic indeterminacy that is the average, fluctuating milieu of dailiness.” She writes beautifully on listening and noise, on listening to noise, and after reading 3 Summers, it comes as no surprise that she has already turned her hand to this subject matter. There are so many crossovers between her work and the contemporary wave of noise music and avant-garde listening practices, initially sparked by Cage and his contemporaries so many years ago. Noise is “time’s excess,” says Robertson, and it “exceeds its own identity.” She could be commenting on her own poetry when she says: “[noise] has no meaning at the same time that it signifies an excess of signification; meaning becomes so dense and continuous that it transforms into field, having previously functioned as figure.” Further on in this essay, she claims that she would like to “frame noise,” to articulate it. In 3 Summers, I think this is precisely what she does. This is not to say that her work is dominated by chaos or “garbage” as her own definition of noise encompasses. Noise entices the listening ear to think about the commodification of sound in the culture industry, and the possibilities that lie beyond fixed meaning and the nonsemiotic, which is, to my mind, what Robertson’s new collection of poetry also does. Her work hovers in nonmeaning inasmuch as it “transforms” our sense of knowing into a feeling of unknowing, and where that unknowing can lead to a deeper, richer, and ultimately healthier engagement with the world around us. It uproots our complacency with empirical (and patriarchal) frameworks, and urges us to question the foundations of those systems. 3 Summers borders on sense and meaning; it is not “meaningful” in that it provokes an insight or a message. Rather, it provides a way through and with language. Like noise offers a way of thinking about the world through sound, 3 Summers offers a way of thinking about the world through language. One cannot ask: what does this mean? Instead, it makes more sense to ask: how does this mean? It means through and with: language.
A friend said to me recently that Robertson’s work is “a can of compressed carefulness.” As such, it is notoriously hard to get a hold of. This book is no less so. The skepticism or near-conspiracy that underpins Robertson’s deeply political and timely collection is both a slap in the face and a call to arms. 3 Summers requires reading and rereading. It demands that you turn off your Twitter feed, put your phone in the other room, stop looking down the wormhole of political and social platitudes and narcissistic demands for attention. In an age of increasingly populist, vacuous, and unthinking cultural and political value systems, Robertson’s work is absolutely vital. 3 Summers demands us to think: do it like this.
14. In his introduction to Playing with Signs: A Semiotic Interpretation of Classical Music, V. Kofi Agawu makes a similar argument, that musicological studies should look at how music means, rather than what it means (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).