Pauline Butling / On Lisa Robertson’s “A Foundering”

on LISA ROBERTSON:  A “foundering”

The current TCR begins with two poems by Lisa Robertson followed by a thirty page Interview with Lisa by Ted Byrne. As well, out-takes from the interview are posted in the on-line version of the issue. There’s a lot to chew on and enjoy in all this, but here I want to pick up on Lisa’s account of her feminist formation in the late 1980s and early 1990s while she was associated with the Kootenay School of Writing.

In response to Ted Byrne’s question about the relationship between her “polemical feminism” and the KSW’s Marxist orientation, Lisa explains that she disagrees with the notion that “feminism … might be inherent, or cease to be problematic, in a more evolved Marxist discourse.” She and other young women writers associated with the KSW at that time realized that they needed a polemics of their own to sustain their work and to counter their role as sex objects. She explains, “when you’re a young woman, when basically you’re just being eroticized by everybody around you, because that’s your function as a young woman, to be the cultural Eros that can’t be anywhere else, and that’s all that people really want you to be, and you’ll to come to an event and look sexy, or say something sexy […] you know you’ve got to be something different” (“Not the KSW Again” Interview out-takes)

Being “different” for them meant developing distinct feminist writing practices, not defaulting to a feminist essentialism, even a strategic one.

History note: Naming themselves “Giantesses,” Robertson, Stewart and Strang formed the Barscheit Nation, started Barscheit magazine, and issued a Giantess manifesto:

1. Dissensual language is a machine of enchantments
2. This machine, with all its anachronisms, is a means of locomotion toward polysexual futures
3. Wrenched history is our machine’s frontier.

Lisa mentions Catriona Strang, Christine Stewart, and Nancy Shaw as her compatriots, though Shaw was not a Barscheit editor. They and several other young woman later associated with KSW first met in a writing workshop offered by KSW.

In hindsight the “Barscheit Nation” project seems exemplary on several fronts. As well as claiming public space for feminist work (i.e. starting a magazine), their focus on the liberating potential of “dissensual language” directs attention to the link between ideology and language, while their polemics inspires action. I’d call it ‘creative deconstruction’ if that terms wasn’t so tied to capitalism. Perhaps “creative dissensualism”?

* * *

Which brings me to Lisa’s “Duet” of two poems in the current TCR, in particular the “Song” of Venus. Here she takes on the Botticellian image of Venus rising up from the sea to become the gold standard of female beauty. The poem begins with the exact opposite—a trashy, “indigent Venus” sporting a “thrifted peignoir” but who is nevertheless part of the whole Venus package (i.e. “indivisible” and “incommensurate”).

Sang indigent Venus with shimmering wet-data
Venus robed in thrifted peignoir
Indivisible Venus of colonial backwater
Incommensurate Venus in zoological foray with requisite miniature dialectics
Plus bibliophilia

Also the first line echoes even as it redirects Milton’s invocation, “Sing Heav’nly Muse” at the start of “Paradise Lost.” Robertson’s Venus is no goddess or muse. She’s a fallen angel who puts on many guises. She’s a “freelancer and a renter,” she’s an object of marketing, a creature of excess, a style, a body, an icon, an acute observer, a passive object. At the end of the poem all of the above and more come together to form a “vast glittering brocaded fabric” that she hoists to conceal her from the totalizing iconography.

Here is a vast glittering fabric brocaded with all the forms of life
The whole formidable apparatus
Bucking and flapping
With the help of this fabric
I want mostly to hide from totality
And have the sea be my emotion
Free, generous and serious
Like the asymmetry of compassion.

What strikes me about this poem, however, is not so much its theme of dissent and liberation, compelling as it is. I’m interested in its “dissensual language” and “wrenched history,” to repeat two key phrases from the Barscheit Manifesto. The poem proceeds via disjunction and collage, dissociative leaps and abrupt segues that verge on incomprehensibility (“I hardly saw anyone moving in the streets. [/] Was it my bed or my sleep, that whale”). Words jostle and tumble down the line in harmonic and semantic play that loosens meanings from their traditional moorings. Lisa takes full advantage of the ambiguous noun/verb function of the English language to multiply meanings (“I dream a young girl”). Such language play churns up the surface and activates alternative semantic vectors. The subject is thereby, as Lisa says, “placed openly in a foundering”

It seems to me that in the now normative avant-garde critique of lyricism it’s assumed, strangely, that the subject is static and fixed, and that the expressive or lyrical language of the subject is very straightforwardly representing that fixity. But when I read the lyric poem I don’t see any of that fixity and what I experience as a reader is a blowing open of the subject. [….] I read the lyric poem as being shot through at every point vividly by history, as is the subject. And I feel that that reading experience brings that problematizing back into one’s own perception of one’s own subjectivity. So that in fact it’s a de-stabilization within the poem and within the reader’s relationship to the poem, and hence the reader’s relationship to their own subject formations. So for me the lyric poem is a profound and enduring historical practice that places the subject openly in a foundering (21).

In this particular poem, the subject founders on the shoals of iconography and history even as she moves toward a different future.

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