In Lisa Robertson’s The Men: A Lyric Book (2006), “lyric” is at once a descriptive label for Robertson’s poems and the concept whose possibilities those poems explore. Robertson’s most recent volume, Nilling, similarly puts the possibility of “prose essay” to work: Nilling’s prose is a Derridian combination of giddy intelligence and intellectual urgency. It is also inflected with Robertson’s particular warmth: her project is always grounded in place and person even as it doggedly pursues issues of language and thought. One privilege of prose, then, is that Robertson is able to swing away from “poet” position—although hers has always been a complicated “I”—to begin explicitly from other occupations: a reader, a walker, a woman, a citizen, etc. Robertson derives her title fromHannah Arendt’s work on will and counter-will: “the will twists towards a consciousness of itself, away from instrumental agency, and into the stance of nilling.” A taut play between willing and its negation, nilling unites the encounters and configurations of each of the book’s essays. The first of these, a series of aphoristic meditations on reading (#20: “Reading in the dark: Here is the acutely sought ruin of identity”), is both a gendered theory of the pleasure of the text and a sensitive account of that universal experience. In this essay, and the others that expand to encompass specific texts and histories, the city, art, melancholy, gendered space, and poetic creation, Robertson neither dramatizes the problem of identity nor denies identity’s presence. Rather, her work happens inside that problem, permitting a locus for emotions, puns, reflections, and embodiment even as her nilling arranges that material—folds it, as it were, upon itself rather than around a central self, “radically opening identity as a non-teleological, inconspicuous work of abnegation, of nilling as agency.” Throughout the book, Robertson’s essays are as thoroughly conceptualized as they are acutely and gracefully felt: the stance of nilling does not (as it might) authorize an accumulation of trivia, curiosities, or accident, nor does it permit a lapse into authorial scavenging or quirkiness. In “Lastingness: Réage, Lucrèce, Arendt,” for example, the grouping of the three authors is explicitly the result of a personal history of research, reading, and chance. But such contingency is continuous with the essay’s nilling, a necessary precondition rather than a particular occasion for it or simply accidental to it. The “noise” of the Parisian soundscapes gathered—and available online—in “Disquiet” functions similarly to enfold and enable an exploration of nilling. “Noise constitutes the shared rhythm of the political,” Robertson writes. “We city dwellers constantly bathe in the semantic folds of non-communicating noise, and this is also the polis.” And this turn towards the re-imagination of the polis, a social space, is as crucial to Robertson’s work as nilling itself: “a retreat into the present’s inconspicuousness is not asocial.” Such “civic thinking” brings the book’s prose finally to bear on the poetic act at the end of “Untitled Essay”:


To maintain this urgent errancy, a disposition that is at the same time ethical and aesthetic, the vernacular needs the poem; where they confer, a citizen, beginning again and again with the pandemonium at hand in the present, rhythmically invents her domus: Illustriously useless poesis. 


The book comes full circle from an intimate description of reading to a bravely intricate argument for the work of writing, leaving behind Robertson’s own words as a precipitate: “I feel astonished that any institution could have placed such an object in my hands, then left me alone with it.” 




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