Seven Sentences Walks Poems
“We want an intelligence that’s tall and silver, oblique and black, purring and amplifying its décor: a thin thing, a long thing, a hundred videos, a boutique.” Or, “Memory’s architecture is neither palatial nor theatrical but soft.” Then later, “Scaffolding is analogy.”
These sentences are from the Canadian poet Lisa Robertson’s 2017 Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture. The first part of Robertson’s lyrical essays, Occasional Work, consists primarily of catalogs commissioned for various art exhibitions. The second part, Seven Walks, narrates a subject (presumably Robertson) and a guide navigating the city of Vancouver. I cite the poet’s words in complete sentences because her language is molded to the form of the sentence. Robertson’s language soothes the architecture of punctuation, together forming a soft architecture of language. One could imagine this to be achieved by rerouting the conventions of linear prose (détournement) through typeface, layout, and visual poetics. Robertson opts for a more understated rigor, alleviating the firmness of punctuation within its own bounds. Throughout the eclectic collection, Robertson, like so many contemporary prose poets, writes in complete sentences.. In a 2015 lecture devoted to the form of the sentence, the poet explains:
"Writing, for me, is the search for a sentence. Unremarkably for my age and context, I learned or absorbed an interpretation of sentence form that is primarily syntactic and structural. And this received convention of materialist description has shaped much of my thinking. Before being exposed to this now pretty much canonized, and so almost invisible convention, I had as a matter of course as a reader developed my own intuitive criteria for sentence reading and writing, and at heart, it was emotional."
The most thoroughly elaborated component of the sentence in the lecture is the pause. That is, the moment of rest that follows a sentence, and which functions doubly as the sentence's interpretant. Apropos of Alan Gardiner, Robertson tells her audience that a sentence gains its definitional grounding by way of the pause that follows a sentence. Quoting Gardiner, Robertson defines a sentence as: “a group of words motivated by a particular communicative desire or will, followed by a pause.” This pause forms a boundary between fragments of language, themselves described, constructed, and delimited through the pause itself, such that language is provisionally defined by the edges of its own container. The pause—also a blockage, breath, gap, interstice, and absence—is a space of negative impulse and affect. Paradoxically, it is this negative affectual slant that activates the liveliness of its linguistic counterpart.
Indeed, the full stop emerged from the will to enclose negative space. The period is derived from the punctuation system dating back to the 3rd century BCE, when in Ancient Greece, the codex was written in continuous writing (scripto continua). Text was written continuously, without blank spaces between words. It was the task of the reader—also a secondary writer—to punctuate the text, and mark the page with oblique dots, whose placement determined their meaning, effectively building, shaping, and deciphering textual units. This act of pre-reading (praelectio) resists punctuation’s normative characterization as secondary. Moreover, pre-reading rightly acknowledges punctuating marks as both primary and formative to an encounter with text.
Where that historical gloss suggests the period as a preeminent component and interpretant of language, a textural reading can position the mark as a break from the fabric of language. To enter such a reading, texture can be rather loosely defined by repetitions in and on a surface. The point at which a textural entity becomes texture remains an admittedly ambiguous, ungeneralizable, and unambitious site: a task to be imposed on the object and at odds with the porosity of the entity for which it seeks to describe. In the interest of reading the form of the sentence through texture, however, the shift from a textural entity to texture becomes relevant. This shift maps most easily onto the period, and its subsequent pause, where the mark breaks the continuous flow of language. The pause is the unifying mark of vectored sentences. The pause gathers the repetitive structure of the inwardly varied sentences, in the production of a particular texture of prose. The pause, therefore, appears chiastic: both a moment of rest and an arbiter for the texture of a text.
The opposite polarities between language and punctuation (and the productivity of their relation), when taken further, can be caricatured by the difference between life and death. Concluding an essay on the filmic form of the long take, the Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini writes: “It is absolutely necessary to die, because while living we lack meaning, and the language of our lives (with which we express ourselves and to which we attribute the greatest importance) is untranslatable: a chaos of possibilities, a search for relations among discontinuous meanings… It is thanks to death that our lives become expressive.” Following Pasolini’s logic, it is the period and the filmic montage alike that—like death—allows language, or a particular scene, to express. The pause that follows a sentence—this short death—sanctions a fragment of language space to dwell and a negative receptacle of space to be inhabited by its own expression. There exists a certain harmony between filmic logic, syntactic logic, and the logic of life, whose syntax the sentence mimics (and describes and decorates and constructs and defines). Without death, Pasolini tells us, life is “untranslatable.” To extend this comparison between death and the full stop, it is without the period that language might become (as its Ancient Greek roots have shown us) indecipherable, crowded, nearly “untranslatable.” The period only approaches linguistic signification, before going off somewhere else, for insofar as the period signifies, it does so in the negative register: a pause, a gap, a break. The pause is not itself language but allows for language to function as such, and “become expressive.” The liveliness of Robertson’s prose is simultaneously inhabited and engendered by this space of dwelling.
Turning back to the lecture, Robertson acknowledges the forward-facing directionality of a sentence of linear prose. In doing so, she is quick to note that “any pause has a character.” The deceitfully simple, forward-facing sentence is also multidimensional and multidirectional. The period often follows other shorter, more ambiguous pauses, pathways, and possibilities (commas, parenthesis, semicolons, colons, and so on) which each function—with importantly distinct contours—as both syntax and sites of linguistic activation. In the second of Seven Walks, Robertson’s syntactic marks permit internal reversibility. “If it were a velvet (one of those worn ones that shrinks or adheres like a woman’s voice with ruptured warp and covert intelligence); if it were a canvas (all ground and flayed beyond the necessity for permanence.”
Even as the sentence faces its own final pause (“permanence”), it remains inhabited by this complex array of pauses. The semicolon, compared against the prototypical gap of the period, seems multifarious. It appears comparatively less authoritative, more versatile, and subject to sites of accident that unfold with language. The parenthesis also presents its reader with various avenues for reading. One might read through the parenthesis, linearly; or one may negate the parenthetical altogether, then circle back to the pair in a second read of the sentence. In consideration of the variable traversals through these words, Robertson’s sentence begins to look like sentences. One might expect first “if” to be followed by a resulting “then.” The language following the “if,” can be imagined as a stand-in for an absent “then.” In other words, the language following the semicolon might be read as the causal result of a positive instantiation of the first “if.” From another vantage, the similar beginnings of the sentences “If it were a (fabric)” suggests an internal correlation between the two clauses, and even an analogical relationship between them. In addition to the pause, break, threshold, or gap of the semicolon, it also imposes a comparative view of the sentence that it splits.
With the parenthetical and the semicolon, Robertson performs the many things and characters a pause could be. A pause could be “a breath, or fumbling. Or a change of direction. Or a flicker of recollection or recognition. An incipient negation.”
In the Leslie Scalapino Lecture and Occasional Works alike, Robertson undoes a dual understanding of language and materiality, so that language—punctuation, in the lecture, and description, in the book—becomes one with materiality. In the lecture, the poet treats the architecture of the sentence with a certain softness, sustaining an impressive emphasis on ornamentation, surface, and subjectivity even as she speaks about the form of the sentence with more top-down structural matters of form, repetition, and organization.
In Occasional Works, Roberson multiplies herself and writes as a fictitious institution (“Office for Soft Architecture”) that accounts for the shifting texture, geography, and architecture of twentieth-century Vancouver. It is this office—and its many constituents—which may also account for the oft-used first person plural of Robertson’s prose, wherein a sentence becomes our sentence. Occasional Works takes up the collective “we,” while Seven Walks oscillates between the first- and third-person perspective. This ambiguous “we,” embodies language and interpolates its reader. The occupation of this perspective opens its space up to representation, and to the reader. The Office prompts its reader to action by occupying the site as well as the very language that makes sense of it. This collective perspective furthermore endows architecture with “linguistic qualities and urban experience with an unpredictable bend.”
Still acknowledging Robertson as the undeniable author of the collection, an impressionistic reading might imagine the collective “we” as triply constituted by readers inhabiting the office, the space of the office, and punctuation. In entering Robertson’s poem and its punctuating pauses, its reader will both produce and be produced by it. Crucially, Seven Walks figures subjectivity as fabric that is all surface, appearing as accretion and weaving of atmospheric material, textile, and ornamentation. Robertson’s punctuation can be perceived from variable prepositional perspectives: through, with, amongst, admits, altogether forming a sort of scaffolding (of and) for language.
Scaffolding is also sustained as a literal interest of her work, notably in her poem titled Doubt and the History of Scaffolding. In it, archival images of Vancouver’s construction sites preface the text. These images of scaffolding visually scaffold Robertson’s text, acting as “a furnishing,” “a skin,” or “a grove” for it. Darias-Beautell concisely articulates the social and political stakes of scaffolding in an urban city undergoing change and gentrification.
Scaffolding is invested with literal as well as highly symbolic meanings: it refers to the city’s perpetual state of building and renovation, and also expresses “the vulnerability of surface,” (140); it points out the conditions of decay and contamination in the building construction materials, exposing their environmental contingencies, but also celebrates the malleability of the structure; it covers something that is not fit for living, but also announces transformation and change.
Scaffolding articulates “the negative space of the building,” a point which rhymes nicely with the pause as the arbiter of a sentence. The pause, like the scaffold, carries with it “the vulnerability of surface,” and “the malleability of the structure.” The period only becomes the pause when it is written, read, or said, or simply put, encountered by the human. The movement from the period to the pause is a movement from the static to the lively, and so the pause, like the scaffold “covers something that is not fit for living.” This is also a movement from the present to the future(s) towards which it points; the pause “announces transformation and change.”
As Maia Joseph so beautifully puts it, Robertson assigns scaffolding “the task of making visible what the urban environment is, what it is not, and what it could be.” Robertson’s play on punctuation with(in) the sentence does something of the same, for the pause makes visible what the sentence is, what it is not, and what it could be. The poet converts the hard-edged bounds of language—punctuation and the syntactic rules of sentence-making—from an architecture into a fabric. The landscape of scholarship on Robertson has rightfully noted the myriad ways in which her poetics interact with the structural constraints of the environment. My intervention is that Robertson also takes up the problem of structural constraints on the level of the text, unsettling the conventions of the textual articulation of materialist description, itself no doubt a component of the environment. In doing so, she highlights the primacy of “interpretive frames in determining reality,” such that the sentence, like the scaffold, becomes a crucial component of text’s ongoing negotiation and flow—between theory and the body, between a word and a pause. Robertson’s concern with scaffolding self-reflexively pertains to its own language.
We could say scaffolding is a furnishing insofar as it supports the desires of our bodies. It’s moveable and it faces us. We orient it to our transient needs. It has a front and a back like furnishing, and like our bodies. Like furniture it is a projection of our bodies, making us bigger, more limber, more elegant and serious. It intersects with our experience like the wave front of a dynamic system. A scaffold sketches a body letting go of proprietary expectation, or habit, in order to be questioned by change.
Punctuation, like scaffolding, can be read as furniture that supports the “desires of our bodies,” and more specifically, our bodies’ desire for language. As seen in Robertson’s parenthetical and semicolon, punctuating pauses may reverse, skip, and fold: “moveable” and subject to the will of the reader. And while Robertson’s full stop tends to face forward, perhaps this pause not only instructs but also responds to us, and “faces us” and our bodies’ subsidiary desire to metabolize language. Taken further, it is not only that the pause faces us, but that the pause might be understood as a personified “we,” vocalizing the will of the punctuation itself.
This linguistic scaffolding—punctuation’s pause—exists both as an architectural form to be softened, and a structure which problematizes the will to do so. “A proposition is followed by a pause,” the poet explains, before asking: “When we begin a sentence, its enunciation, do we know when we will pause?” In the introduction to the book, Dutch designer Petra Blaisse gracefully enacts Robertson’s answer to her own question, “not always,” writing:
"before one starts reading Lisa’s own flowing cutting dreaming slashing warming warning texts that are the voice of a person who experiences the urban environment like the interior of a room or a sensuous stroll through a landscape (its organization a permanent political and economic thermometer), a woman who sees feels thinks links hardly digested already puts words into that one detail in that particular context at that moment (and that weather) in a country, region, city, suburb, neighbourhood, street, park, spot that is familiar or unfamiliar to her yet to someone else maybe whom she’s with whom she might not know or might or might not amuse, intrigue or tickle her in reality, fantasy, or memory but in any case her sentences address and describe all senses cell molecules at once and each of those poem prose rhythmic sentences, long or short, knits together words intentions and meanings lyrically synthetically intellectually or hilariously, connecting historic facts to technical details day-to-day torments to social attempts to political intention to personal memory and moods to police precision to romantic girlishness to philosophic wisdom, knit knit knot knot nag note fold quote slice revel ramble lift zip snap steel stitch stalk stop!"
I cite this long, winding sentence in whole for Blaisse’s capacity to mime the affectual valence of Robertson’s concise sentences. Blaisse’s sentence may at first appear antithetical to the punctuating parameters of Robertson’s dry, impersonal, and well-punctuated text. But their stylistic disparity is, in part, the point. To echo the force of Robertson’s language without repeating it, she must ignore subvert neglect Robertson’s syntactic scaffolds parameters structures. In doing so, Blaisse elucidates the unexpected intimacy and complexity Occasional Work achieves within rather normative configurations of language. Blaisse’s lengthy sentence pays respect to the singularity of Robertson’s prose on the level of syntax and grammar.
The writing to follow offers a series of seven sentences/walks/poems indebted to Lisa Robertson’s Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture as well as her Leslie Scalapino Lecture in Innovative Poetics. Borrowing the “Seven” of Robertson’s Seven Walks, my traversal through Robertson’s language has propelled my own series of seven walks through the city of Providence as well as the series of poems that resulted from those walks. In these works, I write with and against Robertson, playing with the form of the sentence and the form of her sentences, written and spoken. The sentence is the condition for my language, a conceptual foothold, and my literal point of departure—in terms of writing process. I began each walk/poem with a single sentence from the poet. Taking the sentence as my starting point, I imagine other possibilities and pathways through the receptacle of the sentence. I aim to treat my grammatical surfaces as Robertson treats hers, in terms of mood, mode, and concept, even as I take more visual and formal liberties in comparison to the poet’s more uniform stacks of linear text.
This project holds space for the variable ways in which the city of Providence may relate, resonate, or be mapped onto or against the city of Vancouver. It is worth noting that the seventh walk/poem diverges from the six that precede it, at least in terms of process. The final work was written in my bedroom, over the course of the semester. Beginning the poem/walk, I wrote a single word, and each day since, I revised the prior day’s word through revision, be that addition, deletion, re-writing, alteration, etc. Here, the trace of the everyday consists of revision, rewritten writing, and the supposedly final iteration of the poem. The process of revision amounts to a present-tense record of the everyday, and the series of revisions themselves constitute a piece of writing that might be read in terms of its own temporal make-up. The seventh poem is a single work about a single space; it is also the most expansive account of the everyday, and a multiplicity of poems and walks.
Bervin, Jen. Silk Poems. New York, NY: Nighboat Books, 2017.
Darias-Beautell, Eva. “The Softness of Theory: A T(r)opological Reading of Lisa Robertson’s ‘Soft Architecture'.” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal 49, no. 4 (December 2016): 53–70. https://doi.org/jstor.org/stable/44030597.
Davidson, Ian. “Picture This: Space and Time in Lisa Robertson's ‘Utopia'.” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal 40, no. 4 (December 2007): 87–102.
Dickinson, Adam. “Pataphysics and Biosemiotics in Lisa Robertson's Office for Soft Architecture.” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 18, no. 3 (2011): 615–36. https://doi.org/jstor.org/stable/44087009.
Joseph, Maia. “The Afterlife of the City: Reconsidering Urban Poetic Practice.” Studies in Canadian Literature 34, no. 2 (2009): 152–77. https://doi.org/journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/SCL/article/view/12706.
Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1991.
Pasolini, Pier Paolo. “Observations on the Long Take.” Translated by Norman MacAfee and Craig Owens. October 13 (1980): 3–6. https://doi.org/10.2307/3397696.
Robertson, Lisa. “Lisa Robertson Lecture.” The Leslie Scalapino Lecture in Innovative Poetics. Lecture, 2015.
Robertson, Lisa. Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture. New York, NY: Publication Studio Hudson, 2017.
Robertson, Lisa. The Weather. Vancouver, CA: New Star Books, 2014.
Smailbegović Ada. Poetics of Liveliness: Molecules, Fibers, Tissues, Clouds. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2021.
Published in Walking Backwards into a Room