Lisa Robertson / The Cabins

Lisa Robertson



We were eighteen and clueless. It was 1979. We met a couple on the road and stayed with them in a free cabin near Golden. A cold river and a pebble beach. Sleeping bags on bare wood. The guy told us about another free cabin on Saltspring Island, how to find it in the woods off a backroad. We bought a VW van with the rest of our money, drove to the cabin and lived there. It had an old wood cookstove and an outhouse and we brought our water in plastic jugs from town in the van. We sat on sawed stumps. It was great. Our neighbours were draft dodgers, hippy philosophers, back-to-the-landers. This to me was glamour. I stayed, he didn’t. We sold the van. Then for several years I lived in a different cabin, also free, quite remote. A nine mile walk to town. No electricity or running water, a nearby springfed waterhole I walked to mornings with two five-gallon white plastic food industry buckets. Enameled tin basin to wash in, a funky wood-fired sauna overlooking the water. Silvery furniture built from drift wood. Old carpets insulating the floorboards. Crystals hanging in the windows, fir cones tumbling on the roof. It was a 1930’s cedar shack built by theosophists on a low bluff above the narrows, still with the original library and a mythic Remington typewriter for poems. Alexandra David Neel. Madame Blavatsky. Palm-reading manuals. HG Wells. Probably the same blankets too—big woolen quilts of bright hand-knitted squares sewn onto dark brown tweed. A couple of red Hudson’s Bay blankets. Those heavy blankets weighting my sleep.

Everyone lived in these cabins. I met a skinny faded girl at the market, she had a young son who took care of her it seemed. She was so burnt out on acid she couldn’t remember which cabins she had lived in. They would have each started as one room, then low pitched additions crept outwards. Woodsheds, summer kitchens, mudrooms, larders, saunas, guestrooms, all in greyed stained cedar and roll-roofing or shakes, nudging out past foxglove into forest. Sometimes just the tarpaper, then the project stopped.

What would be inside the cabins– the blankets, the books, time capsules of poems—Snyder City Lights Pound Ferlinghetti Ondaatje Phyllis Webb Existentialism Howl Germaine Greer The Golden Notebook definitely Genet Alan Watts Daisetsu Suzuki Susan Sontag, but also old fabrics everywhere, bleached out chintz curtains the flowers barely visible bright Guatemalan weaving and Peruvian knitted shoulder bags painted malas Afghani blouses bunches of feathers in cups jars full of rose hips sage grains nameless beans dried kelp a pantry of bottled apricots and blackberries and mysterious jam with faded labels, maybe it was theosophical jam, ropes knotted with rust metal hanging from arbutus sheep bells knocking against the old door scent of sandalwood and woodsmoke and keresene and apples a car battery running the tapedeck Van Morrison playing or the co-operative radio fundraiser broadcasting from Victoria bronze Buddha sitting in the rafters Singer treadle sewing machine rows of blue medicine bottles in a west window looking to sea old binder of brittle yellow paper where the memoirs of Hanuman had been typed by a stranger. A pot of peyote tea. A dulcimer. Gumboots by the door. Winter garden of kale and parsnips. Always the rain, the damp sweaters flecked with bark. Or entire summers dressed in only a sarong and sandals, Genet in a hammock, Proust on the shellbeach, a couple thousand dollars salted away from a season of planting trees. That was enough.

These days I can’t stop thinking about the cabins as I follow the occupy movement on the internet. I read Vila-Matas and Pierre Hadot in a low-rent stone house on the edge of fields in central France. I heat with wood. My neighbours are poor and are out ploughing or threshing til midnight. Everybody knows how to make something, and how to fix what they have. In a certain way capitalism has already left; the countryside’s emptied out, house prices keep dropping, no one can get a mortgage, the cars are old. Nobody’s visibly protesting, least of all the elderly communists who vehemently discuss the political necessity of violence over late afternoon coffee and pear tart at a scarred kitchen table. The stack of books growing as the light fades. They have brought a bowl of yard-apples as a gift. Protest here is inherent to living.

We lived that way then because we didn’t believe in money. It felt normal to risk becoming a poet—the cabin might have decided it.  It has turned out to be one long flight from real estate, towards interiors crammed with the detritus of resistance, the texts of resistance, and the foods.

Gloria Frym told me about Enrique Vila-Matas in an email this summer and so I looked him up. In an interview I can’t find again I read that that he experiences his own life as a parody. The moving to Paris to be young and poor and writing in a garret. That clicked. I did that. Even the earlier turn from adolescent utopian naivité now seems parodic, as if urban leftist Frankfurt school critique were more authentic or effective than rural utopia. As if the low-rent artist-run spaces smelling of stale beer and roach spray were not parody. As if the new light-box-like nauseous slickness had any other meaning. I start to feel everything as parody, including all of philosophy as its own parody, and definitely my entire life, not just a single part of it, or a phase. Now I feel ok about saying “my life” while knowing for certain it’s a kind of bauble reflecting other baubles and so on in a series. Hadot says that for the Hellenists, philosophy was never a discourse, it was a way of life, a way of moving counter to the city, a way of staying on the margins, a simplification.

What is being a poet if it’s not a parody? What good is it otherwise? Every poet dreams of wild implicit economies on the opaque side of legibility. We try to replicate them in poems and the efforts are flimsy and awkward, uncomfortable. That’s their dignity. The cabins, the basement suites, the garrets, the long crowded bar tables, the decaying houses of lost France, the MLA stale hotel room interviews: I’ve been an occupant my whole life.

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