In Review

Cinema of the Present by Lisa Robertson. Coach House Books, 2014.

cover of Cinema of the Present

Reviewed December 1, 2015 by Sam Lohmann.

On Lisa Robertson’s Cinema of the Present

Freedom as related to politics is not a phenomenon of the will…. Rather it is … the freedom to call something into being which did not exist before, which was not given, not even as an object of cognition or imagination, and which therefore, strictly speaking, could not be known. Action, to be free, must be free from motive on one side, from its intended goal as predictable effect on the other.

—Hannah Arendt, “What Is Freedom?”

Honeysuckle, elder, moss, followed each other like a sequence of phrases in a sentence, distinct, yet contributing successively to an ambience that for the sake of convenience I will call the present.

—Lisa Robertson, “Face”

1 / a present in production

Lisa Robertson’s new book is a perpetual-motion-and-stillness machine that produces an ongoing present in the poem as it flickers between poet and reader. The recurring pronoun you, as if reinvented, bridges this betweenness. “A latent rhythm discovered you.” “A latent rhythm discovered your pronoun.” “What is a pronoun but a metaphor?1 The you this book imagines is anybody in particular, reader, poet, the one Robertson elsewhere calls “each beginner as she quickens.”2 Your beginning is continually unsettled and extended so that you become the site of one potential infinity, among others with their own passing textures and scents: “… you’ll explore beginner infinities.” “Wherever you go, you will be a city.” “You define ‘city’ as a viscous sensing.”

The book follows a flexible but all-pervading form, one that sidesteps exposition in favor of a lattice-like interconnectedness: lines in roman and italic type alternate; each line (usually a single sentence) recurs once in each typeface, often with variation. The italic lines appear in something close to alphabetical order; the roman lines are interlarded freely. The title Cinema of the Present names this magic mechanism, whose effect is less of dialogue than polyphony: “Two identical melodic patterns fall out of sequence.” Cinema simulates motion by alternating still images with blanks, but in this text the recurrence between two intertwined sequences renders the present thick and active—less like the onrushing surface of film than like the moiré pattern of two overlaid grids. Or “A gate made of perspex.” “Were you a dandy then? / Your surface is entirely concentric.”

Robertson has used this form in the past for shorter poems, dialogic lyrics.3 On the larger scale of the present book, the same form becomes choral and epic, with a new relationship to time. Jack Spicer thought a poet should be a time mechanic. Reading Cinema tests that possibility. When the poem functions as its own index, pointing elsewhere within itself at every point, reading becomes dwelling, or lingering, or loitering, rather than linear passage. The crystal lattice does not petrify or embalm but activates circulatory motion and sympathetic vibration among all parts. These “beginner infinities” are a prosody for living, a soft architecture where domus=civis: “Your interior is all exterior.” “You were reading the city recklessly. / I’m entirely for your fucked-up way of living.”

Sentences in present, past, and (subjunctive) future tenses mix freely, among fragments. Conditional phrases and temporal adverbs (now, still, always, sometimes, yet, once again) compose a texture of ongoingness. The prosody is a heart and therefore a politics. Of course, a heart made of language belongs not to some self but to fleeting pronouns. Its rhythm is vernacular in Robertson’s special sense4—erupting between speakers, uncontrollable because contingent on usage, controversy, context and nerve. In its domestic public space you find yourself among others (that is what you means). “The system of relationship you maintained with your body kept dissolving. / You were in the position of perpetual commentary.”

These lines are followed by what I read as the book’s thesis: “You refuse the demand for self-identity in aesthetics or in politics; the two concepts meet at your refusal.” The next line renders the refusal personal, plural, and gendered: “You were Christine, Molly, Lynette. You were Marie, Gwyneth, Oenone, Stacy, Erin. You were Lorna and Allyson.” (A version of this line has occurred earlier in the text, with other women’s names.) Robertson re-envisions feminism and openly attacks capitalist superstitions of market, scarcity, and reified individualism. “Feminism wants to expand the sensorium.” “Let feminism be this girl raging at a chandelier.” What moves these concerns from speculation to action is a poetic technique for embodying the present. The poem is a worldly artifice, a refusal flung recklessly towards our midst. “Now only time is wild.”

2 / r., virtuoso beginner

Elsewhere in the book, Robertson invokes “the great discovery of poetry as freedom, not form.” Maybe then I’ve overemphasized this matter of form when freedom is more to the point. But form, in this work, is freedom’s technique. It’s how writing produces the present in which it finds the authority to change. To think through this terrifying word, authority, in relation to such a radiantly disobedient book, I turn to Hannah Arendt’s writing, where authority and freedom are complementary demands of any authentic politics.

Robertson’s thought often engages with Arendt’s but departs from it in important ways. Robertson demolishes the division (foundational for Arendt) between public-civic and private-domestic space and activity. In the process, she explodes Arendt’s narrow definition of politics as public action (implicitly propertied, non-domestic, and male). At least since Soft Architecture, Robertson has worked to form biology, labor, action, thinking into one prosody of simultaneity. (Arendt turns obsessively to the Athenian polis, but Robertson is a saturnine Roman like Ovid or Cy Twombly. Another touchstone is Rousseau, the revolutionist as solitary walker: “The quiet revolutions of loneliness are a politics.”5) For Arendt, a poet or philosopher can never be political. For Robertson, she must be.

The crucial idea Robertson borrows from Arendt is the freedom and authority found in natality, beginning—language “free to deform and invent” rather than mimic what is. Arendt allows that “in the epochs of petrification and foreordained doom,” freedom is kept alive in ordinary human activity as “the sheer capacity to begin,” but denies that it is truly worldly in such conditions, lacking the power to “interrupt automatic processes” through effective political action.6 But Robertson pursues her worldly, feminist politics precisely in this realm of thinking, willing (and nilling), sensing, raging, reading—and, in our epoch of petrified doom, finds means to interrupt automatic processes.

In an essay discussing Arendt’s philosophy alongside Lucretius’s physics and Pauline Réage’s erotics, Robertson writes:

What she [Arendt in The Life of the Mind] is forming is an alternative, and I believe a dissident one, to the implementation of thinking as an instrumental practice, an activity that exerts quantifiable agreed-upon appearances and influences and effects the public sphere. She is saying that the activity of thinking is an unanswerable one, that its lack of appearance is its resource.… I agree with Arendt that thinking’s community is unquantifiable.

Swerving from thinking to reading, she adds:

If reading could be said to have broader, worldly effects, they might be modeled on the random agency of the Epicurean clinamen, that wide-open and trembling proposition of utterly uncaused and spontaneous material change.7

In other words thinking, however invisibly and unpredictably, acts, makes a difference in a shared world:

You are in a world of plurals.

Always a war has been fought on your body.

You are insistent about the uncovering of this potential difference.

You said the sex of believing is dirt.

You are its immaterial organ.

Your economy did this to you.

You are Lucretian and self-reliant but sometimes exhausted.

Nor is sensing private.

So the spontaneous, unanswerable, swerving, irreducible particles, invisible as thought and feeling, appear in conversation with others, as language in time, with civic valence—they involve you.

Arendt links political freedom to Machiavelli’s understanding of virtú, virtuosity in answering the unforeseen occasions of fortune. As virtuoso beginner then, Robertson acts in the present, towards the unknown. Cinema’s epigraph, from the linguist Émile Benveniste, indicates this disposition: “In addition, one must allow for chance discoveries, always possible in this vast domain in which the investigation has not been systematically pursued.” Which returns us to the poem’s contrapuntal form, the unforeseen structure that emerges as a sequence of lines is arranged on the arbitrary scaffolding of its own index. (The alphabetical order of most of the italic lines is arbitrary but also revealing in a text where nearly half the sentences begin at the alphabet’s end, with You.)

The structure is observed throughout but constantly departed from. The poem’s real form is “total gestural plasticity,” or “free error,” or “the viable infinity of the pelvis”; nothing poet or reader could follow, much less obey.8 “Curiosity, limbs and momentum: because of form you kept playing.” The poem’s authority appears when, like any organism, it takes the form it finds: “Authority is speech that does not limit itself to mimicking something that already exists; it is free to deform and invent, as long as it remains obedient to its own inner law, you say. / You’re going way out on a purple raft.” Such authority authors the audacious rejections, solidaritous recognitions, skeptical glances and swashbuckling demystificatory gestures by which the outrageous beginner quickens into action.


1These and all subsequent unattributed quotations are taken from Cinema of the Present (Toronto: Coach House, 2014).
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2“Untitled Essay,” in Nilling: Prose Essays on Noise, Pornography, the Codex, Melancholy, Lucretius, Folds, Cities and Related Aporias (Toronto: Bookthug, 2012).
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3See “Draft of Voice-Over for Split-Screen Video Loop” (in Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip, Toronto: Coach House, 2009) and “Face” (in R’s Boat, University of California, 2010).
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4See Robertson’s “Untitled Essay” in Nilling.
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5“Utopia,” in R’s Boat.
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6“What Is Freedom?” in Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (New York: Viking, 1968).
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7Both quotations from “Lastingness: Réage, Lucrèce, Arendt,” in Nilling. “Clinamen” refers to the unpredictable swerving of atoms as described by Epicurus and Lucretius.
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8This sense of form, as biology, as responsiveness, as sensing, is manifest in Robertson’s extraordinary physiological poem “On Form (for Jane Ellison)”. It opens:

You could say that form is learning
you can see form take shape
at the coronal suture’s first arcade
it’s explaining it’s appearing
it’s unestranged from enormity’s
prick of a spiny plant like a rose as
experimenting it’s bursting and
usually it’s repeating […]
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Sam Lohmann works as a precarious librarian in Portland, Oregon. His poetry books include Stand on this picnic bench and look north (Publication Studio, 2011), Unless As Stone Is (eth press, 2014), and Day Use Area (Couch Press, 2014). Recent writings are posted at He is a member of Portland’s Spare Room reading series collective and co-editor, with David Abel, of Airfoil chapbooks.