Recent Poetic Investigations into the Contemporary Milieu

  • Donato Mancini (Author)
    Loitersack. New Star Books (purchase at
  • Derek Beaulieu (Author)
    kern. Les Figues (purchase at
  • Lisa Robertson (Author)
    Cinema of the Present. Coach House Books (purchase at
Reviewed by Eric Schmaltz

Formally unconventional poetry is often described using nebulous terms such as experimental, avant-garde, post-avant, or even radical. Recent full-length collections from Donato Mancini, Lisa Robertson, and derek beaulieu could be engaged by carefully situating them within these discourses. Collectively, these texts share an affinity for free linguistic play and textual subversion. However, in this review, I would like to map out the ways by which each of these authors so incisively identifies the pulse of the contemporary milieu and employs strategies to think about how and why literary artifice can assess and intervene into the contemporary moment.

In Loitersack (2014), Mancini adopts the oft-neglected genre of the “commonplace book.” Now recognized as an antiquated form, the commonplace book can be described as a scrapbook composed from a plethora of informational items such as notes, recipes, formulas, poems, quotations, prayers, and more. Mancini refers to his own text as a “knobbly bag of estrangements [l’autre sac]” which results in a swirling, nine-part textual eddy of poetic fragments and one play. The collection’s title points back to the sixteenth century; a “loitersacke,” as it was spelled in 1594, denotes a loitering, “inert or lumpish person;” however, Mancini reactivates these antiquations with contemporary finesse. “Introspective Data,” for example, is comprised of a long string of questions that are strikingly similar to an absurd and profound (and at times profoundly absurd) series of social media status updates. “Laugh Particles,” on the other hand, is a transcription of “all the laughter” in Philip Glenn’s Laughter in Interaction, and could be said to resemble pages of alien computer code. In these ways, Loitersack occupies a space that is simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar and within which we can investigate ongoing issues of poetry, poetics, and culture—one issue being the idea of the poem as a process and a product. Though a completed and published work, Loitersack is literally composed of a series of loitering fragments suspended in paratactic bliss. Loitersack, then, forces readers to reckon with the notion of the “finished” poem, and complicates the idea of the poem as a commodity.

Like Mancini’s “Introspective Data,” Lisa Robertson’s Cinema of the Present seems to draw influence—inadvertently or not—from the prevalence and power of the text-byte. Strategically employing its brevity, Robertson composes a 105-page long poem of non-sequiturs in two interrelated voices. Appropriate to the book’s invocation of the cinematic, Robertson’s language rotates like a shimmering, textual cylinder: passages move at an alarming speed, disappearing and reappearing on the page. In a lengthy dialogue, two voices exchange, repeat, return, and re-engage one another, continuing along the trajectory of Robertson’s poetic inquiry into issues of community, identity, and subjectivity, and how these ideas are inflected by information: “For you there is no information,” Robertson suggests in one voice, and later, in another, writes that “You are a theatre, not a machinery.” This general “you” is frequently addressed, but the subject only grows more vague despite its continual reappearance: “Its pronoun plays a social rupture.” Indeed, attempts to identify this “you” only push us further away. Instead it becomes diffuse, spread along the surface of the text in the same way that our own digital identities become spread across multiple media platforms, presenting our presence for other unknown yous. As a voice suggests: “What we have is a mix of improper disclosures of partial information mixed with inaccurate information and then drawn into unfounded conclusions . . . .”

Of the three, derek beaulieu has been most vocal about how his work relates to the conditions of the present. Stunning in its visuality, kernrepresents beaulieu’s ongoing transition from his earlier disruptive work—perhaps best represented in Fractal Economies, which challenged the logic of writing machines—toward a praxis that has become increasingly mimetic of quotidian modes of signification. Employing his characteristic and intentional misuse of dry-transfer lettering, beaulieu’s kern opens with a series of minimalist abstractions. Page by page, these texts increase in size until they become quite lavish and baroque. While beaulieu’s work has become increasingly “clean” over the years and less seemingly disruptive, the original spirit of beaulieu’s work remains: a commitment to the possibilities of linguistic expression and intervention. This new phase of work is not necessarily compliant with modes of signification in its similarities to corporate logos and advertising; rather beaulieu’s visually abstract materialism proposes modes of intervention into these conditions. beaulieu is no longer imagining ways by which we can explode the present, but rather ways to cut into it and re-imagine it.

This review “Recent Poetic Investigations into the Contemporary Milieu” originally appeared in Agency & Affect. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 223 (Winter 2014): 173-75.

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