Poet's prose

Robertson and Farr

Lisa Robertson’s Nilling (BookThug 2012) and Roger Farr’s IKMQ (New Star 2012) offer two very different examples of poet’s prose—but both books are enthralling reads, with deceptive depths hidden in their slim volumes. Robertson and Farr are also two writers I feel I have perhaps learned the most from, and been most deeply challenged by, as a poet, and I continue to read them, eagerly, as a friend, student, and interlocutor.

Robertson’s volume is a collection of seemingly occasional essays (for gallery catalogues, invited talks, and contributions to journals) which nevertheless hangs together nicely as a series of brief excursions into the social heart of language and the complex ways in which identity is both overdetermined and, in the clashing multiple forces of that overdetermination, allowed a clinamen’s swerve towards freedom. As we’ve come to expect, Robertson’s language is luxuriously lyrical and a pure pleasure to read, regardless of what she has to say (my summer reading this year has been Proust, and I so often find myself thinking, “I don’t care what any of this adds up to—these are just such good sentences!”). But there are real depths of thought here—form and content never leave each other for too long in this dance—and there is a wonderfully idiosyncratic drift in the direction of Robertson’s argument that does indeed read more like a novel than most essays we are used to now.

While I enjoy Robertson’s dressing-down of conceptualism in “7.5 Minute Talk for Eva Hesse,” in which she re-historicizes the practice, injecting gender, for one thing, so constraint becomes “a set of avoidances dictated by history, not a game of aesthetic affiliations,” her most stirring forays are, for me, a piece entitled “Lastingness: Réage, Lucrèce, Arendt,” and the most recent piece in the volume,  “Untitled Essay.”

“Lastingness” swerves amongst readings of its titular authors, exploring the process of readerly “nilling” (as opposed to “willing”—Robertson takes the concept from Arendt), by which a reader’s identity and agency is engaged as refusal and rejection. “[R]eaderly desire achieves its lastingness,” Robertson writes, “its pleasurable sense of suspended duration, in a complicitous nilling, a charged refusal.” She continues,

“As I understand Arendt, the will twists towards a consciousness of itself, away from instrumental agency, and into a stance of nilling. The will is split within itself, not between carnal and spiritual considerations, but between willing and nilling, which are co-determining drives.”

As a definition of agency—that we are as much engaged in moments of affirmation as we are in moments of rejection, that we will to do certain things, but just as importantly nill to not do others—I think this is quite significant, especially in the context of a culture which needs to start doing a lot less, and which has to find ways to embrace absences and the leaving alone of certain things (environments / resources). It’s also a re-polarizing of a gendered sense of agency, where the male will is countered by a female nill, not as passivity to his activity, but as an active refusal and abnegation of authority—a “sustained erotic anarchy.”

“Untitled Essay” comes out of Robertson’s research in recent years into linguistics—particularly the work of Emile Benveniste and Henri Meschonnic. To me, this is the most direct and forcefully argued (more will and nill) of Robertson’s critical writing—a radical move directly into charged intellectual debates around the politics of aesthetics and the nature of the linguistic sign. Everything I have read of Robertson’s on this subject, every talk I have seen her give, has sent me scurrying to my notebook. Each sentence seems a revelation and a “keeper.”

At the heart of Robertson’s analysis is the contention that all language is social, and that there is no simple binary of individual and collective, but rather, that language and the social are the dialectical interpenetration—through the address—of these discursive poles. “The ego is the one who linguistically addresses another, and it is only through this address that each, in a reciprocal entwining, may fashion herself as ‘I’.”

What is the role of the poem in all of this? Robertson speaks directly to my own understanding, and my own “poetics,” here. It’s a wonderful feeling, to find another writer articulating something you’ve been stumbling towards in the dark for years. Like a bird being named, whose song you’ve been listening to each dawn for decades, without ever identifying its source.

“The poem is the speech of citizenship. The poem distributes itself according to the necessity of subjects to begin, to begin speaking to anybody, simply because of the perception of continuous co-embodiment as the condition of language. This shaped speaking carries the breath of multiple temporalities into the present, not to protect or to sanctify the edifice of tradition, but to vulnerably figure historicity as an embodied stance, an address, the poem’s most important gift to politics.”

Roger Farr’s IKMQ is an entirely different foray into prose than Robertson’s—more fiction than essay, but with “theory” ever present in its atmosphere, and the lessons of the composition class as its “plot.” There’s also a great deal of humour here—I don’t know when I’ve laughed so much when reading a book of experimental literature.

And “experimental” is decidedly the right word in this instance (rather than “innovative,” which has been appropriated by capitalism and its marketing, or the seemingly historical term “avant-garde”): Farr conducts social and linguistic “experiments” which often read like logical “problems” to be solved.

IKMQ is divided into 4 sections (I, K, M, and Q), each with 16 discontinuous paragraph-long narratives, each of which features four “characters” named I, K, M and Q. Each paragraph begins with one of those characters in turn (so the first narrative starts with “I” doing something, the next begins with “K,” the third with “M,” etc., the fifth returning to “I,” and so on), while the first four sentences generally mention the four characters in order (so that “K” appears in the second sentence, “M” in the third—or if the narrative starts with “Q,” “I” appears in the second sentence, or is the object of something “Q” says or does, while “K” appears next, and so on). “I,” interestingly, always has the last word, thought, or action.

I, K, M and Q make bombs, drugs, and food (the recipes are very exact, with Farr’s text sometimes reading like a “how to” book), they film pornography (in which they are also the “actors”), break one of their number out of jail, blow up airplanes and participate in a riot. Not everything the four get into is this subversive (although they do seem to enjoy life outside the law): they also play word games, butcher pigs, go for a drive in a car, hold writing workshops, and make burgers in McDonald’s, amongst other things. They also hold meetings, carefully following Robert’s Rules, in a repeating series called “The Rules,” in which we are told that “Any performance which brings into full view the contours of a language game is of interest to this committee”—even, as in this context, if that “performance” is the plot of an episode of Three’s Company.

One of the funniest episodes (of IKMQ, not Three’s Company), “The Avant-Garde Never Gives Up,” will have to stand as an example. I will adumbrate it only slightly.

“I had writer’s block. K said there was no such thing as writer’s block and that the problem I had was a big ego. M agreed. Century after century of Private Citizen speaking to Public World bas become tiresome, Q said. The liberal, neo-Habermasian notion of a public world was a con, K said, never mind the epistemological dilemmas associated with the valorization of the private individual. Or the citizen, M added. What does that mean, I said. Try procedural writing, Q said.”

A description of Tzara’s famous dada cut-up experiment follows. Then—

“That’s already been done, M said. Then write a story without the letter E. Done. Take an existing text like Paradise Lost, and cross parts out, Q said. Done, M said. Use the Fibonacci sequence as a compositional device. Done. Alphabetize responses to the Rorschach inkblot test. Done. Done, done, done, M said. What about a story without the letter I, Q said. K looked at M. Impossible, I said.”

This is fun in so many ways, not the least of which for its gentle send up of the avant-garde. But the concluding punch line (if much of the avant-garde has been a critique of the bourgeois subject and an attempt to displace the lyric “I,” well, of course the character “I” is against this!) also points in important directions for reading Farr’s text.

Regardless of the nature of the particular games and problems being played with throughout, and regardless of the fact that “I,” ironically (or inescapably?), gets the last word in each of the text’s 64 paragraph/narratives, this is a book about the social nature of the language situation (much as Robertson argues in “Untitled Essay”). There is a lot of activity, and a lot of talking, in IKMQ, and it is always social in nature, collaborative, and dependent upon “mutual aid” (as one of the paragraphs is titled). I, K, M and Q are not so much “characters” (they betray no stable identities, aside from their propensity to engage in subversive actions and their interest in language games) as the focal points for collaborative undertakings in and through the linguistic situation. The real “subversion” here is just the reminder that “I” is always a participant in a collaboration, always dependent upon the mutual aid of others.

A final note. This will be my penultimate “commentary.” While I have enjoyed writing these pieces very much, I generally find the writing of critical prose…torturous. In part it’s because, in current global circumstances, poetry once again feels like a “social act” in the world, but critical prose…not so much. However, it’s texts like Robertson’s and Farr’s that re-engage me with the possibilities of critical prose—in part because these are anything but “normative” examples of disciplinary circumspection. They are commodious (to use a favorite word of Robertson’s) refusals and shape-shifting experiments. Their authors remain two of my key instructors.