Benjamin Friedlander

Nature and Culture
On Lisa Robertson's XEclogue

[The following diary of reading was originally written for Joel Kuszai for a planned "Canada" issue of his now defunct newsletter The Rusty Word. It was subsequently submitted to a West Coast journal that never wrote back. Mentioned in passing to Nada Gordon, it belatedly came to Gary Sullivan’s attention wherefore its present appearance in Readme, justified, perhaps, by a lamentable lack of published comment on XEclogue, one of the very best books of poetry published in North America in the previous decade.—B.F.]


26 JUNE 1995

A comment made by Adriaan Peperzak at last year’s annual Comp Lit conference sticks with me and comes to mind while trying to write about Lisa Robertson’s XEclogue. Peperzak is a conventional, even stodgy philosopher in his 70s who has written on Plato, Hegel, Heidegger and Levinas. During the question and answer period he shows a surprising and inspiring passion. Provoked, I think, by his earlier confession of religious faith, he disburdens himself of one after another admonishing opinion—laughing out loud at his own audacity. Finally, asked about "the question of language," he immediately says, as if waiting for a chance, "Heidegger called language ‘the house of Being.’ Well, everything is the house of Being, but it’s given to our epoch to frame everything in terms of language, so Heidegger calls language the ‘House.’ And we repeat this formula devoutly. But we’re no closer to understanding either language or Being when we do so." For poets too "the question of language" is fundamental. A nagging doubt nonetheless remains: are poems written in answer to this question equally fundamental? I mean, are they any more fundamental than any other kind of poem? I’m not so sure. Our "language poets" (and I mean by this something more general than L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Writing) compose wonderful work, but the wonder of it is often superficial. Still, it’s a piety of our time that only those poets who address this "question of language" are worth reading. Those who turn their attention to other questions—however fundamental, however profound the answers—come to seem naive. Old fashioned. Hung up on content. Marginal to a fault.

* * *

Rereading Michael Palmer this summer, I came again on his diary entry about receiving the first copies of Notes for Echo Lake—"dismay, then sorrow, upon realizing that it was only a book." Yes, this is how it feels, even when you’re only the reader. Lisa’s book has been a rumor for two years, but based on what I’ve heard I almost feel as though I’ve read it. Now Joel returns from Vancouver and lends me an actual copy. Leafing through I feel—what? Dismay? Sorrow? Not at all, but maybe a book is more exciting, more useful, as a rumor than as a fact. Maybe that’s why I never tried to order a copy. Maybe—sad prospect—rumors are more inspiring than poems.

* * *

I think of Lisa’s "Manifesto" mode—is this a way of staving off dismay and sorrow? A way of pretending that a book isn’t just a book? Talking to Joel, I said her insistence on that mode gets boring, the tone begins to annoy—the whole "Giantess" trip. "She couldn’t possibly mean it, could she? It’s so corny, so ‘Cabaret Voltaire,’ so . . . I don’t know . . . so 1970s." Later I wonder if I’m not just jealous. She is so good at writing that way. At the top of her voice, as Mayakovsky would say. And why not? She wants to be heard. Deservedly.

* * *

Later still I read "Eclogue Three: Liberty" over and over again. I try to gauge my response as honestly as possible. I decide that the constant recourse to assertion, effective in the short run for maintaining interest in the argument, wears attention away in the long run. Case in point: "What is this thought that refuses to reverse itself, that in the cool shade of fantasy creates an institution?" A useful question, oddly put. Then comes, in quick succession, the grating, the overweening, the gratuitous, the silly—"my kilted wit," "my perfect barbarity," "the death of method," "Utopia is dead," "prim sublimity," "I flaunt her." And then, right at the end, played like a trump card, one perfect, purple twist of prose: "She’s lying in the pagan flowers, sweet-faced in the pompous velvet, swathed in the crude luxury of my rhetoric, strewn with the petals of aptly faded hope." Not an answer but an antidote to her question, administered just in time.


27 JUNE

At the beginning of summer I thought about writing an essay on three first books that use the seashore as their organizing theme—H.D.’s Sea Garden, Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea-Wind, Pat Reed’s Sea Asleep. Alas, the essay went nowhere and I moved on to other projects. Still, a seed was planted: an alternative history of the century’s writing focused on the question of nature rather than language. Putting Carson in Heidegger’s place, or Wittgenstein’s, as the central thinker of our central problem. This is no mere hyperbole. However indebted Pat may be to H.D.’s mythopoetic imagism, the additional complication of ecofeminism remains determining. I found it hard, however, to sustain much interest in this alternate history, myself (it seems) more interested in language than nature. Still, there are important links between the two topics, poets for whom nature and language are not such separate issues: Paul Celan, Ronald Johnson, Robert Grenier, Jean Day, Maggie O’Sullivan—and now Lisa.

* * *

A poetics of the seashore redefines marginality—places the margin at the center of two worlds (water and land)—not at the outer limit of a single world. A shoreline for thought, a shifting threshold between the known and unknown. Piombino’s phrase comes to mind—"the boundary of blur." And is it any wonder that three women should identify their earliest writings with this boundary? "Whiter / than the crust / left by the tide, / we are stung by the hurled sand / and the broken shells" (H.D.). "The tide was ebbing fast, surging through the gutter and running out to sea. As the sun’s rays broke through the clouds in the east and sped across the sound, Rynchops turned to follow the racing water seaward" (Carson). "Danger-cold / of the water / grips my head // torn / hands / pulling back / to the / level / of the rest of / the sea" (Pat). And as I think more and more about these seashore poetics, I wonder if maybe nature has not become something of a repressed question. Granting, of course, that the word "nature" is simply impossible: unsusceptible of definition, it includes man and woman in its purview and so excludes nothing man and woman have ever thought or done.

* * *

Lisa’s interest in pastoral reminds me of Ronald Johnson, his thickly textual sense of flora and fauna, birdsong and starlight. However incompatible in the end, moment by moment their views are strangely similar. Thus, in XEclogue, nature is a product of culture ("a landscape overwritten with vast, exhausted melancholy, quenched in mauvish tasselled wind"), while in Ark, culture is a product of nature ("Sound is sea: pattern lapping pattern. If we erase the air and slow the sound of a struck tuning fork in it, it would make two sets of waves interlocking the invisibility in opposite directions"). Then again, Lisa writes: "A bird’s breath is in my throat. It sucks the slim light and unties the couplets"—a very Johnsonesque thought. Then too, both Ark and XEclogue are limned with quotes from Gertrude Stein. On the back of Lisa’s book:

Nature is not natural, and that is
natural enough.

And as one of the two epigraphs to Ark:

anything shut in with you can sing

The two quotes aren’t contradictory, but betray a shifted emphasis. One celebrates the unnatural; the other, celebration itself, singability. In both, however, the traditional priority of nature over culture is abandoned. So far as human beings are concerned, culture comes first. That is, the un-natural—the cultivated, the "shut in with"—is what’s really natural. Can I sing what is not "shut in with"? This isn’t even a question; "shut in with" is the root condition of the I.

* * *

Lisa:

Ontology is the luxury of the landed. Let’s pretend you ‘had’ a land. Then you ‘lost’ it. Now fondly describe it. That is pastoral. Consider your homeland, like all utopias, obsolete. Your pining rhetoric points to obsolescence.

This does and doesn’t remind me of Levinas, of his disparagement of ontology, which follows from a scorching critique of Heidegger. He’d certainly agree with the first sentence, "Ontology is the luxury of the landed." At the same time, the emphasis he consequently gives to homelessness would make the harshness of the rest of this passage indefensible. Why so tough on the exiled? Thinking about it more carefully, I see that the first line appeals to me because it is Levinasian. The rest of the passage points the argument in a different direction. And wouldn’t the whole thing make more sense if Lisa had written, "Ontology is the pining rhetoric of the once landed"? I stop and reread. OK. She opposes pastoral to ontology. The former’s for the homeless, the latter for the landed. But both are defined dismissively. On one hand, if ontology is a luxury, then the question of Being isn’t a necessity—is a pastime for the idle rich. On the other hand, calling pastoral a pining rhetoric means telling the homeless something like "get over it." This is an aspect of Lisa’s book I don’t understand. Is she satirizing the pastoral form, or trying to renew it? Is she radicalizing or rejecting outright the traditional equation between woman and nature? The book gives mixed signals. Anyway, she’s dead on about one thing: Heidegger’s luxury. Unlike Levinas, the old Deustcher always had his little hut and stretch of forest to return to—which is just what he did when Utopia went belly up, in 1945.


28 JUNE

Talking about her interest in pastoral, Lisa says (in A Poetics of Criticism):

Certainly, as a fin de siecle feminist, I cannot in good conscience perform even the simplest political identification with the pastoral genre

And also:

We must become history’s dystopic ghosts, inserting our inconsistencies, demands, misinterpretations, and weedy appetites into the old bolstering narratives

And also:

My intention is to slip into the narrative as a hybrid ghost and steal the solipsist’s monocle as he sleeps and dreams of the rational future.

Evocative statements. But I find it hard to believe that Lisa’s sole interest in pastoral is corruption, that XEclogue is first and foremost a bad dream visited on the sleeping solipsists of our patriarchic culture. For one thing, pastoral is no longer our culture’s dominant mode. For another, Lisa’s powers of generation seems so much more fine than her powers of corruption. Her appropriation of the pastoral genre just doesn’t seem dystopic to me; if she no longer dreams of a perfect future (and who does?), neither is her future a frightening catastrophe, a pure inversion of the rational. What then is her project really about? The key, to my mind, lies in Lisa’s wonderful phrase "weedy appetites." Taxonomically speaking, there is no such thing as a weed; a weed is simply an unwanted plant. Many are beautiful, edible, even—ecologically speaking—essential. They grow without tending and maintain the power, if left alone, to transform a landscape, irrevocably. Likewise Lisa’s desires as a writer, her "appetites," unsought by the discourse she would enter—"weedy" only from the point of view of the sleeping gardeners whose notions of useful and useless are questionable at best.

* * *

Lisa ends XEclogue by citing Edith Sitwell—"my constant companion." A curious coincidence. I found "dark ages clasp the daisy root" in Sitwell’s Book of Flowers—a line from Finnegans Wake which Andrew Schelling and I took as the name of our second magazine. Later, Tom Mandel accused us of cultivating a fascist nostalgia for the earth. But I suspect he might have been upset because we didn’t ask him for work.

* * *

Much of XEclogue is attributed to personae—"Lady M," "Nancy," the "Roaring Boys"—and much of the rest is derived from sources I’ve never read, veilings which make quotation hazardous. Lady M in "Eclogue Nine: History" defends this veiling eloquently, and rightfully so:

They wished for lips of red thread like so many spies; they received, through the veil of expression, a heart moved only by etiquette. They wished to experience thought as we would be compelled to remember it; it became a languid impossibility.

A book of languid impossibility. In any case, a complexity that befuddles the mind desirous of straightforward mouthings.

* * *

The fecundity of this book’s odd lyrics is astonishing:

I’m loquacious or raucous, swanning for the fun of it
But I’d sooner tear the subtle moss from under poplars
Than he should put a note of love into her golden mouth:
I’ll nudge the queer sorrow her barbarity merits.

The endnote nudges us to consider this quatrain a mistranslation by the "roaring boys" of "the anonymous Latin of the Pervigilium Veneris." But who are the roaring boys? (Is that a Burroughs thing?) And what is it that’s mis- in this translation? No doubt I’m losing quite a bit by not knowing, but the lines are wonderfully suggestive anyway. And what they suggest, among other things, is a series of choices with regard to XEclogue as a whole: write my own book ("swanning for the fun of it"); appreciate this one, however difficult ("the queer sorrow her barbarity merits"); or commit the violence of interpretation ("tear the subtle moss from under poplars").


JUNE 29

I can’t imagine how to conclude this little diary of my reading, but need to; that is, I need to return the book to Joel, who wants to read it himself. I spend an hour looking for a quote—a defining moment—and give up. Settle for these three archetypes of our present epoch:

Roaring Boy #1 is skinny and pure as the bitter white heel of a petal . . . . Yet a feeling of being followed has taken his will away . . . .

Roaring Boy #2, boy with the volute heart of a girl, names the faithless tone of an abandoned guess exactitude . . . .

Roaring Boy #3, rather than submitting to the trial of action, wants deeply to possess an opinion, then having possessed, to distribute it with maximum efficiency . . . .

A cruel but accurate caricature of three types of reader, and an accurate picture too, I think, of three faces of Lisa’s book. The inexactitude of the target is typical, a quality which blunts XEclogue’s impact as a reasoned polemic while reasserting the book’s more anarchic appeal as poetry. Somehow, this give and take between poetry and polemic seems central to Lisa’s deeper intentions as a writer. A tug of war between aesthetics and politics, nature and culture, in which neither side cedes ground to the other. A useful, if precarious, equilibrium.

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