Lisa Robertson’s works inhabit the charged space between poetic intricacy and essayistic inquiry. A slight shuddering movement between forms can be tracked from work to work, from the hybrid-creature Xeclogue, to the poetry collection Magenta Soul Whip, and then up to the essays—the aporias—of Nilling. This characteristic oscillation of form can be distilled, too, from line to line: a statement questions while it revives; it can be read as a note on the archaeology of address, or recited as an ode. But if the ode wore velvet, or some other provocative material, such as resin.
Robertson’s most recent book, Cinema of the Present, is a collection of such statements, donned in a satin cape. Robertson’s Cinema skirts multiple forms in an act of play, investigating address and the pronoun in two kinds of writing (essay and poem) where modes of address intersect and diverge at such extreme degrees. The New York Times describes Robertson as “hard to explain but easy to enjoy”—isn’t this, after all, what we want poetry to do. What is lush isn’t hard to explain; it’s just lush. Even while a complicated latticework lurks underneath, supporting it.
The lushness surfaces in Cinema in “the thick scent of dust in the heat,” “the memory of her dress,” the “bark closed over your words.” And the supporting structure here, that creates part of the fun while complicating it, is the form—what appears as surface but is always fundamental. The essay poem appears in alternating lines of roman and italicized type:
A girl in a black cotton dress and bare legs is wearing a tiara.
Your sky crumbles open.
Partly vibrant, partly wavering, partly failing.
Your prosody will have been misapprehended.
A gate made of lamps.
Your sky is fabulous.
There was light coming out of your skin.
Your stiff tail is all incipience.
You see creatures of chemicals make some kind of love.
The two distinct line types carry distinct voices. Alternating the voices, alternating the type, sets the two voices in an indirect dialogue. They could be related only by being contiguous—a collage. As Cinema opens, the non-italicized lines address a you, but it could be a general you, an absent you, a reader—until the italicized lines finally use you, too; because of the referential properties of the pronoun, we can now imagine a conversation.
Still, “what is pronoun,” one of the lines asks, “but metaphor?” Robertson, in an interview with Ken Walker in the Poetry Project Newsletter, discusses how a pronoun such as I can define a limitless but precarious subjectivity: “Whoever speaks the pronoun embodies it fully, for the duration of the utterance… That the pronoun is transferable is what guarantees the continuity and community of language.” Transferable: two girls, sitting on opposite ends of a room, rolling a ball back and forth. At one point in Cinema, one of the lines accuses or explains, “You rotate away from its sign,” and the its appears here with no other referent than you: the subject of the pronoun evades the pronoun. Address can fail just as profoundly as can a conversation.
The alternating lines of Cinema may or may not address each other, but they do perform an exchange. This performance occurs in the style of a montage—unrelated frames of film cut and spliced together so they appear in relation. One of the repeated refrains of Cinema is, “What is the subject but a stitching?” The montaging, the stitching-together can create a subject or setting or narrative—or subjectivity. In fact, a form in which italicized and regular-type faced lines alternate on the page simulates a strip of film on which frames alternate (illustrated by the book’s cover art). Where these voices differ from film, though, is in their off-set repetition, or conjuration, of each other: not a straight-edged column of filmic frames, but a curve: “But duration isn’t linear.” Simulating a film of non-linear time. From the techniques of editing and montage, to the viewer who sits in one dark location (and time), spectating the action in another—cinema is an art of simulated relationships. Like language. And in cinema, viewer and screen perform the transfer of the pronoun. The alternating lines in Cinema of the Present perform viewer and screen too—and, you could say, reader and text.
If the viewer sits in one time, accessing via the screen another time in order to participate in a cinematically specific simulation of clairvoyance, accessing the past, what would it mean to participate in a cinema of the present—what would the screen access in such a potentially exhausting recursive gesture? The projection of the present creates an imbalance, but Cinema remind us, “only time is wild.”