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Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip

by Lisa Robertson

Ex-Vancouverite Lisa Robertson’s eighth book is classified as poetry, but is no straightforward volume of lyrics. It also contains “essays, confessions, reports, translations, drafts, treatises, laments and utopias” written between 1995 and 2007. Robertson’s work occupies a liminal zone between poetry and philosophy. For her the poem is a place in which one thinks aloud: “I said I didn’t know what thinking is./ …/ I didn’t understand./ I let myself go blank.// I began by taking everything that was doubtful and throwing it out, like sand.”

Robertson’s poetics are usually associated with the avant-garde. But her poems often belie that association and remind us how pointless such taxonomical groupings can be. It makes as much sense to discuss her work in connection with the poetry of John Smith, Eric Miller, A.F. Moritz, Robert Bringhurst, and Tim Lilburn as with the work of Erin Mouré and Anne Carson. Robertson keeps a strong toehold in the past: Homer, Lucretius, Epicurus, Augustine, Baudelaire, and others wander in and out of her treatises.

Her preoccupations are as much lyrical and communicative – note the iambics in the passage quoted above – as they are intellectual; if her work is difficult at times, it is a difficulty borne of complexity, not of rebarbative obscurity. A couple of pieces in particular, “The Story” and “Wooden Houses,” are simply outstanding works of poetry.

Robertson, who has lived in Paris and now resides in Oakland, California, is one of our more cosmopolitan and civic-minded poets. Several of these poems were written as commissions from curators to accompany art installations – it’s a shame no reproductions of the accompanying artworks are in the book – and several others refer to art and architecture, topics about which Robertson has written a great deal.

This degree of interdisciplinary engagement is regrettably uncommon among contemporary poets: these contiguities broaden and deepen the scope of her work. Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip is not a book for all readers, but if you’re up for it, it’s well worth your time.