By Lisa Robertson (University of California Press, 2010)

“I wanted to make an autobiographical book that was not self-referential,” Lisa Robertson states in reference to R’s Boat, which orients the project around the redefinition of the subject, a subject always moving out of itself and away from its own history. To refer is to return—instead, Robertson fers, the novelty of her gesture underscored by the need for the neologism. To fer, then, is to further, but across a different kind of distance, not physical, not even psychological, akin to conceptual, but with a dimension of actuality. The book’s architecture reflects this, as it’s constructed of lines that launch out from the left margin to end in suspension. Each one is a new beginning that converses with the other lines around it like people standing side by side on a train platform all staring straight ahead and talking softly to one another, standing side by side like the insistent “I”s that begin the lines of the first poem “Face/.” Though insistent, it cannot constitute a subject because it does not accumulate, suggesting the essential role of time in the construction of subjectivity and displaying the general and generous inclusiveness that its dissolution offers. The subject becomes an open-ended attention to the moment, able to change with it at every instant. Robertson enacts this constant shift in the juxtapositional relationships among her phrases. We follow a chain of associations in which each link, each line, has its own integrity and connects with others through idea, image, or language itself:  “My whole life straddled distance // Who is so delicately silent // By accident, procrastination, debt”; the intricate alliteration, assonance, and slight rhyme, particularly among the light i’s, set the phrases adrift, yet also knit patterns that allow two or more lines to coalesce momentarily into a coherent unit. But then each line reasserts its independence, breaking the unit and leaving the line free to make other connections with yet other lines. This keeps the base unit of the book always in flux—is it the line, the stanza, the named section, or the book itself? Though there’s no one answer, the lines keep surging forth. So many of them, such as “I conceived of an organ slightly larger than skin, a structure of inhuman love minus nostalgia or time” or “The biggest problem with melancholy is that it is more detailed than the world” have a strong gravitational pull at their centers, a pull based in their slight but absolute unthinkability—never impossibility or surreality, but rather a much more delicate unachievability, often based on non-sequitur, which occasions an opening-out and constitutes another level on which this, the book’s principal gesture, operates. The lines themselves are gleaned from her own archives, an editing process that, itself, distances the self from the self, and yet the lines do create an autobiography, though it is one that understands train of thought rather than the sequence of events to be the real shape of a life. Deleuze once commented that “life is not a personal thing”; in this gorgeously successful “non self-referential autobiographical book” Robertson demonstrates the deep importance, beauty, and possibility of this claim.

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