Lisa Robertson's The Men

reviewed by Melissa Flores-Bórquez and Edmund Hardy

MF-B: This is a lyric book in five parts. The writing comes in short passages, enjambed sentences mixed with prose. Often each short passage will contain a slip or jump, and then there is a transition of white space to the next little text. The Men reads as a lyric zone in which problems & questions overlap. The men are addressed, described, listed, ridiculed and their "funny pathos" is saluted. It's a satire, a glamorous joke, but the laughter turns "As laughter to a fall". Into a fretwork of men. The men are characterised by their "poverty speaking". They are often like the sky, they are "above", they make "something from what I am." The poem is
A purple scarf
Of men
From which men move
and it is also a "spree of men". Can I see myself in the mirror of men, in the past writings of men, or must there be an architecture of damage to clear constructed subjectivities? "The men are a ceiling, and their heart outside."

EH: An architecture which is what this lyric I does? Is the project to sing, empirically, of men and their effect, to represent without any solidifying influence of things (The Human Condition1) which does stabilize the web of relations in which the men act?

MF-B: Oh, to stay on that line, the poem could approach the revelatory aspect of speech as it reveals the something, the multiple interests which lie between people and therefore can relate and bind them together. True revelation appears as the designation runs, entirely ordinary if selves are disclosed in relation.

EH: There are two signs by which we know the men - faces and cocks - but the constant play of "the men" also seems to swing out to the older men-as-sentient-humanity. That men are comic, from The Men's perspective, for who were all those men who went around being everybody?

MF-B: Most of them were nobody who could have been somebody being everybody for some of us.

EH: Wasn't Marlon Brando one of them? In The Men (the 1950 film, dir. Zinnemann), the men are all debilitated and recuperating in a hospital for war veterans. But really they're method acting. The tagline promised, "A completely new experience between men and women."


Speech is a working problem in The Men though each man "needs no voice". Part 4, 'Of the vocable', contains this assertion: "I speak to them now in all my categories." The final part, 'True Speech', says
Won't change my life by speaking
while the satirical line reaches a vanishing point
To feel, to laugh, to ride horses
Is what the men are for.
out towards "I wished simply to represent them." The zone admits flaws, which are irony's doubts.

MF-B: In Robertson's books, doubt usually arrives early and brings "dividends".
[. . .] Our facades are so
Minor. What would I begin to say
If his words were
My poem. I am preoccupied with grace
And have started to speak expensively – as in
Have joys
Which look like choice
Ill–matched to its consequence
As laughter to a fall – bad memory
Poorly researched life
The men's
And their faces
As we do so
Fall upwards
We fall upwards, yet "The fall of light is the fall of the secular."

EH: Joshua Clover, in his essay 'The Adventures of Lisa Robertson in the Space of Flows' (Chicago Review2), considers a line which begins "Like the negligent fall of a scarf" from Rousseau's Boat, "Ah that negligent fall. Life is always about to fall into some design, some regime of representation, even as the regimes clash and reorder themselves. Life is before design, before architecture." Is it life which falls into the pattern of the men?

MF-B: Are the men an imperium? The imperium is an idea which Robertson, in Debbie: An Epic, approaches thus:
By representing a trait as mutual a coin certainly does lead us into debt,
but this coin, which the debtor accepts as existence, has been struck in
the likeness of one's soul by the indestructible Imperium.
Through The Men is a stamp, "The value of the money is changed according to the men who repeat virtue and truth, virtue and truth and things written on coins accordingly." A gracefully angry and ironic speaking in "their voices".
Some have gone to buy food
And some are returning and some
Never do. Some will die
Among books and I'm tired
Of the school of errors. Some
Put me in darkness. And some
Transparently slender in summer
Are so bold, though dulcet shade
Is brief, and some moan
As I enter the night on its hinge.
EH: Where is its hinge? This is a swooning sideways which occurs across the sound striations. It reminds me of Barbarina Lady Dacre translating Petrarch. Didn't Djuna Barnes debut with The Book of Repulsive Women? We could place The Men in the context of other books which unroll bright sociological borders.

MF-B: And say, in our reviewer-like way, Where once there was Christine de Pizan's cité des dames, now, outside-in, there is the book of men in their billions? Out of context, this quote would warm the thought: "The men are a house inside out." Maybe it's still worth formulating: instead of Debbie set in and against epic, turn around and represent the men with "only the reticence of intimacy".

EH: "A man is another person - a woman is yourself," as Nora observes in Nightwood. Barnes subtitled her first book "8 Rhythms and 5 Drawings", & Robertson's books could also perhaps be called rhythms: each one has a different rhythmic texture, or syllabic knobbling. In The Men the lines are short, and they begin with a capital letter; the sentences are mostly plain, but they are sharply enjambed; a jagged feel to the work, enclosed, so that the poem's echo keeps getting structured in the poem later, this re-inforced by repetitions and modulations of earlier phrases, "Young men of sheepish privilege becoming / Sweet new style".

MF-B: And sadness? "Casually frothing they demand a proportion. Instead of seeking the cause of the men, the cool plunging into them, the labour of the men like foam, I supply the surface with men." The repeated fact of mortality, "I'm 39".

Perhaps Clover is right to echo the Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel in his essay title, if Robertson was indeed spurred, as an endnote says, by portraits of men painted by Erin O'Brien and Lucy Hogg. I've seen stuff by Hogg where she samples from the Old Masters, simplifying a painting and quite literally providing a new perspective on a scene. Then there are portraits of men almost washed out in a single colour.
Humanly they are architectures especially in the evening light. They have undone us and they are not aesthetical. We have thought them before Laura ever died, undertaking to fill the boats. I have called it The Men, passing the vanished barbershops, and the cabs empty, and the soiled caps cast on the street, my coins in my hard fist reading Truth. Nostalgia isn't cognition. As much falsity as I can use, I carry. The men shimmer.

1 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, part 25
2 Chicago Review 51:4 & 52:1 Spring 2006

May 2006 / $16.00 / ISBN 0-9739742-5-7 / 69pp / 4.25x8 / Perfectbound / BookThug

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