Thinking Space: The Ellipse: Lecture by Allen Ginsberg Visiting Fellow Lisa Robertson, February 10, 2014

By Jennifer van Alstyne

Lisa walks up to the stage and sits behind the table. She says Bhanu Kapil’s introduction was “fabulously intimidating.” The talk is called “thinking space” but it’s really about gesture. She begins reading.

Lisa Robertson builds us an architecture for her talk, fashions us rooms and gives them names. She talks about purpose as both tangible and abstract thing – mutable, changeable.  This becomes then a mix of observation, intellectualization, and dream. All of which is accompanied by projected images. She speaks of the tireless investigator, the prophetic dream, and then carries us on her path through these rooms. She finds the pagan gesture in Botticelli’s Venus. We’re talking about flow, movability, image as nachtlaben.

The Warberg Mneosyne panels only exist as photo negatives now.

Documentation. Tropes of renewal and life in motion. Active sites of experimental thinking. “Tables” as a horizontal theme of collaboration. The table as ritual space of the magical thinker and the scryer. Also, as non-hierarchical workspace.The ellipse, in Lisa’s talk, becomes a space for thinking which soon moves to Keppler and the law of ellipses. A group of smaller scale cognitive shifts.

On the white board, Lisa creates, for us, an ellipse. A circle has one center. An ellipse has two focai. She shows the triangular effect.

“This is a drunken ellipse.” An ellipse is not an oval which is two circles joined versus two centers movable. Most interesting, perhaps, is that Kepler’s papers were found in an attic trunk many years after his death. Russia’s, Catherine II, exchanged jewels for the papers.

The first edition was published between 1858 and 1871.

Lisa Robertson took us into a world of physics, ellipses, and research. She showed us how interest beyond literary, beyond even Earth, could spark interest for a collection of poetry.


Jennifer van Alstyne is an MFA candidate and fellow at the Jack Kerouac School. She is the poetry editor of Bombay Gin. Her work has appeared in the Eunoia Review, MLM, Poetry Quarterly, The Monmouth Review, The Foundling Review, and Paper Nautilus. She is currently working on a collection about Hurricane Sandy and Asbury Park, NJ.