Monday, October 02, 2006

The Men

On my thirty-sixth birthday, I'm delighted to have finally given myself the present of Lisa Robertson's newest book, The Men, out from Toronto's BookThug. It's a tour-de-force of metapoetry, a rather tricky and elusive subgenre in which the poem and poet examine the bases for their own production: a critique in the Kantian sense. That's not all it is, of course, not nearly all: Robertson's writing wouldn't compel me as it does without her exquisite ear, connected on a cellular level with her wry and incisive wit. "Incision" is an apt term for her poetical procedure in this book, I think: she cuts cross-sections and core samples through the lyric tradition with the seemingly dull tool of repetition honed to a razor edge. In this passage at the end of the book's first of five sections (they tend to have titles that somehow suggest palindromes without actually being one: "MEN DEFT MEN," "EVENING LIT THE GNAT"), the inhibition of a woman's speech is deftly eroticized:
I've touched the men who stopped
My tongue, I've touched the men
In the free breeze foreignly. But this
Immaculate equal
Grows as I speak
And their two styles flossy.
And their two
Styles flossy.
And hence experience
Butonly in relation
To the men
And my own eyes.

In this rough verse
Unavoidably the men
All bordered with sky blue
Stand alone
And my little bed also
Bearing nothing more.
I have only the reticence of intimacy.
Petrarch's Laura seems to speak in that last line (about not speaking), while the history of the lyric is indexed to my ear by phrases like "my little bed" (the sonnet as "little room") and the delightfully silly "two styles flossy" (stilnovisti). The motor for all this is, naturally "the men": Robertson deliberate conflates lyric as such with the gender that has historically defined and produced it. But she's not simply turning lyric on its head and turning men into erotic objects (though she does this with breathtaking effectiveness); nor is she interested in the ingenuous ecriture feminine that I've seen in some other younger feminist poets who center their writing on bodily or "gurlesque" experience. The Men is a romp through the secret masculinist history of lyric—erotic blazon, phallic wit, love as spur to writing—that Robertson's wily speaker seeks to crack open for herself by rendering that history visible (no mean feat in itself, at least not when accomplished sans soapbox) through the prism-like refraction of "the men" as subject-objects of desire:
The men have a house
Of rooms and time
To walk through them
Pondering their sons
And daughters, feeling
Loss and the long tiredness
Of passing. At such times
In exhaustion
They show you the liner notes. Look
Say the men, look
And the first webs of lust
Near the window
And their shirts are sweet
And their sweat bitter:
Just delicious.
Sappho's "sweetbitter" is evoked here, while later those men in the window are wearing "short-sleeved shirts," evoking the pathetic pipe smoke of the men in Eliot's "Passages." Not only are "the men" conflated with lyric, but they are also conflated with lyric's landscape (the pastoral is never far from Robertson's mind, and in many ways "the men" are obviously the descendents of "the Roaring Boys" from Robertson's Xeclogue). "All landscape is second," Robertson says: nature-gender is mediated by poetry and thus has a history to be taught and exploded. "Inside the men are people": there's a generosity of spirit here, a sense that men as well as women are imprisoned by gender roles. Simply as a trope, The Men remind me of another Canadian poet's work with men as desiring/desirable machines: Anne Carson, especially The Beauty of the Husband and the book whose title Robertson both echoes and strips down, Men in the Off Hours. Not least do they resemble each other in the astringency of their wit, which I associate with the disciplinary play of the classicist, she who knows her way around an epigram. And I am also reminded of the power a repeated noun can have, how a word as everyday as "men," especially when paired with the suggestive placing of a definite article, yields up treasures of signification when put under lyric pressure: coal into diamond. Another significant word that recurs in The Men was new to me: "hyrdromel." I had to look it up, but of course the meaning is clearly embedded: hydro - water, mel - honey. When fermented this combination becomes mead: a lyric drink, methinks, evocative of the middle ages that every love poem yet strives to inhabit. Robertson juxtaposes this word with "poverty," and it's that rift, that dialectic—the sweet poverty of the feminine object—that she mines and overturns in this exhilarating work:
I call out hydromel to the men I take all of their style and I turn it to poverty. Who can say which loses? I call out hydromel to the ladies as false as the gorgeous poem. This is referential stability. This is our passion to speech. Hydromel in the meadows and in the evening light especially. I have plenty so I give it to them false human face men fluttering men recumbent men married men in cognition lady's men men homosexual men of the true synthetic space men as glamorous as dew. Your name is a syllable on my face and I speak it from your own juice. What's prior to cognition. Amazed head of a man I feed you violets and fall upwards bleating.

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