REVIEW: Cinema of the Present

Cinema of the Present
Lisa Robertson
Coach House
Read by Jessi MacEachern

Inserting herself into the tradition of Canadian long poems (Kroetsch, Marlatt, Davey, Ondaatje, etc.), Lisa Robertson deploys her uniquely feminist line of cultural and philosophical query within the sharp, evocative lines of her newest book, Cinema of the Present (2014).

Readers familiar with Robertson will recognize the poem’s tangible concerns with the body, thrift store fabrics, and footfalls from Occasional Work and Seven Walks (2003), Magenta Soul Whip (2009) and R’s Boat (2010). A prolific writer, she extends her own tradition through these echoes while simultaneously altering the meaning these indexed items can be said to hold. (This book features, not for the first time, an index prepared for Robertson by Pascal Poyet.) Part of what Robertson’s project teaches its reader is the inexhaustible effect of the present, the expansive moment in which the writing and reading occurs. To put it in the vocabulary of cinema, the line of figure changes frame to frame.

Robertson’s poetic lines are irreparably and beautifully altered from moment to moment, page to page. Take, for instance, the figure of “A concomitant gate” (5) which graces the opening of the poem and, according to its descriptor, naturally transforms according to what follows so that a variety of gates are present on the following pages: “A gate made of bejewelled barrettes, artificial peaches, a rotary phone” (6), “A gate made of gas pumps” (7), “A gate made of Perspex” (8), “A gate of hacksaw blades and bicycle spokes” (9). The repetition alters suddenly; the scene shifts. The preposition (“A”) remains but the object (“gate”) changes to girl, graph, jay, etc.

What is most alluring about Robertson’s poetry is this effect of uncanny resonance. Her best lines are capable of sending the reader into an entirely constructed nostalgia, a tonal technique that is at once familiar and unsettling. The 800 frames, or lines, of memory progress like strips of film according to the tri-fold and ever-changing desire of the writer, speaker and reader. Whether the projection takes place in a library, cafe, or classroom, the city and the body intervene with the flickering image in order to make the experience severely intimate. When Robertson writes, “You need a hat against anger” (84), the reader is reminded of a mother’s advice upon going out into the cold, though the prescription is less practical than this. Emotion takes precedence in the writing. Emotion is the stubborn and strange partner of intellect and a necessary ingredient for interpretation of this speaker’s surroundings. Closely scrutinized emotion hardens into a multi-refractory substance that exists in changed duration for each frame: “You were annotating the idea of a long elastic present that could include violence and passivity and patience as well as cities, as would a crystal of quartz” (85).

Robertson’s “cinematic present,” the rapid and necessary change permitted by the metaphor of film, is the conceptual constraint of project. The result is an unfalteringly close and radical theorization of the (feminist) subject’s place in time.