How Poems Work: “The Stricture” by Lisa Robertson

From Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip.

 

‘The 69 heads of Messerschmidt cast in lead are not heaven.’

‘The magnetic cures of Mesmer on the plastic soul are more

difficult to characterize.’

‘The heavens of Flanders are like textile in lustrousness –

a bridal textile.’

‘We see the classic theme of a woman suffering, with pearl-

sized nipples, pink cotton billowing or nacrous skin

sprouting feathers.’

‘Here is a perfume burner of Khorasan, a bird sitting on top.’

‘Birds perch on heaven habitually. They are not certainty-

seekers.’

 

I wanted to think into the stricture of appearances.

There was a time when I came close.

To help the problem I changed into a clematis, I changed into

a dog, I changed into a perfumed smoke.

Some of my organs were outside history, which gave me an

advantage.

Place here the idea of a necessary inconspicuousness.

 

‘This is wrong’

‘This is beautiful’

‘This is social’

‘This is not thinking’

 

It is the handiwork of appearing only.

 

This is the topic we discussed in your kitchen this winter.

I said I didn’t know what thinking is.

You said you were trying to understand your sense of an

inner voice, which was separate from thinking.

I didn’t understand.

I let myself go blank.

 

I began by taking everything that was doubtful and throwing

it out, like sand.

_

*Information about a live marathon reading of Debbie: An Epic and Lisa Robertson & Laura Broadbent’s reading at Concordia on Friday Oct. 21st is below.

_

The poem opens with nonspecific claims from at least one unidentified, quoted speaker. We are told that “the…heads…are not heaven,” and “the magnetic cures…are [even] more difficult to characterize.” We do not know what the heads are, but we know what they are not, and we know that the cures are more difficult to characterize than these heads that are only characterized by their lack of description. These claims are presented as truths, and we are meant to accept them despite not knowing much and not even knowing the identity of the speaker, the authority. The first stanza is full of allusions to different times and places, pulling the reader from Flanders, to Khorasan (pre-2004 Iran), to heaven. We are inundated with images that increase in lushness, beginning with the heaviness of lead, the smooth synthetic of plastic, onto textile—bridal textile—and “pearl-sized nipples, pink cotton billowing” (here, Robertson names the textile and brings in colour). Then we are met with images of birds: the suffering woman sprouts feathers, a bird sits on a perfume burner, birds perch on heaven…

I was intimidated by this sensorial blitz at first; it is confusing. However, confusion is not a negative state in which to encounter a poem. It provokes thought, it is a productive feeling—like the birds, who are “not certainty-seekers,” Lisa Robertson welcomes uncertainty in her poetry. The speaker admits uncertainty in trying to think about the stricture of appearances and can only “[come] close” to thinking about it. Consider the relationship between the images in the first stanza and the stricture of appearances. A stricture can mean either a simple restriction, or a critical or censorial remark or instruction. We know that information is being censored, but how are we to engage with a poem called “The Stricture?” Is the whole poem, itself, a stricture, and in what way?

Robertson employs gendered language and imagery to explore the historical trajectories of women’s oppression; the theme of a woman suffering is, after all, “classic.” The suffering woman who sprouts feathers parallels the speaker’s metamorphoses in the second stanza. In this initial transformation, in the growing of feathers, the woman almost becomes a bird (another “classic” theme), seeking uncertainty and freedom from suffering. In order to even try to think about the stricture of appearances, which is deeply engrained in both sociocultural ideologies and in the body, the speaker transforms into different bodies and defies the stricture of her own body: she becomes a flower, a dog, and even smoke (perhaps the “perfumed smoke” from the Khorasan burner), which is not living, has no organs, is not even a solid. The stricture of appearances is so entangled in impositions of womanness or womanhood that one can only come close to understanding—or even thinking about—it if one’s organs, specifically one’s reproductive and sexual organs, are outside history. History dictates how we perceive things like standards of beauty, for example, so the stricture is historical and history itself is a stricture, critical and censorial. Confusion is necessary because confusion disrupts.

The next stanza makes firm claims but, again, we do not know who is speaking. Is this a dialogue? A series of remarks from one person? The speaker, or a judge? What follows is more gendered language and imagery: we read “handiwork” and think “handicraft,” or what is traditionally written off as “women’s work.” We are brought into the space of the kitchen, the pelvis of the house, which is a gendered space, also a stricture. Space, in Robertson’s poetry, is never incidental. Time and space seem layered and nonlinear, from the transient images and temporalities in the first stanza, to the modalities of occupying space, either as a shape-shifting smoke cloud or a dog—how do these bodies penetrate space differently, and isn’t the idea of “penetration” also gendered? We must also consider the space of the page, another stricture, upon which the elements of the poem exist.

“You” enters the poem in the second last stanza—but who is “you?” Perhaps “you” is the inner voice of the poem, which is otherwise thinking. We know that, in her poetic practice, Lisa Robertson researches ferociously before writing. So while the content of the poem can be very cerebral, very complex and layered and factual, perhaps the “you” is the opposite. The “you” is here to induce confusion and to disrupt. The speaker responds to “you” with, “I didn’t understand,” and claims uncertainty within their own narration. In throwing everything out that is doubtful, the speaker “[goes] blank.” Therefore, everything is doubtful, and uncertainty inhabits this limitless, liminal space. However, “[going] blank” is perhaps not entirely possible. In order to go blank one would have to free one’s organs from history and escape the body. Language functions in the poem like it does on the body: language is also a stricture and lives both on the page and within us. We are left with the image of sand, which, in relation to history, evokes the hourglass, time in flux, unfixed and uncertain. The speaker’s time is up, the poem is up, but the poem remains. Even if all the copies of this poem were to dissolve into smoke tomorrow, the poem continues to exist, at least in the context of this exchange, immortalized in this way and defying the stricture of time.

-HJK

Come to an evening with Lisa Robertson and Laura Broadbent tomorrow, October 21st, at 7pm. York Amphitheatre, EV 1.605, 1515 Rue St. Catherine. Robertson’s Debbie: An Epic will be performed in its entirety on Friday, October 21st in LB 671.05 at Concordia University’s LB building from 2 PM – 5 PM.

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