Reduce Revere Transcend

Reviewed by Carl Watts

Central to avant-garde dismissals of so-called mainstream poetry is a disinterest in lyric, that omnipresent yet increasingly blurry category. Recent books by Angela Hibbs, Nikki Sheppy, and Lisa Robertson address precisely this dynamic, in turn raising the question of whether pushing the boundaries of lyric using familiar methods is really experimental, or possible—or, perhaps, if those are the right questions at all.

On the surface, the texts have little in common. Hibbs’ Control Suppress Delete is a series of short, free-verse vignettes. They differ from Hibbs’ other work due mostly to their comparative formlessness; in a way, they reduce her previous books’ longer swaths of lyric and experimental reference points to jotted questions about where such poems could have been going. Few make it past a page, and not many more approach its halfway point. The book reads like a series of false starts; the seven lines of “Raining Coins” end, “The cent is the only coin / stamped onto pre-made blanks. / Witness process.”

Control Suppress Delete is at its best when its simplicity and brevity interrogate lyric poetry’s common assumptions. “Free Verse” maxes out the potential of line breaks—

Seasons’ causes disinterest
us. Attention drawn to drawing
quarterly. Pencils drawn and paper distant.
Drawing draws us to structure, references
bones. Weigh probability
of lead raised. Lazarus varies,
makes wishes copper-real

—each line multiplying meaning, subverting anticipated syntax, or retroactively converting one part of speech to another. With little contemporary lyric poetry seeming sure about why its lines end where they do, the poem’s subtle engagement with this seldom-acknowledged puzzle feels more than necessary.

Fragmentary works like these also give the impression of a poet warming up; this is perhaps the point, but it leaves something to be desired in terms of both rigour and exploration. Like its namesake’s testimony before Congress, “Mark Zuckerberg” goes nowhere (even if lines like “More than his billion dollar ideas, / he thinks, it is his ability to put himself in / other people’s shoes that makes him tall,” with their slight disjunction of clichés, mirror the innocuously omnipresent social network). “Blue” enacts the simple wordplay one might expect from a short poem named for a primary colour, but lines like “Make blue blur bluer // Resist blue, spread blue, brighten blue, / make blue new, what did blue ever do / to you?” leave unclear what the exercise is achieving.

Fail Safe is Sheppy’s debut collection, coming after 2014 chapbook Grrrrlhood and many years working in experimental poetry communities. The book’s elaborate sequences explore some new ground without feeling much need to hide their indebtedness to Language-poetry traditions. Opener “How to Read” consists of diagrams surrounded by accompanying blocks of text. Isolated fragments like:

cement spine
steel-bound locket
transiting incisive
marrow with its
saltwater cargo
& tuft
of hairy vellum

are interwoven with more logically connected pieces, and the arrangement at once aids readers in navigating the text and questions the path they’ve taken.

Many rewarding passages emerge from Fail Safe’s variety and visual sprawl. “Mitigation” explores several supposed fail-safe mechanisms, treating text as at once material and inherently separate from any ability to control our circumstances. “Trapped Key Interlocking,” with its pileup of nested closing parentheses, expresses this paradox with playful irony: “{and also this final key / opens} opens] opens) opens} opens] opens) opens.”

Still, Fail Safe sometimes feels constrained by its reverence for Language writing. “Mouthfeel” explores the rheological properties—“the consistency, flow, and feel of something . . . inside the mouth”—of “language itself.” It’s a complex and considered section, but its embrace of alphabetization, encyclopedic description, the bodily, the haptic, and the physicality of language makes it seem like an attempt to check every Language box imaginable. “Odour Thesaurus” is a funny, affect-obsessed variation on similar themes—the entry for “IRASCID” ends:

In green glass the weedy
Jägermeisters are blowing
brackish. Hunted
pearlescence, digestif

—yet it too stays close to the ABCs of the experimental.

Robertson’s 3 Summers also pushes boundaries while being reverent of experimental conventions. By inhabiting a range of radical subjectivities and their absence, however, it somehow manages to seem fragmented yet unified, singular yet distinctly the work of Robertson. Gone are the obtrusions of method and non-narrativity that sometimes marked her previous books as outwardly experimental. To parse Sina Queyras’ well-known description of Robertson’s work, it’s easier to see the lyric than the conceptualism.

3 Summers consists of eleven sections that fade into one another, creating a swath of verse essay that is consistent even as it changes shape. “On Form” effortlessly plays regular-yet-arbitrary line breaks off the exuberance of the run-on sentence:

You could say that form is learning
you can see form take shape
at the coronal suture’s first arcade
it’s explaining it’s appearing
unestranged from enormity’s
prick of a spiny plant like a rose

Much of the collection moves this quickly, with Robertson’s capacious aesthetic accommodating further variations on her previous work’s syntheses of lyric and experimentation. “The Middle” is the book’s longest section, and its most shapeless; lines like “Now I’m thinking only time is style, all / those leaves opening as bodies specific / to themselves” inscribe process as method, in turn drawing strength from the ill-defined aspects of lyric. The essayistic “Third Summer” seems at once arbitrary and systematic:

What I want to know is
what are anybody’s elements? Or
the base data of a lark? Or
what if we’ve made the wrong use of the joy of our bodies? what if
we’re to be formal translators of bird cries
in the aesthetics-politics binary
and the material of poetry is also the immaterial movement of history
from beak to beak
in anyone’s Latin.

Like Hibbs and Sheppy, Robertson depends on lyric just as she tampers with it until it’s difficult to recognize. But instead of settling for the fragmentary or relying on the paradox of traditional experimentation, Robertson transcends such quagmires by twisting her lyric-conceptual aesthetic into still more compelling shapes.

This review “Reduce Revere Transcend” originally appeared in Lost and Found Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 236 (2018): 157-159.

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