Review by Robert Colman.
Cinema of the Present
Coach House Books, 2014
The Coach House Books website describes Lisa Robertson’s book-length poem, Cinema of the Present, using a series of questions:
What if the cinema of the present were a Möbius strip of language, a montage of statements and questions sutured together and gradually accumulating colour? Would the seams afford a new sensibility around the pronoun ‘you’?
The publishers, of course, answer these questions in the affirmative. I would agree that Robertson’s accumulation of statements and questions does build up a kind of sensibility, but where that takes us is a little more difficult to pin down.
The title of the poem immediately made me think of Virginia Woolf and the cinematic present of Mrs. Dalloway. Robertson’s poem feels like a post-modern version of the hyper-kinetic moment, a yet more intellectual exploration of how the mind moves from thought to thought, surface to depth. A line from page 55 describes the sense of the book: “You dream of the cogito, wanting to swim in its work.”
The cogito is the principle establishing the existence of a being from the fact of its thinking or awareness. This book feels like a careful recording of one individual’s awareness. In that recording, it is sometimes circular, repetitive, and intellectually engaged. It is non-narrative—the book describes thoughts, mostly, rather than actions—so any sense of place comes strictly from how the mind reacts to its surroundings.
The poem is structured as single lines of text, alternating from italic to roman. Sometimes these lines appear to play off one another, and sometimes the voices in each appear to wander off on their own exploration of an idea, such that ideas wind and unwind about each other, occasionally returning to a point later on:
What is the condition of a problem if you are the problem?
You move into the distributive texture of an experimental protocol.
A bunch of uncanniness emerges.
At 20 hertz it becomes touch.
A concomitant gate. (5)
The “you” in the poem appears, to me at least, to be the narrator addressing herself with a carefully chosen pronoun—to be observed always at some distance even while inside the experience. A few lines later:
You set out from consciousness carrying only a small valise. (5)
This line is a perfect setting off point for the intellectual journey of the poem. And this is what Cinema of the Present feels like—an intellectual journey that examines the narrator’s place in the world. There is no set narrative that can act as a guidepost throughout the text. The statements and questions build up to an exploration of the changing “you” from moment to moment, the kinetic energy of being and thinking.
Robertson suggests a plethora of entry points to thought-journeys throughout. Essentially, every object, every man-made thing or piece of nature, is a thought-gate into another moment, another path for the mind, jetting the now into a new now, beholden to ideas but also the random place and context.
This desire to be in the moment inevitably lands among questions and statements about the nature of being, and how to be:
You wanted to release priorness. (16)
You were finding out about the collapsible body. (16)
What’s natural, what’s social, what’s intuitive? (17)
And this is the continuous action of the given world on your person. (75)
Some of these statements are repeated later in the book—for instance, “You wanted to release priorness” is repeated on page 93. As anyone will, we return to the same concerns, the statements of or about ourselves that we need to revisit, to better understand a new moment. The poem circles, and in circling reinforces the ‘you’ at its heart.
rob mclennan, in his review of Cinema of the Present, describes Robertson as “a poet of sentences”. I echo his sentiment. The single statements are strong poetic forms alone. The manner in which they play against one another—whether the juxtapositions are jarring or harmonious—is satisfying for the ear. Consider the following:
Now to enact comically solemn sexual rituals, you said.
You called and got only an echo.
Then psychology reared its battered head.
You came to understand the idea of destiny in this way.
The peculiar indwelling of rime was a roving organ. (75)
Robertson sets herself an immense challenge by demanding each line live as a sentence. I imagine this was part of the intrigue in creating a poem of blunt statement in this form. In this compression, no line is a throwaway—each can stand on its own.
The most intriguing lines for me were those that seemed to journey far beyond the text. For instance:
Let feminism be this girl raging at a chandelier. (37)
The unachieved is the place that you call meaning. (41)
In just these two phrases, “feminism” and “achievement” are given new contexts. In the first case, it suggests feminism can be defined in any action that the free-thinking “girl” in the statement pursues. And similarly, what is unachieved in the second statement holds more sway, more heft, than achievement. These are just two examples of times in the text that relatively simple phrases arrest the reader and make them ponder.
Given the structure of the book, and its length (over 100 pages), keeping up with the stream of wandering thought is a challenge. That is where the “sentence” form of her work in such a long text can be simply befuddling. I first read the book over the course of one day, which was exhilarating but also occasionally disorienting. I admit, I tend to gravitate to more traditional lyric poetry. But reading the book over a day or two isn’t the same experience—enjoyable, but it becomes less about the whole than moments such as those shared above.
The book concludes with an “index” by Pascal Poyet that is subtitled “looking for characters”. This is part of frustration in reading the text—feeling that you are seeing the shape of a character form through each successive statement, only for the statements to take a different tack a page later. For me, if it could be said that there are characters formed by successive statements, those characters are the many facets of one person expressing the contradictions of living—the constant argument of the self in a world that desires a certainty that is fictitious. Poyet’s index is both vague and fulsome in cataloguing this, and is an intriguing coda to Robertson’s work.
However you view the “you” that gets expressed in these pages, there is a fascinating journey to be experienced delving into Robertson’s most recent book.
Robert Colman is a Newmarket, Ontario-based writer and editor. He is the author of two collections of poetry, Little Empires (Quattro Books 2012) and The Delicate Line (Exile Editions 2008). His new chapbook, Factory, is now available from Frog Hollow Press. He is currently pursuing his MFA through UBC’s Optional Residency program.