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For over a decade now, each new book Lisa Robertson turns out is a notable departure from what’s come before, distinct in style and subject matter. But while the stuff of Robertson’s writing continually changes, her methods are identifiably her own. In each project, she occupies and unsettles a system of knowledge and the subject at its center—from the eclogue’s pining shepherd (in XEclogue, 1993) to the Virgilian epic hero (Debbie: An Epic, 1997) to the 19th-century citizen-scientist’s taxonomy of clouds (The Weather, 2001). Robertson writes both from within and against the tradition—splitting, seeding, and suturing the cracks in each ideational edifice. “We must become history’s dystopic ghosts,” she has argued, “inserting our inconsistencies, demands, misinterpretations, and weedy appetites into the old bolstering narratives.” Her occupations with past forms lead not to a backward-looking poetry but forward to a fresh field of inquiry, an imaginatively created utopia.
In Robertson’s latest book, the title lays the work’s “fabulous problem” right out. The Men sets its sights on the Western lyric tradition of Petrarch and Guido Cavalcanti, a tradition that established the male I as the chief subject of poetry. “Pronouns are always a problem,” Robertson says in an interview published in Chicago Review. “Whatever pronoun a work is organized around, you have to trouble.” But while her past books have troubled shes and wes with great abandon, there is no pronoun as perniciously fixed as the I, and Robertson knows it. Halfway through the book, she calls this “the most difficult task I have undertaken.” The lyric moves in a single direction from the physical (eye) to the metaphysical (I). As the homophones pun (too irresistibly in English for anyone’s good but Shakespeare’s), they emphasize the slippage between the two qualities. But the movement from eye to I occurs in Italian and Provençal as well. You can read it in the first lines of Cavalcanti’s first sonnet: “You, who do breach mine eyes and touch the heart / And start the mind from her brief reveries . . .” (Ezra Pound’s translation). The eyes, through which we look out, become the way of looking within. When the eyes are breached, the self is breached. As a poet, a speaking subject, Robertson is drawn to this male I despite her awareness of being “other” to it: “Each of us psycho-sexually is a man, dreaming and convulsing, plunged into some false Africa manically like a poet.” This is Robertson’s take on Africa-bound Arthur Rimbaud’s “Je est une aûtre”: she is having her I and laughing at it too.
While lyrics develop in a back-and-forth motion of sight-based desire and its frustration, this tidal action is traditionally part of a larger narrative arc that leads from the profane to the sacred, the mortal to the immortal. For Petrarch et al., this journey ends in the male speaker’s liberation (and immortality). The beloved serves merely as sexy bait to draw the poet forward out of his sleep of complacency. But where does Petrarch’s arc, Western lyric’s foundational activity, leave us today? “It will appeal to me always,” Robertson writes. “But men ran his ship ashore.” It may have been a glorious voyage, but the lyric tradition doesn’t float in the same conceptual ocean it once did. Now, there is no heaven outside the physical earth, no subject so firmly gendered as the heroic, male I. As Robinson says in her third book, The Weather, “I am but a movement in grammar.” That “but” is sweet, yet more than “mere.” Robertson is utterly, eloquently, beautifully curious about documenting the I in its motion and the landscape in which this motion occurs. “We have fallen into a category,” she continues in The Weather. “Love subsidized our descent.”
There is an unmistakable lust at work in The Men, the earthly sexual stuff that has always given lyric, however high-minded, its initial sproing: “Trashy sweet brain adoring and adoring them. / Amazement ejecting form like a gland, trashy. / . . . This is where I speak from the juicy mouth of a man or boy devotedly saying I am, I am, and it is a song.” Petrarch gazed at Laura across a public square. Dante followed Beatrice at a respectable distance. But Robertson dives right into her men. She puts her mouth right to their shirts and her tongue to their sweat: “And their shirts are sweet / And their sweat bitter: / Just delicious.” She is unabashedly physical and calls a cock a cock: “The men’s / Cocks / And their faces… / Fall upwards.” This is Dante’s motion as he descends through Hell only to pop out the other side and, drawn by Beatrice, find himself falling up, headed to heaven.
Robertson is changing the game, of course, by focusing on the male rather than female beloved, but just as significant is her shift from singular to plural—by writing of “men” rather than a man, she keeps our eye on the gender category rather than drawing us into a seemingly biographical pop song about a boy and a girl. Robertson thus makes evident what lyrics have always done, whether they’re written by Petrarch or sung by Kelly Clarkson; Laura and Beatrice function for Petrarch and Dante more as icons of womanhood then as flesh-and-blood people. The Men addresses this directly: “If . . . I Laura never died, if I Hazel never wept, if I understood the sentences in the form of the world, if all the falsity remained internal to beauty, my juicy mouth would want to say just these things.” Robertson teases readers caught looking here for some male version of Laura: “They are ten men // Named Phil and Jeff / In September.”
But The Men does not merely dismiss biography, or story. It toys with it, occasionally slipping into sense memories while simultaneously questioning them and the feelings they summon: “Their cabins smelling of cedar, roughness of red blankets, splinters of music—this is incorrect because it sounds like a movie. But the men were ordinarily sexual . . . What I’m feeling is the seizure of language . . . Everything I can remember about summer is the men.”
While the memories dodge back and forth, the book’s speaker remains at one point, age 39. “Men,” she says over and over again, “I’ m 39.” Yet, rather than reinforcing the speaker’s age, the repetition destabilizes it. Why the insistence? Is there some doubt? Are all these memories mere nostalgia? What does it mean that she is 39, and not 38 or 43? There is a larger underlying question here, one that Robertson poses in her recent “Journal” for the Poetry Foundation’s Web site: “What is a category and how is it constituted?” It turns out to be a liberating question: “Seeking a universal thoroughness, the index or catalogue must always fail. This is its huge attraction for me.” Where category fails, lacunae appear as points of departure. While freedom for Cavalcanti starts at the moment his eyes are breached, for Robinson it starts when the I is.
But this is not merely a rhetorical book. The thinking is made, supported, undone and regrown through the beautiful sound her lines make. Robertson’s keen sense of sound and rhythm is a hallmark of her work, even as her style shifts so dramatically from the more elaborate syntax of XEclogue to the plain subject-verb-object construction of the The Weather. She sings with the same voice she thinks with. It is this combination that allows her to so successfully occupy the site of lyric—as one both drawn to it and troubled by it, inside and outside, a dystopic ghost with weedy appetites.
Turn to the first page, and you’ll immediately hear how Robertson sets up the book as much with sound as with ideas: “Men deft men mental men of loving men all men / Vile men virtuous men same men from which men . . .” The lack of punctuation makes the inherent rhythm only more evident in the pounding spondees, sputtering ms, and halting caesuras. The telegraph would read (with capitalizations to indicate emphasis): “MEN [stop] DEFT MEN [stop] MENtal MEN [stop] of LOVing MEN [stop] ALL MEN.” The rhythm makes evident the “men” in “mental,” and with it the old bugaboo that thought is masculine and feeling is feminine. In an introduction to Cavalcanti, Pound argues, “The perception of the intellect is given in the word, that of the emotions in the cadence.” But the intelligence alive in Robertson’s rhythm leaps across Pound’s distinctions.
Sound is integral, also, to the way Robertson makes light of her own ideas. Seven lines into the book, the ms are replaced by a Latinate procession of ps: “Previous palpability from which / The problematic politics adorable . . .” This is the intellectual starting point for the book—how the “previous palpability” of the poet’s eye becomes the “problematic politics” of the exclusively male I. But you can’t ignore—and Robertson knows this—how ridiculous all those ps sound. The problem becomes “adorable.” In that one word we hear how skilled Robertson is at eliciting several tones at once. “Adorable” is rooted in the spiritual adoration that drives the lyric self toward God through the beloved, but as we use it today it is a word that tends more toward kittens and fluff. The contemporary usage minimizes the tradition’s spiritual drive and humanizes it, cuddling up to it girlishly as if to say, “Aren’t you a cute tradition!”
The final sounds of this section swerve to the s: “Young men of sheepish privilege becoming / Sweet new style.” The three fully stressed syllables of this last line contrast utterly with the first line’s sputtering delivery, working quickly, confidently, without caesura. As this first page ends (one line short of a sonnet’s 14), the “Sweet new style” launches us into the meat of the book.
Robertson’s men, all told, are “concerned,” virtuous,” vile,” preamble,” trashfuck,” remorseful,” lawyerly,” noble,” and “dainty. ” In striking contrast to the beloveds that historically have spurred lyric, these men are no one thing and encompass no single function—though they touch on points erotic, politic, economic, and aesthetic. That is, these guys are all over the map. Rather than drawing the speaker on a two-pointed journey from physical to metaphysical, the men exist as a space, a charged field around her. “Humanly,” she says, “they are architectures.” The Men, the category, breaks into men: “Astonished, weakened, nuzzling. The men are as heavy as smoke. I glance through them.” What she makes for us in that glance is a new kind of space made out of the same old adorable words.
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