By Cecily Fasham
Lisa Robertson, Coach House, 2022
Rosa-Francis Jones, SPAM press, 2021
Boat by Lisa Robertson and Rosa-Francis Jones’s Sacrificial Fabric are both books with a strained relationship to coherency and intelligibility; frequently, they choose to forgo it altogether in favour of a patchwork aesthetic, jumping fast from one thing to another and offering juxtapositions without explanations to help the reader understand the connections. Reading this mode of writing is confusing and tricky, but – done right – it’s a thrill.
Boat is a remix. It continues a long poetic project, so many of its component poems have been published as earlier versions before – in R’s Boat (2010), and two earlier chapbooks, Rousseau’s Boat (2004) and A Cuff (c.2007). In the book’s notes, Robertson describes Boat as ‘the current edition of this lengthening poem’. The text itself is split across several long sections, units which don’t quite stand alone, but function more as chapters, or the ‘books’ of a classical epic. These subdivisions allow for easier reading, especially in announcing Robertson’s transitions between formal styles. They also encourage the reader to consider the relationship between whole and part: Boat’s long poem is the product of several fragments stitched together.
The word ‘stitched’ is apt, because Robertson imagines her text in textile terms. Boat’s opening subsection, ‘The Hut /’, immediately strikes the eye. The poem is centre-aligned and split down the middle by a strip of white space, a vivid and visual representation of a caesura. This gap slices indiscriminately through the text; sometimes it coincides with a space, lengthening it, but often it simply splits words in half. Robertson refers to this central interstice in the poem as a ‘seam’; indeed, it resembles the track line of a sewing machine needle, or the margin in the centre of a book where the stitching binds its pages. But no thread runs through Boat’s seam, and no stitching unites it: there is simply a gap, an emptiness, a failure of the printing press – or of language.
The ‘seam’ disrupted my reading; I was rendered, for a moment, illiterate. I made mistakes; Robertson had split ‘suave’ and ‘rapacious’ into ‘sua ve’ and ‘rapacio us’, and my brain scrambled about trying to decode what I had initially misread as Latin words, uniting their syllables to form recognisable English. Robertson puts it to her readers to re-stitch the constituent parts of the mutilated words into something intelligible as English. The seam is a risky choice, and a disruptive one, but in my view it is generative. It renders reading unusually tactile by reminding readers that the page and its ink are material: how the presses skip over the central sliver of the page to save space for the binding. It draws the reader’s attention towards the compositional process; it is as if Robertson has left the work slightly unfinished – its hem still raw. It invites us to view the poem as a piece of craft.
This is particularly relevant because Boat is itself a kind of patchwork quilt, comprised of what Robertson calls ‘archival gleanings’, offcuts of text gathered from several decades’ worth of daily notebooks. This archival material has been rearranged in a non-linear timeline, as is clear from the disjointed dates and locations scattered through the work. In this, Robertson disrupts the conventions of autobiographical work. Instead, her disconcerting textual collage mimics the connective, associative qualities of memory. Poetry, like memory, is not a logical but an experiential form. Like textile arts, it privileges the sensual: colours, patterns and textures are given precedence over rational constructions of thought.
Boat and Sacrificial Fabric share this tactile patchwork style. Francis-Jones works not from archives but from a pick’n’mix grab-bag of ideas and sensory experiences drawn from different backgrounds, gathering scraps of divergent imagery into textual collage. Like Robertson, Jones imagines their pastiche in textile terms: in ‘Sumptuary’, they write, ‘lace being my fascination / I applique small pieces I found on the ground / on to a top to wear in the ether-club beyond’. The garment mirrors the poems themselves: it is often unclear how Jones’s pictures fit together, and they often feel like found scraps appliquéd to the page, but, like lace, they are all so beautifully extravagant and delicately woven that I hardly mind.
Reading Jones’s poems, I am a fly drawn in by the promise of sugar, entangled in ‘this melting beautiful candy-starred lurid fretwork’, to quote Shola Von Reinhold’s back-cover blurb. It’s not all lace and crocuses, and Jones’s moments of gore and grime are abject and horrifying, but I am too absorbed in her spiderweb to care. These poems are, as Jones writes in ‘gutwork’ – a poem mired in shit and blood – ‘breakneck and ugly, also sexy / also disgusting’. The poems flicker capriciously between these moods, each line break a potential vibe shift. It is at once delightful and sickening.
Both poets use pastiche to explore how poetry enables a person to dart in and out of view, to slip away, and to confront their readers with uncertainty. Jones’s poems are disconcerting. Sometimes they reach for glamour, and the desire to be wanted and beautiful – ‘sometimes I itch with all the glinting I’m missing’ – but sometimes they confess to the allure of ‘getting sweaty, being ambiguous and / unappealing’. Similarly, Robertson uses her choppy movements between distant moments to destabilise her readers, refusing to complete thoughts or pin down unambiguous meanings.
Though Robertson is notorious for her philosophical bent, she undercuts Boat’s more theory-heavy moments with startling shifts to descriptions of nature or lyrical splashes of beautiful and indecipherable language. The splicing and binding create a giddy and tactile reading experience which counterbalances Robertson’s knotty and cerebral subjects. Take, for example, a meditation on gender from ‘Palinode /’:
The air is not quite deadened
I’m here in the not-yet feminine
There is no limit to its capacity, nothing that it shall not create
I do not in any way wish to escape
I’ll be their glamorous thing then I won’t
Nothing is more slippery or tenuous
The ‘not quite’ and ‘not-yet’ give a tentative impression: the feeling that these musings are provisional, liminal, somehow subject to change. And yet the grand announcement that there is ‘nothing that it shall not create’, with its slightly pompous tone and inverted syntax, mimics the formal sombreness of liturgy. The seriousness of the following line, with its refusal to contract ‘do not’, bolsters the poem’s insistence on the unlimited creative potential of the feminine. A new register takes over in the next couplet: contractions abound and the casual speaker resolves to be a ‘glamorous thing’, ‘slippery’ and ‘tenuous’ – to escape the confines of a totalizing philosophy.
The ability to be slippery and ungraspable, to move quickly between times and subjects and evade full comprehension is central to Boat, where meaning often floats just out of the reader’s reach. Boat requires the reader to surrender to the flow and flux of the linguistic sea. Robertson attaches this sense of linguistic abandon to the realm of the feminine – the gendered ‘other’ that can never be fully understood. She signals this through her work’s attraction to images of fabric and textile art – activities traditionally feminized and, therefore, degraded.
‘I want the fashion blogs / to speak philosophy / and still be fashion blogs’, Robertson writes in Boat. Like most of Robertson’s writing, this collection stretches towards this desire. It crumbles the distinction between the sincere and the artificial, between philosophy and fashion, between the cerebral and the sensory – and it does so by playing on the function of poetic language. ‘I wanted language to be a vulnerable and exact instrument of glass, pressures, and chemicals. /’ Robertson writes. ‘It has provided us with a cry but explains nothing. / I understand passivity. / But what elegance is self-sufficient?’
Language has the capacity to accurately record and measure experience; Robertson’s philosophical forays recognise and respond to this potential for precision. Yet in spite of her stated desire for rigorous, scientific correctness, her writing is steeped in ambiguity and indeterminacy. In poetry, language abandons dull exactitude for feeling. Verse demands we pay attention to the way it sounds to the ear, looks to the eye, and tastes on the tongue. Language becomes a sensed thing. Poetry, then, offers not an objective representation of the world but an emotional ‘cry’ we can take up for ourselves. Indeed, as Robertson writes in ‘The Tiny Notebooks of Night /’, ‘emotion and perception are so fucking underrated’.
Jones’s poetry shows us what a surrender to the poetic cry might look like. Their writing struggles against language, tussling with the desire to render it an ‘exact instrument of glass’, transparent and intelligible. In a poem ingeniously titled ‘My immortal soul is cancelled indefinitely’, they cast this urge as at odds with poetic language’s function as a ‘cry’:
convivial deepfool throwing
myself, throwing myself into
things with all the fervour
of the permalone
I should explain it, make it available
to you, as is deserved
by those who are kind
and unproblematic, glacial
Repetitions of ‘myself’ conjure the speaker’s stammering attempt to batter resistant language into a recognisable shape to reflect their experience. The poem feels intensely personal because it reads as in a type of code, intelligible to no one but its narrator. What exactly is a ‘convivial deepfool’? Language here is not transparent glass, a window through which the reader can get a clear view and comprehension of the speaker’s experience: Jones’s self-description is opaque.
This is a poem with ‘all the fervour/of the permalone’: it has passion; it is cut off from the realm of shared experience. This last noun is an invention of Jones’s – a hapax legomenon, a word which exists only here, only to this speaker. ‘Permalone’ is, therefore, a piece of private and personal language. To me, it sutures ‘perma-’meaning permanent, to ‘lone’, conjuring loneliness. I read it as representing an unchanging isolation, a personal casing like permafrost, which removes the speaker from the world, cocooning them in an individual fervour, incomprehensible to anyone outside.
But Jones cannot remain long in their private passion, with its personal language: ‘I should explain it,’ they write, ‘make it available / to you’. The deontic mood conveys an ‘ought’, but leaves open the question of possibility: can the poetic cry ever, in fact, be ‘made available’ to others? Rather than explain, as they feel they should, Jones instead piles up a distracted mishmash of glittering and discordant images. Readers encounter a dazzling and confusing mix of dissonant visions, in which the sterile luxury of ‘expensive resorts / for rich ill ppl’ rubs elbows with the low-brow ‘dim places, sticky places’. Jones evokes the decadent pouring of ‘vases of cream all over the floor / til the ground became a cloud / to bathe in’. This depiction of profligate waste is simultaneously repulsive and fanciful, the ‘cloud’ image conjuring the dreamy, unreal aspect of fantasy. But this, Jones undercuts with the exquisitely quotidian tableau of ‘a crunched crocus / someone stood on because / they were busy / clutching / something and running’: an image any reader can recognize, so heartbreaking for how common, mundane and forgettable the destruction it relates is.
The title of Jones’s collection comes from the process of chemical lacemaking. Its title boasts a stark black sketch of a lace pattern on its mauve cover, designed by poet Maria Sledmere, editor-in-chief of SPAM zine & Press, who put out the collection last year. Chemical lace is machine-embroidered onto sacrificial fabric, which is then dissolved in a chemical bath, leaving only the lace behind. Dissolution and collapse provide a glimpse of beauty. The title is apt: As Jones’s poems ricochet between the sublime and the disgusting, they offer up the primal cry of a broke person whose body is continually breaking down. Even as they reckon with pain and decline, from doctors’ homophobic comments to graphic depictions of leaking blood, they remain determined to find the skewed beauty, the alien elegance in this.
‘Sumptuary’ is Jones’s most notable success in this regard, and it lives up to the collection’s title. It is a poem about poetry and family, mixing dream visions and text messages from the waking-hours. ‘Sumptuary’ concerns desire; it interrogates the blurred boundaries between reality and fantasy, dreaming and waking, the individual and their lover. The poem opens with an ‘old lace blouse made by my / great aunt’ and a mother who ‘requests a clearer photo of me.’ Lace, here, is an heirloom, an inheritance; on the great aunt’s blouse, it is handmade – the expensive, slow, antique kind. The speaker pairs it with her own garment:
underneath the sheer white you can see
my modern bra,
\ green and cheap
pored over in new look feeling accosted
by slender meaningless things,
thrifty like a gazelle,
pretty enough to last!
I have heard Jones read their poems twice, once over Zoom and once in a crowded bar in Peckham. This poem caught me up, both times. Since buying a copy of Sacrificial Fabric I keep coming back to these lines. They fill me with longing for the little scraps of gorgeousness one gathers from high street shops. The old blouse with its hand-sewn lace might represent taste, its counterpart the planet-destroying fast-fashion industry I know I’m meant to avoid, but the vibrant, tacky green lace bra excites my desire to supplement my inheritance with small and new extravagances that I can choose myself. A great outfit, like a great poem, requires one to mix antique influence with loud and contemporary colour. The two laces of ‘Sumptuary – painstaking craftwork and mass-produced junk – mimic what it means to exist and write poems in our era, when late capitalism’s rampant excess contend with the need to (re)discover more sustainable ways of making, dressing and being. Later in the poem Jones captures this precise sense, as the speaker describes how they like to wear a ‘ruby on a gold needle / threaded through the front of my flimsiness, my / online thongs’.
Herein lies the difference in effect between Sacrificial Fabric and Boat. Boat plays with memory and nostalgia; trawling through Robertson’s journals, the collection’s patchwork recreates the disjunctive ambiguity of one life-history. Sacrificial Fabric’s collaged fretwork of lace appliqué, by contrast, is thoroughly of the now. In one sense, its frenetic aesthetic produces an instability that reflects the precarity of life as a poet, these days. ‘Sumptuary’ references a text from universal credit about reskilling for employability, for example; ‘poetry / isn’t a skill in the first place, not on my watch’, the speaker retorts. But if Jones represents their real life as, indeed, thus limited, within the poetic imaginary they can conjure all the opulent, impossible things they desire and lay them all out in a sparkling array:
I don’t have any money, the objects I own are
ungainly and make me do things I don’t want to do.
The objects I don’t own are inconceivable,
pearlescent angel wings or an astonishment of eyes.
There’s no catalogue for such things. Yes I’ve
considered grave robbing! How many times have I
told you, there’s hardly any good shit left?
CECILY FASHAM despite her better instincts, a postgraduate student and occasional poet reading for an MSt in modern English at Keble College.
Artwork by Cleo Scott