Moving image, moving text, never past, look in mirror (repeat)

A review of Lisa Robertson's 'Cinema of the Present'

Cinema of the Present

Cinema of the Present

Lisa Robertson

Coach House Books 2014, 112 pages, $17.95, ISBN 978-1552452974

Lisa Robertson’s epic, nothing-quite-like-it Cinema of the Present reads and screens like its title. I daresay it is a textual film. On paper. But moving. You often hear about “poetic” or “text-films” but on film. But what about the opposite? Films on paper. After you’re done reading it you will feel like you’ve just watched a film. The images will come back to haunt and unhaunt you over and over. You’ll remember and then you’ll remember you just read a book, not a film. Robertson has written a majestic long-poem-film on paper that disrupts in real time our perception of the everyday — the subconscious thoughts, the thinking without thinking, the seeing without seeing — it’s all here, in intonating rhythm, making readers crack open the undercurrents of the seeming banality of normative life — and behold the wondrous thought-form journey to epiphany that Robertson takes us on.

To “read” (or view?) this book is not unlike (thrillingly) “reading” a film. It’s an astonishing feat — the book reads as a film that is always present, never past. You blink and the next line takes you to the next frame. A concrete, often surreal image appears and then a thought or feeling that you, the viewer, might have — in your subconscious — deduced from the image. Lines alternate between italics and normal type.

A gate made of photocopies, photographs, computer prints.

Irony was both your mother tongue and the intimate science of your future. (8)

Italic lines like the one above often feel like a dreamy film frame — purely visual. Then another line invokes feeling, mood, or thought. I felt gripped in my own private movie theater, reading but not reading, seeing but not seeing but imagining the images behind the words while reading, without thinking, but thinking. I was watching a text-movie-film in the eternal now — what an exhilarating ride.

It might sound easy — write a poem like a film script. While this long poem is not exactly a standard screenplay per se, the prospect of it reading as an experimental-poetic film script is exciting. To truly create a cinema of the present necessitates a reading of the present. Robertson has challenged our purported reality and has created lines that create images that create thoughts, all while feeling like film frames are rolling by. As with a real celluloid film rolling, I was hesitant to put the book down as it felt like pausing the film (which is not the best thing to do as the film might break or stretch or screech) and then when I picked it up again, I found myself “rewinding” the images to get back to my spot. To create a film out of words that are never past, only present so it’s never past (to channel Stein) is testament to someone with an extreme capacity of mental imagery. That is, like a director. Robertson has directed a film of words, and once you start reading you feel like you can’t stop the film.

Reading Cinema of the Present is like the book’s introductory quote by French structural linguist Emile Benveniste: “One must allow for chance discoveries always possible in this vast domain in which the investigation has not been systemically pursued.” Starting with its slow-build repetitious lines — in various manifestations — we experience chance discoveries in Robertson’s film poem. We haven’t systemically pursued them per se, except to pick up this book. Like the back cover image of a quote from the book — “your pronoun thus leaks” — a nod, perhaps, to Benveniste’s work on pronouns (and the distinction between with and without context) — you are driving this film. You are brought in with YOUs. Many yous. You are pulled along — not sure what’s in store, but the poem keeps shifting and turning in ways unexpected, even for poetry. It sounds and feels and reads like a traditional hymn, a slo-mo marching band tune, an experimental film, a record on loop.

Reading Cinema of the Present, like viewing a film — our eyes close — between the lines — like strips between frames; it’s reminiscent of avant-garde filmmakers like Dorsky, Frampton, Brakhage — each image or phrase resonates as a film frame, and something else is happening besides just the images. The images in Cinema of the Present make sense in their accumulation of individual “frames.” I was hooked from the first line, hypnotically. It all made sense in a seeming unsenseness, never felt past, because after all we are in the cinema of the eternal present. It’s not easy to pull that off. How do you keep writing and a reader always feeling in the present? The idea about the present is — is there any present? — as many thinkers before us have asked because once we recognize it’s present, it’s not. So it takes a Herculean effort to create, as Robertson has, a true version of the present via the cinema of words, in the present. Robertson’s line order makes readers feel as if they were thrust back into the moment, a present moment again and again and again, so nothing gets past (yes or no, pun intended), a perpetual present of presences is what Robertson keeps us in. I could reread this again and again like a favorite record and never get bored and constantly “see” new images, like a dream where I forgot the plot, but it’s there in my subconscious, and each new “seeing” pulls another memory or thought from the deep substructure of the brain.

This book mesmerizes from the beginning: as the reader begins to “get into” the poem, they are hit, visually and textually, with “gates” of every type — in between lines of images — and unlike any gates we have seen before. There is indeed an invisible gate before every book, whether we think we are unlocking a gate or not — before reading. As we start this “cinema of the present” we are confronted with “a gate made of photocopies, photographs, computer prints” (8) and “a gate made of photocopy” (8) (among many other gates) — which turn upside down of course the usual gates. When Robertson brings in the “you,” you are implicated. We start with a question for you, “What is the condition of a problem if you are the problem?” (5) and for the rest of Cinema of the Present, she proceeds to answer. We continue to encounter gates made with things you can “go through.” So is it a gate? — can we ever really go through a poem? Can it permeate us? What would it be like to go through a “gate made of photocopy?” — would all the words from the copies magically enter our heads?

Later we read, “all you wanted was a little bit of accurate description in which to disappear” (9). I felt I had disappeared in Cinema of the Present’s images, in the description. The “you” begins on page 10 and one of the earliest lines with it — “your face was pure query” (11) — is how I imagine the readers of this work. We come back to the pronoun — “an unbeknowing expands in your pronoun but it feels convivial” (11), and we see ourselves in Robertson’s images and mysterious, philosophical statements, and it feels a bit ominous, but also feels just right.

Certain lines meta-comment on the book itself and give it new meaning — “and then you recline against an image” (14) — reclining against this book of images, absorbing and falling into them with our own memories. And then “you were being internally photographed” (14), a line I love because it feels like what Cinema of the Present is about — each lined image or thought or feeling seems it could be something from our own internals. Then Robertson reminds us, cloyingly before you hang on too much to the above, “but you did not disappear to yourself” (15). The complicated notions of self — what is self, memory, nostalgia, déjà vu — are all tampered with here; indeed if the lines of the book could be a photographed chronicle of the subconscious, you would still be aware of who you are and wouldn’t disappear totally in the images.

What’s striking about Robertson’s cine-poem is its mix of language poetry without any of the annoyance or criticism that still occurs nowadays from poets scolding that form. Robertson also brings in everyday language that is deceptive in its simplicity. It’s not simplistic. But it’s as the title is, present. Not pretentious. Not only in the poet’s head, not the bad kind of dense. The good kind of density is here, and that will keep you grounded with the author’s images. She notices what photographers and filmmakers notice:

As for the scrappy parking-lot trees, you are full of tenderness for the feminine in them.

What’s natural, what’s social, what’s intuitive? (17)

And then, on the flip side, Robertson is acutely aware of, and comments on, the limitations of words:

As for the serial description …

You now no longer use better words. (17)

Yet words are used here, in serial description, but not as mere words, not as mere description — and succeed in something else — images, thoughts, feelings. Of course, Cinema of the Present is completely comprised of words vacillating between italics and regular text, and I hear sounds: echoes, second-guessing, persistent questioning. Cinema of the Present sounds like an orchestra of the undercurrents of the everyday. Further, Robertson writes:

At the edges of banality, there is sensing.

One out of three.

At the edges of sensing, no solution.

You had thrown yourself into risk without recognizing the act for what it was. (18)

This entire work could be a “sensing” — under seemingly banal images and thoughts: there’s “something” there. Have we guessed right? But when we sense, does it always bring an answer? Not always. You keep going and going. You continue on, whether thinking or not. We view the banal imagery that Robertson provides, but with her “sensing,” she makes it poetry. Such banality, in its accumulation, is not. What about all those parking lot trees we never paid attention to? Robertson asks, “how do you conserve the memory of these actions?” (27). Cinema of the Present’s treatment of memory is both subtle and front-and-center — like the poem itself — “how else do you construct a pause in cognition?” (28). This line suggests this poem itself is one entire pause in the quest of cognition of the world around us — wrap your head around that; a full poem is a pause — a moving pause — in the quest of cognition. Wow. Which leads me to another line —“and you had a conceptual sensation” (32) — which is the feeling I just had — which is what this entire poem leads you to when you finish. It blasts open any tidy definitions of the word “conceptual” in all of its untidiness. By the end of reading Cinema of the Present, “instead you’ll synthesize time” (33) and will have “left a wake of linguistic sillage” (39). 

I come back again and again while reading the book to: what would it mean to do a cinema of the everlasting present — where we never dip into the past? Does the past guide the present or factor at all? This is what Robertson’s lines eventually take me to, and it’s an ethereal feeling. Taking the ride into? Onto? Through? Robertson’s Cinema of the Present could be that extended moment in the form of a contemporary epic poem, that, I “saw” as a book-film. Robertson’s “cinema” is astounding in that it works as moments of images but also thoughts that the reader-viewer of such imagistic text can “see.”

Each line, each sequence seems to do away with preconceived notions of the image or thought or feeling presented. In the end, “memory and the present are not in opposition” (43). Robertson has managed to make both appear simultaneously without a glaring dichotomy, and it’s a trip. They are seamed as one, because aren’t we using memory all the time to be in the present, as oxymoronic as that sounds? The poem is both surface and depth, screen memory and memory. After all, “the present is all with you” (51). There’s an internal music here, a rhythm that loudly sounds in the-text-on-page-silence. You hear it and feel it and can imagine a gospel chorus singing the lines in italics, and a projector screening the images in lines between behind them. Being “in” this book, “you are thrown headlong into transcendent things” (53). That’s what these images are — not static, not solely concrete, but transcendent. By the end of the poem, I predict, “only the rhyme of discourse transforms you” (54).

By the time you are done with this book, it’s true — the everyday discourse has been made poetic and without you fully knowing it, you will have been transformed. At some point you might ask “what if language is already beyond itself?” (73). In a sense, this language goes beyond “just” language to something deeper than thoughts, deeper than “now.” You might find — “very simply like this you disappeared into the interval” (61) — that interval of suddenly understanding the words without thinking the words. In the end “you had wanted to believe that language needs us to witness its time” (59) — that is what we have done here with Cinema of the Present. What we are doing as readers and Robertson as a writer is “annotating the idea of a long elastic present …” (94).

I dare our fellow experimental film communities in Canada and the States to make a feature-length film solely from these lines. We’ll have a meta-meta textual film. A film that was text to begin with. Then a film existing from the film as text as final celluloid film. I even dare such filmmakers to resist using text in the celluloid film. Your mirrored cinema of Lisa Robertson’s Cinema of the Present. Moving image, moving text, never past, look in mirror, revelation (repeat). After all, Robertson says, “You think this place could be wordless” (90) — in the end we will be left with images and thoughts, no words: a cinema of the present.