Monday, June 21, 2010

Debbie: An Epic

Robertson, Lisa. Debbie: An Epic. Vancouver, Canada: New Star Books, 1997.

One of the more prominent characteristics of Lisa Robertson's Debbie: An Epic is the manner in which typography and layout call attention to the material production and design of the artifact itself. For instance, on the inside cover (before the text proper begins), a short lyric appears that functions as an introductory missive, and to a certain extent, a brief guide on how to engage the poem: “imagine that an explorer arrives is aroused by an unreadable question acts in undreamed-of bilingual event. clear away the rubbish. the visible remains. Good luck!” More important than the author positing the reader as an “explorer” confronted with the mystery of “an unreadable question” and an “undreamed-of bilingual event,” is the fact that Robertson transgresses boundaries within the material artifact by presenting the literary text upon pages traditionally reserved for publication information, errata, and marginalia. Likewise, employing multiple fonts, colors, and weights to the typography on the title page foreshadows radical use of typography readers encounter throughout the collection. At its most conservative, the text's typographical experiments simply enlarge, alter, or strengthen/weaken the font, thus calling attention to certain words. In the opening poem, the poet typographically highlights words such as “Mirage,” “Harmony,” and “Disproportion,” encouraging readers to linger over them a bit longer and consider their heightened relevance; when Robertson writes “Harmony/ Effect of Disproportion,” the material alterations in the text attune the reader's concentration to the philosophical paradox of an antithesis' containment within the thesis rather than outside of it. Of course, a more radical use of typography occurs at the beginning of “Episode: Majorettes,” in which a single poem stretches across the expanse of two facing pages, overlayed upon a gray diamond shape. By using techniques such as this, the inscriptions, as well as the abstract designs that accompany them, function not just as text, but as visual art-objects themselves. Or, as the author writes, the inscriptions become “ornaments of my clever flesh: Borrowed/ from rivals,” or other mediums. By focusing on “ornaments,” Robertson privileges the artist and the act of creation as “All that is beautiful, from which I choose/ even artifice, which I hold above nature,” to mention nothing of the claim that “Artifice complicates,” and thus expands our world-views. Another convention the poet calls into question with her collection is classifications of poetry. Specifically, by invoking the term “Epic” within the title, repeatedly referencing Virgil, as well as herself as “Virgil's bastard daughter,” one expects the text to structure itself around a grand narrative in an effort to historicize or mythologize a particular community. But, of course, this is not what readers encounter. In fact, readers find that the protagonist, Debbie, is a “Moot person in moot place,” emptying her of particulars; moreover, Robertson devalues histories when she writes: “I'd like to think/ of narrative as a/ folly.” This is not to say that narrative does not serve a purpose. Indeed, narrative is “classically/styled” and “might decorate and/ articulate the idea of the/ present,” but it is founded upon “ambivalence” and the “rhetoric of our identity” (which is problematic, in that identity is “moot”): not upon truth, but upon “repeating the/ word political.” Another aesthetic feature of Debbie is how the poet “refracts the [poem's] cursive grammar” by “ticking against the/ dark adjacency of prose.../ of gods and punctuation.” Take, for instance, the following excerpt: “amazon an amazon with a mounted/ amazon from behind by an ama/ zon over a fallen amazon an/ amazon overcoming striking down/ an amazon an amazon striking.” Within these lines, several poetic idiosyncrasies that occur throughout the collection manifest themselves: 1) complete absence of punctuation, 2) repetition of the word, in this case “amazon,” and 3) breaking lines mid-word or on soft words. Finally, Robertson conflates extravagant and colloquial idioms, juxtaposing phrases such as “I've veiled/ such fulsome money, o tongue phosphoric, bleating” with “I've fucked things up, but I'm awake.”

No comments: