The Men by Lisa Robertson
The ‘men’ of The Men are measured out again and again in prosody, made by virtue of repetition into a prefatory exercise or sounded series, as an actor warms up their voice or a musician plays scales. It’s a truism: when you say something enough times, the syllables empty themselves of meaning, reduce to sound. From the first page, the reader is met by a rapid patter in which sound is certainly not subordinate to sense:
—–Men deft men mental men of loving men all men
—–Vile men virtuous men same men from which men
—–Sweet and men of mercy men.
‘Men’ is the baseline above and around which the adjectives and prepositions place themselves. The reader may become accustomed to skipping over the reiterated subject (‘men auditorily ignored’), but the self-similar iterations persist, inscribing the pervasiveness of the male subject beneath this poetry and making it other than familiar.
In response to suggestions made in reviews of the first edition which include Jake Kennedy’s notes in Jacket, Edmund Hardy and Melissa Flores-Bórquez’s conversation published by Intercapillary Space and Michael Flatt writing for Octopus Magazine, this is a brief prosodic close reading of the second edition of Lisa Robertson’s 2006 sequence The Men. Paramount in these previous readings is the question of who these men are and whether they are conceptual or concrete. The consensus is that Robertson’s men are as physically impalpable as Petrarch’s Laura; that they are not idealised; but that they are an idea. In Jake Kennedy’s notes, men never were a concept before. More than once, The Men prefaces the ‘conceptual’ of the men with the ‘sensate’. I want to consider how this ‘sensate conceptual recognition [of] the men’ is realised in the thinking sound of this poetry.
Michael Flatt has noted that repetition or ‘leap-frogging anaphora’ is one of Robertson’s most identifiable traits. The unrelenting repetition of ‘the men’ in The Men is an embarrassment of conceit, a denuding of the lyric and its versifying tricks. This repetition is not only of ‘the men’ but of a series of reconfigured motifs. The opening gambit is reworked into ‘[f]rom sweet mercy each men makes deft wounds’, moving the pieces already in play into new arrangements of familiar sound and unfamiliar sense. The Men loves sound patterns, is full of alliteration; men are ‘sweet and smooth’, ‘slender in summer’, ‘fragile and finite’, their morning ‘singly and steadily’, ‘light and livid’. These patternings turn on their difference; ‘[o]bscurely the men are preamble’ becomes ‘[o]rdinarily the men are preamble’, alliterative in sound, near antonymic in meaning. Obscure in their ordinariness, or ordinary in their obscurity, The Men clears and reconstructs its own configurations. Robertson is feeling the men, phonetically, all over. Edmund Hardy asks if the project of this poetry is to ‘represent without any solidifying’, citing Hannah Arendt (The Human Condition). In answer stand these shape-shifting prosodic patterns, which also, in defiance of an uncontaminated lyric I, swap their pronouns: ‘They [the men] have only / the reticence of intimacy’ becoming ‘I have only the reticence of intimacy’. Properties are reattributed, but the poem presents itself as palimpsest, so that this ‘I’ takes on the recurring traces of ‘they’, the past scenes of men.
In this recurrence, the lyric speaker wryly locates her own rising tumescence:
—–In the recurrent subject
—–My cool pleasure expanding coolly
—–To my general puzzlement.
There is a prosthesis here, the speaker inside her ‘recurrent subject’. Similarly, the sounds expand within their words; consonance wraps ‘pleasure’ into ‘puzzlement’, and ‘cool’ becomes ‘coolly’, ‘general’ picking up the languid ‘l’s of all of these. This provides an insight into the idea of the men via the weaving of content with prosodic composition: men is a singular noun composed of a collective plurality. All this pleasurable, phonic expansion occurs within the subject, and is thus constitutive. Thinking with Roland Barthes, in the ‘text of pleasure… everything is plural’.
[pullquote]‘Men’ is the baseline above and around which the adjectives and prepositions place themselves. The reader may become accustomed to skipping over the reiterated subject (‘men auditorily ignored’), but the self-similar iterations persist, inscribing the pervasiveness of the male subject[/pullquote]
Any concept of a subject sitting tight behind the text is foxed in this plurality. The men are in the texture or tissue of the text, part of its fabric: ‘my poem’, the speaker tells us, is ‘[a] purple scarf / of men’ (p.10). This ‘poetics of fabric’, to borrow the phrase from Hlibchuk’s essay on Robertson’s Occasional Work and Seven Works of Soft Architecture, also form part of Hardy and Flores-Bórquez’ conversation. The sheer repetitive force of the ‘men’ foregrounds the materiality of this poem’s language, weaving the men phonically into this materiality. While the material to hand is the men’s material, the lining can be turned to show the traces of its own making. Robertson recognises the paucity of men as a lyric subject, remarking that ‘I could write/His poem. He needs no voice.’ However, if Barthes’ text etymologically is fabric, poeisis is fabrication, and The Men practices this fabrication through sidelong and substitutive repetition.
One of these shifting substitutes is given as ‘poverty’, which is ‘as false as the poem’. Poverty is also hydromel, an ancient fermented drink, honey mead, and hydromel stands in, for a while, for the men: ‘I have called it / men and now I call it hydromel’. In calling out hydromel in the same grammatical configurations as the men are being called out (‘Hydromel violet hydromel cadmium / hydromel apples’) the poem announces that ‘[t]his is referential stability’. This is stability only in the style of Gertrude Stein’s pseudo-taxonomical Tender Buttons, in which a noun is ‘an arrangement in a system to pointing’, ‘not unordered in not resembling’. These nouns are not resembling but point to a poetic order: hydromel a synthetic compound, poverty an abstract noun (but also a synthetic condition), men a demographic group (but also a synthetic construct). Disavowing access to any kind of ‘natural’ voice, the poem insists that ‘[e]ntirely synthetically I speak’. The Men makes much of the artifice of its subject, in its language games (‘by… /a certain game / of men / conjugate men.’), repetitive play and prosodic literality. In this droll voice, Robertson can write that ‘[t]he / men are enjambed,’ subject (re)constituted in prosody.
These shifting synthetics meet The Men’s attention to the sound of words. The fourth section (of five) is subtitled ‘Of the Vocable’. Vocables are all sound, neither signifiers nor names. The modernist poet Laura Riding Jackson wrote of vocables both in poetry and her 1997 essay Rational Meaning which offers the part-definition that ‘of a vocable there is little to know: one does nothing with it except to sound it’. Robertson writes that:
—–At times the sound of the vocable is
—–The vocable of the men. It sits, it
—–Emits, it leaves the solemn limits
—–beneath a tent of lilac
—–I want a simple book too, I want those
—–Fabulous testimonies in the style
—–Of toile de jouy
The vocable of the men is what The Men represents. More sound games describe what this vocable does; ‘sits’, ‘emits’, ‘leaves… limits’, meaning dispersed over these sound surfaces. Part of this poetry’s intention is to ‘supply the surface with men’. Tossing ‘the men’ and their vocables from line to line realises this desire to achieve the style of ‘toile de jouy’ – an eighteenth century textile design featuring repeated printed scenes on cloth. The upholstery version of oral iterations of historical scenes stands as another fabric, and the ‘tent of lilac’ another. Via the ‘tiredness of the series’ we find ‘[t]he common wonder of all men in the fabric of one man’, although the speaker is fabricated, too: ‘[t]heir reason wears me’. Robertson records The Men’s indebtedness to Lucy Hogg’s reworked paintings of portraits of men by masters such as Velàzquez, Gainsborough, and others, which are reminiscent too of toile de jouy.
Speaking from the vocable of the men Robertson raises this prefatory white noise to a phonic triumph: at the very end, the poem records that ‘I spoke in their voices’. This appears to be an poetic advance on Robertson’s 2004 chapbook Rousseau’s Boat which opens with the line ‘[a] man’s muteness runs through this riot that is my sentence.’ In The Men’s version of this ventriloquism the idea of ‘men’ is made material and sensate through the fractal rearrangement of confessedly synthetic sound. The plural deployment of the plural vocable ‘men’ refutes and constitutes the subject of men, and of poetry, gleefully chafing the privilege of both and laying bare their prosodic fabrication.
The Men, p. 33
 Jake Kennedy, ’A Lyric Comportment with Succulence: Some Notes on Lisa Robertson’s The Men’, http://jacketmagazine.com/33/kennedy-robertson.shtml
 Ibid, p.12
 Ibid, p.33, p.35
 following another suggestion made by Jake Kennedy
 Op cit, p.20, p.26
 Ibid p.50. This movement is a reiteration of an earlier condition: ‘If in the warm day everything expanded to the form of/ its word’ p.32
 Roland Barthes, trans. R Miller, The Pleasure of the Text, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980) p.31
 Geoffrey Hlibchuk, ‘Delirious Cities: Lisa Robertson’s Occasional Work and seven works in the Office of Soft Architecture’, Studies in Canadian literature, vol 36 no.1 (2011), 223-242, p.223
 I am indebted here again to Hlibchuk’s writing on fabric
 Op cit p.30
 Ibid p.31
 Ibid p.14
 Jake Kennedy has this as: ‘men act like line breaks’, http://jacketmagazine.com/33/kennedy-robertson.shtml
 Laura Jackson and Schuyler B Jackson, Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words and Supplementary essays, (Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 1997), p.217
 Op cit p.55
 Ibid p.43, p.41