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Steve Evans reviews

Rousseau’s Boat
by Lisa Robertson

(2004) 40 pp ISBN 0-9735337-1-4 $10.00 (Canadian)
Nomados, P.O. Box 4031, 349 West Georgia Street, Vancouver, B.C., Canada V6B 3Z4.

This review is 1,863 words
or about 5 printed pages long

Solitary and free

Early in September of 1765, Jean-Jacques Rousseau found himself driven from the town of Môtiers by locals who, incited by a clergyman named Montmollin, and helped along by alcohol, stoned the house of the irreligious philosophe whose books had already been burned in Paris, Geneva, and other cities across Europe. Thus alerted as to the intentions of his neighbors, Rousseau slipped away to the little known Island of Saint-Pierre, in the middle of the Lake of Bienne, where he passed the six paradisiacal weeks chronicled in the “fifth walk” of his Reveries of a Solitary Walker.

There are two passages from the cinquième promenade that are relevant to an understanding of Lisa Robertson’s recent chapbook, Rousseau’s Boat, published in Meredith Quartermain’s excellent Nomados series in 2004. The first, quoted in lieu of a blurb on the back jacket of the chapbook, describes the reveries Rousseau enjoyed along the shore of the lake on certain evenings. Peter France renders the passage thus:

...there the noise of the waves and the movement of the water, taking hold of my senses and driving all other agitation from my soul, would plunge it into a delicious reverie in which night often stole upon me unawares. The ebb and flow of the water, its continuous yet undulating noise, kept lapping against my ears and my eyes, taking the place of all the inward movements which my reverie had calmed within me, and it was enough to make me pleasurably aware of my existence, without troubling myself with thought. (86–87)

What the Objectivist poet Charles Reznikoff would condense into the gorgeously sounded single line of his 1920 poem “Aphrodite Vrania” — “the ceaseless weaving of the uneven water” — Rousseau here dilates upon, allowing the play of his syntax to mimic the drifting, non-purposive and non-accumulative experience he is describing, an experience in which the terms so consequentially fused in the Cartesian cogito, thinking and being, are gently prised apart again, permitting the subject of reverie to feel “so pleasurably and effortlessly the sensation of existing, without troubling to think” (as the unattributed translation favored by Robertson puts it).

The passage from which Robertson derives her title actually slightly precedes the one just cited; in it, Rousseau records his habit of escaping early from the enforced sociability of the midday meal, and making off alone:

I would make my escape and install myself all alone in a boat, which I would row out into the middle of the lake when it was calm; and there, stretching out full-length in the boat and turning my eyes skyward, I let myself float and drift wherever the water took me, often for several hours on end, plunged in a host of vague yet delightful reveries, which though they had no distinct or permanent subject, were still in my eyes infinitely to be preferred to all that I had found most sweet in the so-called pleasures of life. (85)

Indistinct and inconstant, the objects contemplated in reverie float and drift, just as the subject of reverie, Rousseau himself, his will abandoned to that of the moving water, goes “wherever the water” takes him. These moments of utopic release from purposive rationality, itself emblematized by Rousseau’s manically systematic intention to describe every plant on Saint Pierre Island, not to mention the paranoiac rationality that was hardly unwarranted given the state of his actual persecution, are moments belonging to an order other than that of banal temporal succession, moments of full and continuous presence, without reference to the past or projection of the future, and Rousseau discovers through them a happiness beyond the economy of sensual pleasure, and beneath the threshold of passionate intensity: “a simple and lasting condition, lacking in intensity, but whose duration enhances its charm to the point of extreme bliss” (47).

Rousseau’s intuition of the abiding jouissance of pre-reflexive existence — to which non-strategic states of consciousness such as passivity, repose, and reverie offer the only access — is the matrix from which Lisa Robertson’s new project emerges. Rousseau’s “fifth walk” supplies her not so much with a tutor text to sample and rearrange, as with a generative “figure” in the Barthesian sense, which is to say a gesture and a posture that render certain utterances sayable. Rousseau’s boat is different in character from the stolen skiff in book one of Wordsworth’s Prelude (which is linked to the adolescent body, and to the stern punishment of any stroking of same), and perhaps even more so from the hectic adventuring, the oneirism, and the exoticism of Rimbaud’s bateau ivre. Rousseau’s boat, a vehicle for transport, not to and from defined docks, but out of directionality and purposiveness itself, might as well be Cage’s anechoic chamber, a space in which stillness yields not silence but a previously unlistened for sonic plenitude.

Rousseau’s boat is a figure for the practice of what Pauline Oliveros calls “deep listening,” a disciplined attention to inescapable, and intricately differentiated, sonic plenitude. Interestingly, Robertson’s basal compositional unit remains that of the sentence, which means that however much the chapbook’s two longer sequences approach the distributed condition of ambient phenomena, there is a constant return to focalization and determinacy (sentences say something, even when not integrated into larger units of anecdote, narrative, argument, etc.), just as Rousseau’s attention, focalized by the lapping of successive waves, was simultaneously released into the indeterminacies of his reverie.

The chapbook begins and ends with single-page poems, the titles of which — “Passivity” and “This is the beginning of Utopia / Its material is time” — introduce key concepts that are worked through in the two extended sequences enclosed by these bracketing texts. The nine-page text “Face/” (the backslash raises interesting questions: does it suggest perhaps an occulted term to the right of the slash, a term that might balance out or provide an antonym for “face”? or does it mark the insinuation of a line break even into the title? in any case the slash is an emphatic device throughout Rousseau’s Boat) consists of about 187 sentences, set in alternating lines of roman and italic type. Most of the sentences appear twice (sometimes in identical form, sometimes slightly varied), and the vast majority of them (all but ten or eleven) employ some form of the first person pronoun (I, my, mine, me). Though the initial effect of the alternation between roman and italic is to conjure a dialogue, and though the insistence of the first person pronoun can be made to resolve as a monologic address, after a short while it becomes possible to imagine a  plurality of voices, each taking its turn at the microphone of the “I” before ceding its place to the next speaker. Take for instance the following nine-sentence excerpt from late in the sequence:

I can’t say any of these words.
I subsist by these glances.
Still I don’t know what memory is.
I think of it now as mine.
Here I make delicate reference to the Italian goddess Cardea who shuts what is open and opens what is shut.
I took part in large-scale erotic digressions.
The present had miscalculated me.
I want to mention the hammered fastenings in ordinary speech.
I want to mention the hammered fastenings in ordinary speech. (15)

There is something lulling about these sentences, something that makes them sound whispered, or mumbled, or indeed merely thought rather than actually spoken. By their brevity, the simplicity and similarity of their syntax, the familiarity of their lexis, and the relative paucity of concrete information borne by them, such sentences surrender their distinctness, leaving one uncertain, in many cases, as to whether the sentence under one’s eyes at a given moment is a repetition from earlier in the sequence or a fresh utterance. The overall effect is not unlike that produced by those waves Rousseau heard lapping against the lakeshore at evening: a curiously hypnotic mixture of sameness and variation.

The other main sequence in Rousseau’s Boat is the fifteen-page text entitled “Utopia/ .” As with “Face/,” the sentence remains the basal unit of composition, but here sentences are bundled into stanza-like groupings, and each such larger unit contains somewhere within it a temporal indicator of some kind: “at about midnight in autumn,” “spring of my 35th year,” “eight o’clock in the morning of June 24th, 1962.” The provision of such orientating cues, analogous to establishing shots in film, works to awaken narrative expectations, and there are some good textual reasons to interpret the stanzaic clusters as episodes in the life of a woman recently turned forty, but as with “Face/,” the hypothesis of a single, synthesizing consciousness or character is only weakly supported, leaving open alternative forms of interpretation and/ or performance.

What is hard to contest, however, is the shift of tone from Robertson’s first two books, XEclogue and Debbie: An Epic, which were marked by exorbitant rhetorics celebrating resistant collectivity through a blend of historical citation and histrionic declamation. The shift from anthemic to ambient tonalities came with the The Weather (2001) and Rousseau’s Boat continues it. Robertson’s phenomenological model seems to move away from the jubilant group formations of the early work and toward something one might call distributed or diffuse individuation. Voices no longer join together in synched-up choral forms, but rather drift in and out of audibility, overlapping one another on occasion, but retaining the ephemeral autonomy of a wave as it forms and completes itself in touching shore.

It was the spring of my thirty-fifth year.
Since there was no solitary and free space I made one with my own boredom.
I saw that the religiosity of the comprehensible comprised one strand.
Seeing is so inexperienced.
It’s not my job to worry about futurity.
I’m on the inside of anything I can imagine.
I wanted to distribute the present, not secure the future.
What could I say that was lasting?
The smell of sex on my fingers was your sex.
Terminological difficulties arose. (26–27)

The disobedient exuberance of the first two reputation-establishing books, at once futuristic and drenched in (one might say dressed up in) the literary-historical past exemplified by Virgil’s pastoral and epic poems, is muted here in favor of a “present” shared out sentence by carefully-crafted sentence. While retaining a commitment to the concept and project of utopia, Robertson’s work has moved from the forward or backward projections of emancipatory horizons toward a new condition, one for which Rousseau adrift alone in his boat is as fit an emblem as Virgil had been of the former, that of a continuous, individuated and distributed, presence, at once “solitary and free.”

Steve Evans


Steve Evans (photo, above, left) is Associate Professor of English at the University of Maine, where he teaches courses on critical theory, poetry and poetics, and the avant-garde. He coordinates the New Writing Series, serves as a contributing editor for The Poker, and tends a website at

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