Picture This: Space and Time in Lisa Robertson's "Utopia/"
Davidson, Ian, Mosaic (Winnipeg)
This essay examines relationships between space and time in Lisa Robertson's poem "Utopia/," demonstrating connections between Robertson's poetics and aspects of spatial theory, and the ways in which her concerns with architectural form, urban space, "ornament," style, and surface can inform readings of her work.
In her poem "Utopia/," from her 2004 book, Rousseau's Boat, Lisa Robertson uses a time of day or year to begin each stanza or section of the poem. "Utopia/" begins "In the spring of 1979," while in the second stanza, "The season called November addresses speech to us" (21). In the third stanza it is "At about midnight in autumn." The times are neither consecutive nor consistent; some give years, others times of the year, seasons, or times of day. Although each "time" seems to be the beginning of a narrative, the individual sections do not complete the narrative. Neither do the sections develop any kind of narrative continuity, moving from "spring," to "autumn," to "four in the morning" (22), "early June" (23), and "Saturday evening" (24). The blank line before each "time" also marks them out visually; they can be quickly identified on the page. While not entirely consistent, the use of these times as an apparent structuring device does develop both visual and aural patterning. This patterning is, however, more within an aesthetics of coincidence and contiguity, that things are next to each other because they happen to be so, rather than the temporal sequencing of a narrative that is held teasingly just out of arm's length; as Joshua Clover comments on the sense of narrative continuity in "Utopia/" in his essay on Robertson, "you'll trust it continues. Except it doesn't, exactly" (77).
Each section or stanza of the poem is made up of a number of short sentences, combining abstract thought and emotion with concrete detail and description. Within the sections, the sentences seem to stand in a relationship to each other that is synchronous, although, of course, one does come after another in the order of the page, and paratactic--there is little sense of continuity or sequence or any hierarchical relationships between the different elements of the poem. The poem continually defers meaning, promising but never quite delivering. Yet the poetry does develop the sense of a life that constructs and is constructed through the poem, although a life from the perspective of an "I" that is shifting and fluid. Robertson claims to want to go beyond the collagist and paratactic structures of much experimental writing and says of the poem in an interview in 2005, "I wanted no sense of development in a narrative or psychological sense, and yet I wanted to build connections in a way that the completely paratactic approach of the 'new sentence' sequence didn't quite seem to carry" (Fierle-Hedrick 52).
As there are hints of a life, there are also glimpses of locations and surroundings. As soon as a "scene" begins to develop recognizable features, however, the poem moves on or changes perspective, often seeming to keep the reader between places and maintaining them in a state of disorientation or dislocation. This is partially explained by the source of the material for the poems in Rousseau's Boat, which comes, according to Robertson, from "culling from a huge stack of my old notebooks" (Fierle-Hedrick 51). Describing the process of gathering together the material and writing "Utopia/," Robertson says: "I did a second cull from the same notebooks--I transcribed each sentence that seemed to describe a place or site. I wanted to somehow situate or spatially contextualise the first person of 'Face/'" (52). Robertson's account of the process of construction of the poem simultaneously clarifies and obscures. Her earlier description of the process of writing "Face/," another long poem in Rousseau's Boat, where she "reread maybe 15 years of notebooks and transcribed each first person sentence" is more helpful, particularly in the light of her desire to "construct an autobiographical text that remained impersonal, yet which would hold together as its own subject" (51). …