Reviewed by Katie Fowley
If Lisa Robertson's poetry were a material, it would probably be plastic, so it makes sense that her new book Magenta Soul Whip begins with a poem called "Lucite." The poems in Magenta Soul Whip create a synesthetic world in which senses and surfaces are malleable, and structures are warped by our desires, perceptions, and appetites. In "Report 1624: The House," she writes: "When the porch rots we dream its decay and when the kitchen sags with the weight of our appetites it is an extremely beautiful curve." In "Early Education," a poem that deals with themes of dominance and fidelity, Robertson takes a fluid approach to language, flipping back and forth between Latin and English: "quam scientes is my nutrient."
Robertson's writing is fluid, but it is by no means sloppy or loose. Few poets are as precise, sharp, profound and dense. "Consider the idea of transgression," she writes. "Its efficacy has been absorbed / By the feculent marketability / Of the skin -- " Throughout Magenta Soul Whip, almost every sentence contains a similarly striking insight or claim, often multiple ones. Yet the poems breathe -- long, chewy sentences are followed by simple declarations -- "I should be more precise." And poems end lightly with simple, seemingly non-central details that still reverberate: "Their leaves are moving"; "They ride trains."
Fluidity (and also desire, chance, and resistance) are central ideas in this book, so it follows that Robertson would call upon the Epicurean philosophers: "Lucretius says the soul, the speaking, thinking force that flows through a girl / Is part of life not less than hand, foot or eyes are vital." The idea that the body and spirit are made of the same material is compelling to Robertson, whose poetics reside in a mixing of physical phenomena with philosophical inquiry.
Magenta Soul Whip also contains crossovers between the organic and the inorganic, the "rational" and "vegetal," the natural and constructed. "We call this food, and it fabricates us / From the inside," she writes in "First Spontaneous Horizontal Restaurant." Furthermore, Robertson blends the human with the animal, writing of humans turning into "cormorants and gulls" and of animals that behave and speak in human ways. In "About 1836 (an essay on boredom)," a scholarly dog versed in Marxist theory waxes about hegemony and boredom with lines such as "I wanted to feel discourse on my pelt."
Some of the most searingly beautiful poems in this collection ("Wooden Houses," "The Story") repeat words and rhythmic cadences, hitting us like carefully controlled tidal waves:
And we said a boat would come and take you to Venice
And you are a law of language.
And my mouth took part
And we fed you morphine mixed with honey.
And you are a rare modern painting in the grand salon
And you are a wall of earth.
Robertson has a distinct lexicon, and she repeats certain words within given poems and within her body of work as a whole. These words, such as "ornament," "pelt," "commodious," "boredom," "animal," "house," "flowers," and "failure," are used almost like Homer's epithets -- building blocks around which the poems form their shapes. Latinate words and unusual, polysyllabic words such as "dandiacal" appear frequently, sometimes multiple times in one poem. She also repeats with frequency the simple conjunction "or," as in "the pelt on the wall that's ocelot or shadepelt or the imagination of matter" -- accreting possibilities in a manner that feels flexible and lush.
Having previously written as a dispatcher from an "Office for Soft Architecture," in this book Robertson continues to parody bureaucratic writing. She writes poems called reports, essays, and treatises, and in one poem even posits herself as an administrative assistant:
I am, after all, trained only in
The subtleties of management, and it's
As an administrator, no, an
Administrative assistant, that I
Offer to Our Community this nod
To all who are intertwined with centres
Or the idea of 'oneself.'
Robertson's poetry is populated with facts, assertions, and conjectures that borrow from scientific language. In her hands, these "facts" take on sadness and grace: "Because it is a known fact / the wounded fall towards the point." While her poems resist confessional lyricism and offer little more than a polite nod to "centres / Or the idea of 'oneself,'" they are not without lyric epiphanies, often springing from single, beautifully executed sentences.
Robertson is at her best when she casts our everyday experiences in language that explores philosophical questions or suggests a socio-political critique. When she wrote in Soft Architecture about shopping at a thrift store chain ("The Value Village Lyric") she simultaneously tackled markets, history, ornament, boredom -- or rather, she revealed that there is much more to thrift-store shopping than typically meets the eye. In Magenta Soul Whip, Robertson describes such things as botanical gardens or pastries with the same deft intellect that both reveals and adds to the thing she describes, and her use of the pronoun "we" places us into the world of her poems, a world that is at once other and more deeply and resonantly ours:
Daily to the botanical gardens to witness
Complication. Each plant becomes what we
Love in its other language as we rest
Near the privacy of women.
In "A Modest Treatise," which serves as a kind of ars poetica, Robertson writes: "As a form of modest ornament, I intend to articulate transitions." In many ways her book successfully accomplishes this. It "articulates transitions," and it is modest in the best sense -- open and suggestive rather than preachy or didactic, modest but also far-reaching and unreserved.
Books mentioned in this post