Monday, June 12, 2006
Sometime toward the end of the previous millennium, back when Google sculpting was but a rumor & flarf but a glimmer in Mr. Sullivan’s eye, Mark Peters used the venerable “do no evil”¹ search engine to look up the word men, from which he crafted a long, booklength work, a dark, brooding, obsessive thing as I recall, tho only portions of the larger project ever snuck into print (see here & here & here) before a chapbook that was a too-modest slice appeared.
The shadow of that project hovers, never very far off & yet never exactly directly overhead, just offshore from Lisa Robertson’s new & wonderful The Men, from out from BookThug in Toronto. Contra Peters, The Men is subtitled A Lyric Book, which is absolutely accurate. It’s one of those texts where you know, within its very first lines, that you have come upon something very special indeed:
Men deft men mental men of loving men all men
Vile men virtuous men same men from which men
Sweet and men of mercy men such making men said
Has each man that sees it
Cray as men to the men sensate
And their poverty speaking to the men
Is about timeliness men is about
Previous palpability from which
The problematic politics adorable
And humble especially
Young men of sheepish privilege becoming
Sweet new style
These are lines that call up, instantly, everything from Paul Celan’s “Todesfugue” to Lorca’s “Verde que te quiero verde. / Verde viento. Verdes ramas.” It’s built around the ear – I have a correspondent who is going to positively flip at the alliteration of p sounds in the eighth & ninth lines (but will he notice that the run begins, in fact, in line six?) – but not solely the ear. Here is the first stanza on the second page – consider the use of rhyme that is so central to the eighth & ninth lines of this 17th-line structure:
Each man – I could write
His poem. He needs no voice.
But what would I take from it. Our facades are so
Minor. What would I begin to say
If his words were
My poem. I am preoccupied with grace
And have started to speak expensively – as in
Which look like choice
Ill-matched to its consequence
As laughter to a fall – bad memory
Poorly researched life
And their faces
As we do so
As joys / choice still echo, the final sound of the next line – quence – calls our attention to the fact that the s sounds above are, in fact, different. But what really echoes – the key to this sequence sonically – is the rhyme back with voice from line two. It is precisely the chance of sound to thread themes that raises the issue right as Robertson herself suggests the opposite of necessity – He needs no voice.
This is the second, social dimension of Robertson’s lyric – to make use of men the way poets have, for centuries, displayed & deployed women. Men are reducible to faces & penises. There are other texts resonating here – Kenneth Koch’s “Sleeping with Women” certainly, but I hear also the more fugitive voice of Lenore Kandel & The Love Book, that 1960’s icon to female lust.
Robertson is gathering & gathering here, for as it turns out The Men may be A Lyric Book, but that does not necessarily make it a book of lyrics, as such. Rather it is an investigation of lyric as that crux where self & voice & song cohabitate & pretend just for a moment to be one. Rather The Men is a booklength investigation, a serial poem longer & more complex than anything Spicer ever wrote, save possibly for Language, as political as it is personal – and personable as well. The Men is a thoroughly likeable book, even when, in the final section, Robertson investigates the differences between men & that other mass category, people.
It’s a complicated project & almost impossible to convey here second hand, the ways it invokes men as desire and as violence. She says, in fact, very little about the latter, letting it seep up instead through the text. Whereas Mark Peters sort of rubs our noses in just what violent clods men as a category can be, Robertson comes through much more powerfully by hinting around the edges, letting our knowledge of the categories do the heavy lifting.
I’ve said before that Lisa Robertson has emerged as one of the master poets of the new century & everything she’s writing these days has all the features to make it an instant classic. The Men is a great book as well as a haunting one.
¹ Offer void in