Permanent Transience

Lisa Robertson’s Boat works against the certainties much poetry strives to achieve.
Illustration of a beached yellow boat with holes in it. Boards lay in the sand nearby. A full moon is visible in the background, along with palm fronds and plants.

Let’s begin at the end—not at the last poem but at the note that follows. There, as the final gesture of Lisa Robertson’s Boat (Coach House Books, 2022), is a memoriam that is also a kind of dedication: “In memory of the poet Peter Culley, who during a walk in Cambridge in 1999 advised me that it was time for my middlevoice, and Etel Adnan, who died in Paris in November 2021, as I was completing this manuscript.” There is much I love here: book of poems as eulogy; book of poems as epitaph; the quiet sense in which any given poet’s deepest work—though maybe it’s truer to say a certain kind of any given poet’s deepest work—is a continuation of another’s voice; ending a book on the word manuscript, implying somehow that even the finished work is but a work in progress. But Peter Culley’s advice is most on my mind as I think back over the whole: to find a “middlevoice.” The word evokes Dante’s dark woods—the dark woods of middle age. More deeply, it speaks to an ancient grammar that modern English doesn’t possess. In ancient Greek, there is a middle voice. It marks a moment most poetic because it is most paradoxical, when the action of a verb is performed against itself. Some verbs change meaning in the middle voice. The word poieow, “to do, to make” becomes, in the middle voice, poiesthai, “to consider.” This verb is cognate with the noun for poet. To find one’s middle voice means to make poems to learn how to think. The thoughts in the poem can be found nowhere but in the poem. The poem is made, is a made thing, and then thought itself endures inside it.

Such ancient wisdom permeates Boat, which reads as much like pre-Socratic philosophy as it does a hyper-contemporary meditation on the various structures (and the structural doubts) we live within: self-constructions, gender constructions, language and grammar, mind and world. Boat—whose title evokes Ludwig Wittgenstein’s definition of philosophy as “a leaky boat that must be repaired while at sea”—is self-knowing enough to count itself among those constructions. That definition speaks to something deep in this poetry’s nature. The poems actively work against the certainties much poetry strives to achieve. Each line is a plank nailed into place to see if the boat will hold, and then the next line pries it out, as if that “leakiness” is the condition readers are meant not to rescue themselves from but to accept and explore. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Romantic paradigm of worthy readership, that requirement of a “suspension of disbelief which alone constitutes poetic faith,” is here upended. As Robertson writes,

And if I become unintelligible to myself
Because of having refused to believe
I transcribe a substitution

Iconoclasm comes to consequence. Breaking the objects of belief obscures the condition of the one who would believe but cannot or will not. Not God, not gods, but some other principle must undergird the tangled yarn of self, mind, language, world. Not metaphor’s godly drawing together of distant points but metonymy’s tangible proximities—how one thing can substitute for another, piece by piece, until some semblance of the whole can be felt.

“I transcribe a substitution” builds the other boat I sense lurking in Boat. Not a boat exactly but a ship. Not a ship exactly but Theseus’s ship—which asks in its ancient riddle the very question language riddles readers with now. The story is simple. When Theseus sailed home to Athens after having killed the minotaur in the maze, the Athenians preserved his ship as a sacred memorial. Over many years, though, a board would rot and be replaced with a new one. But as is the case with holy relics, no one could bear to throw away the replaced planks. And so, over the centuries, as every part of the boat was replaced, there grew a pile of half-rotten boards out of which Theseus’s ship could be rebuilt—and was. “Which ship is Theseus’s ship?” is a question that philosophers have broken their heads upon. Which boat is the original? Which the substitute? Where does belief go when it is bewildered, when there is no source? When faith’s options so abound, faith becomes a form of doubt—and doubt is a form that repeats itself.

Boat itself is an experiment in such dubious repetition. In the book's endnote, Robertson describes her process: “Boat is the accumulated record of a series of indexical readings of the sum of my quotidian notebooks. Now I have repeated this process three times: in 2001, 2009, and 2021. Each reading has resulted in a new publication, which contains the earlier records amidst newer ones.” Boat makes of itself a reiterative architecture, including work derived from previous returns to the daily notebooks and then unfolding past thought into new vision. The boat first belonged to Rousseau, in Robertson’s chapbook Rousseau’s Boat (2004). That philosopher of humanity’s primary innocence-wonder also confessed candidly to the experience of his life, an unabashed record of the “suffering that precedes thinking” and the thinking that fills up, and falls from, a life. One feels something of this confessional mode work its way through much of Robertson’s work. Rousseau is there in her essay “Pure Surface”:

… puce sky swathing the night-time overpass where on every radio of every taxicab Rousseau croons ‘we are born innocent’ over and over in whining vibrato.

Rousseau’s Confessions (1782) as torch song sings out in a falsetto so high it’s past human hearing, just there somehow, in the air, seducing us. But the sexual in Robertson is more than an intimate physical act (though it is also exactly that)—the erotic is the touchstone epistemology. As she writes in “The Seam” from her collection 3 Summers (2016):

Now it’s time to return to the sex of my thinking.
How long do I get?
A fly moves across the pages of an open book
(the pages are quivering)
I want stimulants, relaxants, hallucinogens
—I’m not good at order.

I take that “sex of my thinking” not as noun so much as verb—thinking is copulative. It connects, absorbs, adheres. It lets another’s thought drift through one’s own in ways that echo Milton’s description of angelic pleasure: bodies-hardly-bodies stepping through one another. Note the attunement to moment—that fly, that quivering page. Note, too, the want of experience that exceeds experience, that opens the mind by letting it err. At times, thinking over Robertson’s oeuvre as I know it, the work feels radically descriptive of just those noted aspirations. Or, to put it in her own words, from her essay “Soft Architecture: A Manifesto,” this imperative: “Practice description. Description is mystical.” Every line of a Robertson poem is itself a poem. It is also often a proposition—an ecstatic proposition—that knows as fully as Wallace Stevens knew that “description is revelation.” The revelation is, as Robertson’s essay offers it, a description of our “permanent transience.” The phrase is Heraclitean in its paradox; Robertson knows, as did Heraclitus, that “change alone is unchanging.” Such description, so counter to easier notions of what poetry might offer, clings to didactic possibilities. The book of poems is also a child’s primer. Again, from “The Seam”:

In my school called how can I live
in my theory of appearing
I lay out my costume.

Appearance is tricky: it looks like being; it is not. It’s where people spend their days. It also puts a tremendous pressure on what a poem might be, this old techne that on blankness builds a kind of world. Or, as Robertson writes in her poem “On Form,” “form is always learning.” What does it teach? I don’t know. It teaches people to say, “I don’t know,” and then a miraculous thing can occur. Readers may find themselves, as Robertson finds herself, “a waking girl in / the real territory of the conceptual.” When one perceives, one takes note.

The note as daily poetic mode invites a wondrous, breathing uncertainty into the airless confines of thought, truth, and idea. The note adorns the margin. The note thinks in eccentric angles that require the body’s presence and the heart’s experience:

A vine around a thorn
     emotion and perceptions are so fucking underrated
          the moon is weird

The moon is weird—is wyrd in its destiny of arriving in a poem as a word. The moon alters, seems to breathe, seems to live and die and live again. The moon pulls on the sea and pulls on the blood, and to see by its weird light might be a reminder that to think about the world without emotion and perception is merely a thorn-work that pierces the one who does the thinking. Robertson offers the gift of a vine; models a different form of knowing, one that climbs, twines, enwraps; one that puts the body against keen edges and seeks a way to undo the inevitability of a wound. The note is an aside, a possibility, willing to stray in order to discover:

Nor an orchard nor a single soul nor
A dog nor a leather purse nor subjection
Nor trivialization nor worthlessness
Nor apples nor stars when the festival
Of war unfurls from garden suburbs and
Decks the patios in grand coloured
Swags flipping upwards in the breeze bringing
The shampoo scent of blossoms
It would be nice
To interfere with the accuracy of the world.

That interference is both an ethos and a radical form of empirical sensing—one that knows that what is real is wider and more wildly robust than what is merely true, a truthfulness that knows the flowers smell like shampoo. Trivial as such noticing might seem to be, it ushers readers into a world in which the senses reveal the mind’s ease in accepting absurd overlaps, where the chemical that mimics the mimosa’s scent in the morning shower seems to precede the fact of the blossom. Robertson liberates the real and the not-real, the theory that wafts from the fact, back into their fundamental play. She breathes in and lets the poem take note of the mind’s error. Such error is rare philosophic air—it shocks readers back into the wondrous innocence of direct apprehension. (Again: “Practice description. Description is mystical.”) Description is a Logos as weird as the moon—the very Logos Heraclitus succumbed to when, 2,500 years ago, he noted the sun is no larger than his toe. As Robertson puts it in “The Hut,” the first of Boat’s eight long poems, “The soul is   clinamen.”

Clinamen is Lucretius’s term to explain how it is the world is. He imagined that atoms moved in parallel lines, never touching, until the clinamen swerved one into another, causing a reaction that results in a world—this world. Soul is that erring force that alters the infinitive to be into the miraculous present tense of is. The soul is as John Keats imagines it: a child learning to read. Robertson writes

                           The bird is   my teacher
                         I go to the w   oods to listen
                If I can’t know joy    I don’t want a world
                           what I ado    re I adorn
                fully with the disc    omfort of duration
                Cathars believed in  metempsychosis
    the circulation of souls bet   ween birds, animals, and men
                         ingenious firs   t motor repeats
                          new real equ   ivocal motor
                        in heretical er   otic osmosis
   I don’t have the right to dou  bt until I have really sung

As Wittgenstein says of his vocabulary, that it is “the limit of my world,” readers might imagine this bird teaching a similar lesson. But here, lovingly and livingly, limit works in a different way. The bird has no vocabulary. It has a melody, a song—and that song marks not the boundary between what can be said and what is unsayable but a territory, a realm, a limit that binds a world to its edge. The bird sings a joyous region, one in which soul can slide into soul, a “heretical er  otic[s]” that undoes the accuracy of the world to reach something finer: real song, that allows actual doubt. Such doubt doesn’t damn song’s praise but appraises it—measures and weighs, thinks and thanks. “What I ado  re I adorn,” Robertson writes. I’ve come to take this line, broken apart by a synaptic gap that gutters through the whole of “The Hut,” as primary ethic, an erotic epistemology. What you love, you should adorn. That isn’t simply an ornamental work; it is a cosmic one. Deep inside the definition of cosmos, far beneath “order, pattern, universe, world,” is its hidden meaning: “an adornment.” As a pendant takes on the heat of the loved throat that wears it, as the moon is a weird locket opening and closing forever, hanging in an orbit readers cannot see, so the poem might be to the world when a bird is the school-teacher: it adorns what it adores.

                        I would like a delicate  spring-flowering herb
                                                a note  book 
                                     philosophy a  s housework

I love this poetry’s domestic ritual of thinking: a sprig of rosemary pressed in a dictionary. It buries its scent in the pages, definition of a better kind. Only the soul’s errancy makes such housework possible, where readers can near the delicacy of what Robertson herself has wanted: “a truth that is unavailable.”

Originally Published: July 18th, 2022

Poet and essayist Dan Beachy-Quick was born in Chicago and raised in Colorado and upstate New York. He was educated at Hamilton College, the University of Denver, and the University of Iowa. Beachy-Quick's poetry collections include North True South Bright (2003); Spell (2004); Mulberry (2006), a finalist for the Los Angeles Times...