One morning , Hazel Brown wakes up in a hotel room in Vancouver to discover that she is the author of Baudelaire’s complete works. This is the beginning of Lisa Robertson’s The Baudelaire Fractal, which is billed as a novel, but reads more like a combined Bildungsroman, ars poetica and series of essays on clothing, painting, gender and reading. By appropriating Baudelaire’s body of work, ‘by repeating it within herself’, Hazel renders it ‘misshapen’. She nibbles holes in the fabric of male authorship, the way moths gnaw through a second-hand frock-coat.
The year is 1984. Hazel travels from Vancouver to Paris and takes up a series of jobs that all sound vaguely 19th century: companion to an elderly Huguenot widow of the Algerian war, serving tea in a handmade uniform of ‘cloying pink cotton piqué’, nanny to precocious children in apartments stuffed with colonial relics, the father jangling the keys to his many mistresses’ doors on a single fob. Fleeing the feminised work that maintains the ‘macabre bourgeois house’, Hazel occupies anonymous and dirty chambres de bonne: ‘No need, no contract, no seduction: just the free promiscuity of a disrobed mind.’ She reads, drinks beer for lunch and embraces impersonal relationships. ‘I would go to kiss in a park all afternoon because that was the luxury I preferred, to kiss a nameless boy near fountains, then return alone to my bare hotel.’ ‘A girl in her hotel is free,’ Hazel says.
I want to claim this word free for myself and I intend to use it wrongly very often. Here by free I mean that nothing is meant for her. She is outside history, outside poetry, outside theology, outside thought, outside money. Therefore she should claim anything.
Shrugging off vulnerability, her neck ‘a painful collar of bruises’ after a lover nearly strangles her, she floats ‘in the possibility of drifting unattended, the freedom of floating’: a flâneuse writing poems on a lumpy mattress at the Hotel Avenir.
Hazel is fascinated by the lives of two women associated with Baudelaire. The first is Jeanne Duval, an actress and his mistress of more than twenty years, who was inscribed in and subsequently excised from Courbet’s painting The Artist’s Studio. (‘Jeanne’s body was not her body; it was the field of an aesthetic proclamation and its withdrawal.’) The second is the nameless subject of Émile Deroy’s painting La Petite Mendiante rousse, a redheaded singer admired by the denizens of the Latin Quarter. Baudelaire wrote a poem obsessing over her ‘young body, slight/Covered in freckles’. The girl’s social abjection was Baudelaire’s mirror; she reflects the ‘puny poet’ back to himself. He too was penniless, and the same year he wrote that poem ‘had half-seriously attempted suicide, stabbing himself in the heart with a little dagger at a cabaret, I repeat, stabbing himself in the heart with a little gold dagger at a cabaret.’
‘Oh men. Our red-haired twats and our torn skirts, you must claim them. We sing anyway,’ Hazel sighs. Duval’s uncertain life, and the unnamed redheaded beggar girl, are typical of erotic lyric, in which the unknowability of the beloved (female) object is often implicit. Take for example the heroine of Ovid’s elegies, Corinna. Her name derives simply from the Greek kore, ‘girl’. Apart from her hairstyles, her abortion and her enjoyment of sex, we learn almost nothing about Corinna as an individual – what she says, what she feels, what she thinks. She is an object and an opportunity.
Hegel observes something similar in Petrarch’s poetry, which ‘removes the object altogether from the scope of practical desire; it has an interest only in this imaginative occupation.’ The idealised beloved allows Petrarch to explore ‘the freedom of the inherently ennobled feeling’, to turn phrases of joy and sorrow in a playful way unconstrained by actual relation. Robertson’s poetry (she has published eleven collections) aspires to a similar ludic freedom, which has long been enjoyed by male authors, but she turns the tradition of idealisation on its head. ‘You carried the great discovery of poetry as freedom, not form,’ she writes. With that discovery, ‘You seized the freedom to occupy a vanishing referent’: the feminine subject who has vanished from history. For Robertson the idea of the girl, with ‘her inescapable maladroitness – always leaking, bruising, stinking, lusting’, is ‘an infraction in thought’. So it is in The Baudelaire Fractal too: Hazel ‘entered literature like an assassin, leaking, fucking, wanting, drinking’. But rather than blowing up the warehouse of the masculine canon ‘with our anciently scorned thinking’, Robertson chooses to refashion it.
The imperturbable equanimity of Robertson’s style betrays an affinity for Enlightenment rhetoric and a modern feminist irony: like Edith Sitwell reading Alexander Pope. But her early books also owe a debt to Virgil. He wrote his Eclogues and Georgics before attempting his epic; Robertson began her cursus with XEclogue (1993), a book of pastoral featuring the ‘roaring boys’, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Nancy the shepherdess, and ‘a pink prosthesis hidden in the forest’. Debbie: An Epic (1997), in which ‘Virgil’s Bastard Daughters Sing’, followed soon after. In 2001, she also published a book-length georgic poem, The Weather, in which ‘everything is lifted’ from 18th and 19th-century works of natural history such as Luke Howard’s 1803 typology of clouds.
Robertson is seduced by the ‘archaic pleasures’ of these obsolete genres. ‘Let’s pretend you “had” a land,’ she writes in XEclogue. ‘Then you “lost” it. Now fondly describe it. That is pastoral. Consider your homeland, like all utopias, obsolete … What if, for your new suit, you chose to parade obsolescence?’ For the female subject who finds herself in the margins of poetic history, appearing only as the cipher of love lyric, it’s time to break out of the hortus conclusus: ‘We’re outside the garden. A perspective extends like a green aperture through which we view another world.’
Breaking out of the garden means occupying forms that are traditionally male – much as Hazel appropriates Baudelaire’s work. The Men, Robertson’s poetry collection from 2006, sings in the ‘sweet new style’ and ‘sparse rhyme’ of Petrarch and Dante. Lucretius, with his theory of the clinamen (the uncertain swerve of atoms that gives the universe its unpredictability), is another touchstone: 3 Summers (2016) includes a reworking of the invocation of Venus from his De rerum natura.
In 2017, as part of her ongoing project translating Occitan troubadour and trobairitz poetry, Robertson published a chapbook titled Starlings which invokes the ‘starling songs’ of Marcabru. This project also led to the publication of Anemones: A Simone Weil Project. The book centres on a new translation of Weil’s essay from 1942 ‘What the Occitan Inspiration Consists Of’. Exploring Weil’s place in the Cahiers du Sud circle based in Marseille during the Second World War, Robertson investigates Weil’s elevation of the troubadour concept of love to a practice of political resistance that rejects violence in all its forms. She reads Weil’s Christianity, her politics and her suffering as a ‘heretical history’ through which we can learn new ways to resist the ‘seamless, mediatised integration of expansionist and extractive values in every dimension of our living’.
Anemones is inspired by a sentence from one of Weil’s student essays: ‘To make six shirts from anemones and keep silent: this is our only way of acquiring power.’ Weil is thinking of the Brothers Grimm story about a sister who sews shirts out of plants (Weil says anemones, the original says starflowers, while in some translations it’s nettles) to free her brothers who have been turned into swans. The task takes six years and the sister must keep silent throughout. ‘To act is never difficult,’ Weil writes, ‘we always act too much and scatter ourselves ceaselessly in disorderly deeds … The sole strength and sole virtue is to cease from acting.’ The brothers are eventually freed. It’s a story about female speechlessness, but also about passive resistance and the power of making. On a basic level, it’s also about textiles – a theme that runs throughout Robertson’s work.
The etymological link between text and textile, the conventionally feminised work of garment-making, Gottfried Semper’s theory that woven fabrics were the earliest kind of architecture: these are some of the reasons that fabric is important to Robertson. Another is that clothes are experiments in subjectivity. The thrift shop is a gallery of obsolescence. Inhabiting used garments, which carry the smells, oils and gestures of other bodies, we experiment with occupying other selves. As she writes in The Baudelaire Fractal: ‘The unfamiliar set of a shoulder or the tugging sensation of a row of tight wrist buttons can hint at the gestural vocabulary of a previous epoch … Sartorial time isn’t singular but carries the living desires of bodies otherwise disappeared.’ Clothing materialises time. In her knock-off Thierry Mugler suit, Hazel ‘wore mimetic time into the streets [and] became its experimental body’.
Few poets have been more interested in fashion than Baudelaire. Paraphrasing his essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863), Robertson says: ‘Beauty was only ever modern, in modernity’s costumes … It would not be dressed in classical robes and attitudes; the new beauty would be found in the daily life of the city.’ In pursuit of that beauty, her work haunts liminal spaces – hotel rooms, shacks, huts, porches, vestibules, rooftops, the urban wastelands where the blackberry grows.
In Boat, Robertson’s latest book of poems, she walks the city with the flâneurs, the Situationists or rhythmanalysts and studies ‘the ground, the soft ruins of paper and the rusting things’, discovering ‘a tenuous utopia made from steel, wooden chairs, glass, stone, metal bed frames, tapestry, bones, prosthetic legs, hair, shirt cuffs, nylon, plaster figurines, perfume bottles and keys’. These wanderings among the rubbish cast up by capitalism’s ebbing tide uncover histories of surplus and resistance. To the flâneuse, the city reveals itself as a living organ of perception: ‘Sometimes I think the entire history of perceiving is encoded in a city.’ And in that history, ‘I begin to feel like a wandering perceiving organ that belongs to the city, rather than to any autobiography.’
To belong to the city in this way is to anonymise oneself and slip out of the constraints of gender. Robertson has always been interested ‘in whatever mobilises and rescues the body’, including hormones, menopause, and the erotic and resistant potential of skin, organ, fold and fashion. As fish in lakes and rivers become feminised by the oestrogen in waste water, so human bodies can be altered by their environment. In order to challenge capitalist productivity, in which women are marked as
the abject and monstrous ciphers of both reproduction and consumption, our choice can only be to choke out the project of renovation. We must become history’s dystopic ghosts, inserting our inconsistencies, demands, misinterpretations and weedy appetites into the old bolstering narratives: We shall refuse to be useful.
Robertson’s Proverbs of a She-Dandy (2018) celebrated the pleasures of the menopausal woman. Removed from reproductive use value, her ‘organs become purely self-referential. They have no further potential for family or spectacle or state: they’re outside every economy,’ directed towards ‘convivial and autonomous pleasure only’. The menopausal woman ‘neither begets nor works, but drifts’.
For Robertson, drifting is both a practice and a style. Boat is a revision of R’s Boat (2010), which itself extends her chapbook Rousseau’s Boat (2004). The title recalls the fifth walk of the philosopher’s Reveries. Seeking refuge on the pastoral island of Saint-Pierre from neighbours who drunkenly stoned his house, with only Thérèse Levasseur (and a few servants) to sustain him, Rousseau enjoys a bit of botany, advises on rabbit-rearing, and dedicates himself to idleness. ‘I let myself float and drift wherever the water took me, often for several hours on end’; he is so distracted by vague yet delightful reveries that he has to row hard to get home when darkness falls.
Robertson assembled the poems in Boat by drawing on her old notebooks: ‘an accruing index of a lifetime’. Refusing to censor the cruel or embarrassing sentiments expressed by her past selves, she compares her approach to that of Rousseau in his Confessions. But her method of extraction, and her way of ordering the material, gives the poems an impersonal quality, where the grammar of selves mixes with the multiplicity of the world:
With instruments made from negation
In the assimilating person
In a pronoun that absorbs everything
We have laid in the vocables of the not-yet-feminine
For a whole sentence at a time I become
The world with its streets, interiors, railroad stations, restaurants, sportscars and beaches
If only in some minor respect
Like Hazel, the subject of these poems ‘intended to be nourished’. But while Hazel designs her own sentimental education to escape the drudgery of customary girlhood, the ‘I’ – that absorbent pronoun – in Boat remains static as it drifts through flickering scenes of speculative thought, feminist inquiry and ‘greeny pleasure’.
Robertson’s style mixes sensual detail with abstraction, drawing its vocabulary from theory and philosophy, but ‘mostly I seek the promiscuous feeling of being alive.’ In the opening lines of 3 Summers, the speaker embraces the Dantean confusion of midlife:
4:16 in the afternoon in the summer of my 52nd year
I’m lying on the bed in the heat wondering about geometry
as the deafening, uninterrupted volume of desire
bellows, roars mournfully, laments
like a starling that has flown into glass.
These are two things that I want to remember permanently:
the dog straining diagonally after the hare at dusk last night
and the glittering disco sky.
I am no longer afraid of being misunderstood when I state
the old men’s docile gadgetry –
I don’t buy it.
What suits me better is to stargaze or to lie in stylish baths.
Now it’s time to return to the sex of my thinking.
How long do I get?
It’s late afternoon, later in life, and she is thinking in bed, or in a bath, the sound of uninterrupted desire breaking against the unreflective glass. Contemplating geometry – perhaps the elliptical orbits plotted by Johannes Kepler, which Robertson has written about in relation to Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas – and memories of an animal at dusk, this speaker has earned her sceptical relation to ‘old men’s docile gadgetry’, whether that’s the history of poetry, painting, sex or science. Looking back over ‘nine centuries of rhyme’ from ‘the sumptuous wreckage of the present’, she chooses what to remember: the dog, the sky.
Robertson’s work offers a philosophical defence of the girl, a celebration of the menopausal dandy, a speculative release from the constraints of gender, and a portrait of reading as drifting. It asks: ‘What are the acts and agencies of weakness? Its history? Rather than fearing weakness, is it possible to choose to deviate, to align with it, tarry there? Then what? What could weak thinking do? What are its techniques and potentials?’ Mapping the potential of weakness, the poet skirts the city, finding pleasure in its weedy alleyways, thrift shops and rickety shacks. These, like girlhood, are sites which can evade valorisation by capital or economies of prestige. As she puts it in her essay on Weil, ‘Pleasure resides and flourishes also in intellectual uncertainty and deferral.’
Part of the work of poetry, Robertson writes, is to defend ‘the non-representable vibrations of spiritual desire’. The challenge of representing the non-representable keeps the current of poetry flowing through life’s different stages. At 4.16 in the afternoon in the summer of my 52nd year, however arbitrary that time or subject position is, ‘I feel discontent with the conventions I’ve matured within. I want to begin again, to insist that a poet is an amateur, which is to say, a beginner, who works only in the company of language’s ghosts … To sense with one another in new time, the desiring work of poesis must begin empty handed.’ How long do I get?