PRINT May 2017


Lisa Robertson’s 3 Summers

Cover of Lisa Robertson’s 3 Summers (Coach House Books, 2016). Design and illustration by Hadley+Maxwell.

3 Summers, by Lisa Robertson, with artwork by Hadley+Maxwell. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2016. 120 pages.

THE BOOK’S pink-and-yellow ombré cover—depicting that dazzling moment of the sky at sunrise or sunset—offsets a pair of white-framed spectacles with rose-colored lenses. The air here is so smooth and flat that the title can be scribbled onto it with a broad-tipped blue marker. In “Rose,” the final poem of Lisa Robertson’s newest collection, we learn that the speaker dons such glasses to an ambivalent outcome: “Yet after a full week of rosy vision, I remained surly and withdrawn as ever. . . . Looking through rose was ever more laborious.” Still, the book concludes, “Rosily I will squander myself.”

We needn’t work hard to connect these spectacles to art, specifically to poetry. (“As medicine, they were very weak. And they were ill-fitted.”) Does such squandering feel a bit decadent? Intimes like these, can we afford to expend ourselves on the labor of artmaking? Can we afford not to? In 3 Summers, Robertson vigorously articulates the creative waste of poetry as a response and remedy to suffering. It is the conceptual excess that tips “the mystic dialectic of toxins and hormones,” transforming what ails into what elates us. It is a reckless ride—pulling in Lucretius, Karl Marx, Gustave Flaubert, and Gertrude Stein—to the underbelly of historical materialism, in order to recuperate an embodied revolutionary thinking.

3 Summers comprises eleven long poems (which include poetic sequences and hybrid poem-essays), as well as artwork by the Berlin- and Toronto-based Canadian duo Hadley+Maxwell, with whom Robertson has collaborated on four other books. The pair also designed the cover, but the interior art is starkly black-and-white and far more illegible. Do we see here a worm or a spine, a multilegged parasite or a tree-lined horizon, intestines within a torso or roots covered with soil? Ultimately, these are less figures than forms: neither clinically abstract nor vainly representational, but teeming compositions emerging from, and playing with, matter.

In “On Form,” Robertson describes her subject as “every cell’s means of turning every / thing into transcendent operatic.” This statement is, essentially, Robertson’s rendering of amor fati as a creative and activating force: The growth of cells that we know as cancerous might also construct a sublime corpus, and the knowledge that politics can restrict and regulate us even on a cellular level offers the conviction and consolation that dissent—and, yes, revolution—can take shape here in the microcosm as well. In his seminal 1934 tract The Life of Forms in Art, Henri Focillon writes, “Although [form] is our most strict definition of space, it also suggests to us the existence of other forms. It prolongs and diffuses itself throughout our dreams and fancies: We regard it, as it were, as a kind of fissure through which crowds of images aspiring to birth may be introduced into some indefinite realm.” Focillon is echoed in “Rose,” in which Robertson, with the help of her new spectacles, envisions the circulation of forms giving rise to a state she calls (harvesting the term from Nietzsche) “The Great Health.” “The Great Health isn’t solipsistic but it is thorough. The open pores of the skin receive and diversify images. Think of chords, or durations. The air and the architecture . . . these seem lit with the potential of a carnal becoming.”

Poetry presides over this realm of possibility. This is how poetry, even if at times weak, ill fitting, and difficult to see through, is nonetheless a hormone, a stimulant of revitalization and revolution, and a catalyst for the emergence of new forms. “The poem is a hormone. / I have no idea what song means / That polishes the heart,” writes Robertson in “The Seam,” a gloriously rhythmic and philosophical account of illness, aging, femininity, and desire. The poem concludes with the speaker seizing for herself the tools of interpellation, a remarkable declaration of her will to power as Nietzsche intended—as a response to weakened and obstructed embodiment, permeated with the pathos of irony, and as a means of survival, one that embraces its “base note of decay, as do all the greatest perfumes”:

The great health is unknown gratuitous expenditure towards the material ideal.

It is not a metaphor.

From now on, everything will be called The Middle, everything will be called The Seam, everything will be called Toxins, everything will be called The Great Health.

Everything will be a hormone.

Everything will be squandered. Everything will rise. Everything will be rose.

Mia You is the author of I, Too, Dislike it (1913 Press, 2016). She lives in the Netherlands.

Visit our archive to read Dan Adler’s review of the work of Hadley+Maxwell (May 2010).