By Ella Longpre
Nilling, Lisa Robertson’s book of essays, reassures us with a declarative statement: “I read to sense the doubling of time.”
When I first read this essay, Time in the Codex, Robertson’s study of the public and private and “subversive” act of reading, I was reminded of why I started reading. As a practice or way of living. When I was very young. Beyond, attempting to read a book about dinosaurs aloud to my fellow kindergardeners– and failing– but why I started spending weekends in the hallway in front of our bookshelf at home, reading dusty black-clothed books on
the history of the British monarchy
findings at Vesuvius complete with black and white photographs of clay shards
the Minoan snake goddess
outdated anatomy (including a terrifying volume with a body on the cover: part skin, part skeleton, part muscle).
The placement of the books– relegated to the hallway– concerned me: not because I was constantly being stepped on or over. But because the placement of the books was spatial proof that no one else in the house (between 7 and 9 people) ever seemed to look at them.
Lisa Robertson examines this seeming sacrifice of bodily comfort, for the sake of reading, in her poems as well as essays–
“If I sit at my desk in my big coat, it’s because words are cold” (Robertson)–
and this seeming sacrifice is often a front: because the body profits, too. From reading.
Lisa Robertson read to us, on Friday, February 7, at Naropa University. To start her weekend with us, that included a teaching practicum, intensive conversations with students, and a lecture on Monday. I live-tweeted Robertson’s reading on Friday, and was joined by co-tweeter Bhanu Kapil during the lecture: you can find our attempts at archiving here: https://twitter.com/JKS_Naropa
Unfortunately, I lost my notebook Friday night. With my notes on Robertson’s reading. For the purpose of this review. But it seems strange, anyway, to “review” what happened on Friday night– because, as I quoted Robertson above, “words are cold.”
This is not to say that they don’t electrify us, too. Or inform our bodies, in the form of a poem, which, as Robertson read, “is a hormone.” Robertson read about melancholy, too– and grief, which holds us with the “four legs of an animal.”
Along with new poems and work from her forthcoming Cinema of the Present, Robertson read an essay from Nilling on the sculptor Eva Hesse: “Form,” she states. “It’s because there are consequences.”
Lisa Robertson’s oscillation between forms– from poem, to essay, to poem again– indicates the poetic intricacy with which she approaches the essay, the textual immersion and exploration beneath the surface of her poems. For Robertson, inquiry seems to operate on a sacred level in essay as well as poem. This particular use of the term sacred is not precious, but the most accurate term I can conjure for what Robertson brings to scholarly research — which, Robertson stated Monday night, she approaches “intuitively.” This particular use of the term intuitive does not denote any lack of rigor but Robertson’s trust in literature and history to point her to where she needs to double herself next– whether that’s re-performing Atget’s Paris, or studying Keppler’s laws of motion.
Andrea Rexilius, in her powerful and precise introduction of Robertson’s reading, quoted Robertson: “How can I develop a description that moves?” Lisa Robertson continues to pursue animation– of words that, we know, grow heavy and cold when dormant. We thank her for spending a weekend with us– reminding and encouraging us, not to prod these words, at arm’s length, to wake them up to warm them– but to dress in the skin of them, or hold them, or at least treat them like living, trembling things.
Ella Longpre is an MFA candidate at the Jack Kerouac School. She is a writer and musician. Her work appears in the ether. You can find her at ellalongpre.tumblr.com