Rag Cosmology by Erin Robinsong - Review by Aaron Boothby
Bookthug - Spring 2017 - $18
A performance took place of two women before a small audience. Piles of fruit began arranged and became chaotic. Messages from the audience were typed and printed on pages, shredded and piled until the pile obscured a projection of the document. A platform where someone slept became an outpost in wilderness in weather. The women told stories under a sheet that was a tent. A leaf-blower came to be the wind and shredded fragments, clothes, materials, all alighted into confusion.
In a calm during the weather one of them lay down on the platform and made signs with her body. The other wrote on a long sheet of paper attached to a wall. A mutual invention of language transmitted words in sequence. When the person writing was finished the words said
May we who are in the weather be in grace
At the performance’s ending all in the audience joined hands in a circle and sang until they felt a very large intimacy. They went out into a night and a soft rain began to fall. The performance was called This Ritual is Not an Accident, performed by Erin Robinsong and Andréa de Keijzer.
A book of poems called Rag Cosmology, written by Erin Robinsong, takes place, disembodied before a small audience. Poems require a body to perform them and record them in moments that are simultaneous. Their sequences are a ritual if any body else chooses to enact them. The voice of the poems comes out the weather with the sounds of attempted grace. Their sequences are fragmented and have information to share. It's never not strange, this miracle: a poet performs the voice created in their poems. Is it violet? It is open and reaching out. There is weather and we are in it, in various states of distress. The information may be important.
My idea is to stay alert
my idea is to go for a walk
to sunset, to darken into privacy
under borders like a life unlike
politics of hot and bleached
oceans and nothing when
in a distracted century, I’ve
taken a walk it’s almost
hallucinogenic the things I’ve seen
It’s a late time, anyone can feel it, this grieving of what’s past saving. In these poems comes a prayer for lateness, phrases to be repeated against declining hours. One asks, “May we participate in the intelligence we’re in” (“Late Prayer”). There’s less and less to save but remainders are hope for continued being. To have an idea and to be it, attentive to what remains alive is precisely unlike politics of hot and bleached. Seeing like this is a hallucinogenic activity as ars poetica; to say what things are, attuned to surround, dissolves boundaries.
What are the edges of clouds when you’re within floral thresholds, stifled by ruffles of blossoms. Imagine where a bee dives, “froths, rapids…we know the universe from its folds…I’m a pleat, a pore, a breather, a yellow / drape of it / runs through me violetly” (“Vibration Desks”). Violet’s the light of alive; what’s anticipated is efflorescent, playfully porous, an encounter with what doesn’t stop at seems. Violently, violetly. A word alters easily between teeth and page: mouthing the in-between. An “Autobiography” pulses fragments of memory before three words appear: “Pines, firs, yews.” Are they name or elemental? Who pines for you. On the facing page each name for tree is decomposed, tumbled, turned, “Or it does not turn / Does it turn? / Or does it not stop” (“Secession Garden”) into a cloud of letters. On the following page, “The Woods,” words mutate again as mouth pronounces, altered sonically as they were visually: “yew knew I / new you, knew aye / mist hour / mind.” You knew no thing was for ever one thing.
Another subversion occurs, total and subtle. Banking means one thing until a river is introduced, a theft of precious coins and their deposit on a river’s banks. A basic human institution transforms, becomes mimicry of river and sediment. Financial language permeates Rag Cosmology as it does all our living, but defied, undone and disarmed. Words and mechanisms find their expected logic disarrayed. Rocks deposited and stored in the river’s water are withdrawn “when the moon said” (“Transformer”), following no guide of markets. It ceases to be clear who invented banking, river or people. “I learn to create a feeling I don’t believe in and then I act on that feeling” (Amina Cain, Creature); isn’t that how a poet transforms form? An associative inventory is invented, named “Bank of Sound.” It begins: “Our banks are tender / our banks for sea / our interest.” Words are instruments of information exchange, but what they are shifts, twists; they’re not solid currencies. How did the bank become a tender sea of interest.
In a limb of the river near this city is a wave over a shelf of rock. People surf it. A standing wave holds position but its water flows continuously. Its currency is current; its performance a ceaseless event mediated by flow. In “Standing Wave” the form of water’s wave repeats as poem, the word “water” refraining vertically down the page. Alongside is a narrative in motion of pervasive crime as climate: “water who is the weather doing to me…water that was corroding car parts.” People keep track of this water in a city in Michigan. The water’s doing remains deadly. It catches people in its weather who cannot help but be within its weather that is an “atmospheric condition of time and place “ and “produces new ecologies” (Christina Sharpe, In the Wake). Who is the weather doing to, what violences while the waters burn. What responses manifest as ways of living in spite of conditions. Another poem lists destructive, fragmented forms of our future in weather as members of a single pervasive element: “cultural aggression weather,” “falling ice shelf weather,” “coral bleaching weather” (“Members of Weather”). And you’re in your here, too, another member, your climate.
and were astronomies. Self-deploying
flora volunteered. This morning the sun
of god shone on the chasmogamous violets
and the world continues in great detail.
What shall I do with my information
I’m an animal in an animal in an animal
I’m a poem of objects that live by magic
I’m every idea I ever had, I’ll just stay here
as a person. I have a photographic mouth.
(“Places to Intervene in a System”)
Prayer’s a repetition participating in a general hum that is not linear. “May we feel the very large intimacy,” (“Late Prayer”) feel it listening, warming, remember prayer is a form of direction animating desire. Towards the sun of god who is not the son of god, towards friends who are also astronomies, can be guides, as poems too are associative resources and may assist you should you recall of them, speak them into the hum.
What are we in our various we’s facing? Do we wish to face it alone or together, can we trust one another? How could we assemble ourselves and what could we travel on, as all ecologies run down and we say, but yes, we’d like more life. “O my friends / if you are alone / stretch out both brains / lash together a middle one” (“Cortes”). Even alone one can make a raft out of intelligence and awareness, embody a plurality of address, an intimacy of association. It’s a Homeric request, underversed: can “we ourselves untie / the ship,” take “places at the oars // and seek again” something not new but necessary? Not conquest but an intimacy where it is understood that we’re within. The violets are chasmogamous, open and unfurled, waiting to be touched. Friendship is an animal activity, it is also floral. Even with more water and less land you may find places for such gatherings to occur, “I’ll procure for thee // A small vastness, a floating pavilion / a song to sing / in a boat that’s sinking” (“Merl”). There to drift together, where “in the dream sea, green words flex and shiver” (Michelle Detorie, After Cave). It will not be the same kind of life, it cannot be, that way closes a bit more with every storm and drought.
She’s not always with, this voice, is often alone, “a woman cruising a general doom / and heading left” (“Vibration Desks”). After being told only of always enough, limitless growth, comes a slow human learning of limits like a heavy ache. Sometimes a poem’s language previews what happens when there’s no replenishment of environment. They notice how what’s believed and made turns out to be dependent on “and then,” that what’s possible is there’s no more time. Cruising, not startled, seeing and telling: “there’s less and less and less / and less and less and less endless” (“The Late”), not a prayer this time. Within a late earth’s noise of capital even oceanic forests, even a reef’s thousand miles, every locality meets lack and limit. Terms repeat until the sound produces a truth the visual obscures: less and less, endless. What’s in the weather today, “crops washing away weather” (“Members of Weather”). The endless was an idea that was never true; in fact all livings are endings. When healthy they’re ending into other, new things, replenishing, but look, they’re ending instead into a draining so that even our precious and becomes finite.
In the midst of it, and, someone says, and, you want to say, there is only here, not any beyond that could be touched. The limit of and is atmospheric, a pulse felt through skin, a leaf’s respiration, “no eros // like earth, not anywhere // sex a speciality // of here, to have bodies” (“Vibration Desks”). It’s possible to read a poem as vibration; it changes the mode of say and hear. Speaking is a vibration. Sometimes it matches the buzzing of insects in a throat. There are so many modes of transmission. “We have information for each other,” (“Vibration Desks”) as do whales calling across oceans on frequencies we cannot hear. Words vibrate and participate in a ringing erotics of living. The poem’s not less or more than a chickadee’s song or lilac’s fragrance: “in the succulent / world of fragile…this polyrhythmic / little bliss / of going on” (“Intense Heat Death and Happiness”). Just, someone says in the midst of it, going on, can it be enough to be going on. There’s the bliss of “reefs the largest erotica on earth” (“It Is No Good And I Continue”), polyps drifting in clouds and tiny tentacled animals wavering. Let going on be enough, like let it be possible to “interweave what we can perceive” in a way that addresses our many errors, becoming aware of “the capacity of the environment to assist us” (“Blue Hole”). Not more, and less, going on with less.
On a self-repairing star
belonging to no one except the sun or the water
with bodies that gush we mustn’t lie
about life in the world we have to tell the truth
about the bees whose work is fucking the flowers
not being optional in this world
(“Eternal Atomic Superficial”)
A day (“this brown day / hosted by beauty”) begins cool after several August-hot in early June. The is-it-too-late-prayer asks “May our weapons be effective feminine inventions that like life.” From reefs dying in bleaching heat come examples, “violescent sea whips, semiaggressive flower animals” (“Chthonics”) of what such weapons may be. Tentacled and tender and grasping, no part a metal or a blade or ignition. On a wide purple artichoke gone to flower in a garden, so many bees are at work that it writhes like a sea anemone.
She’s given tasks to complete by Aphrodite. One takes her into the chthonic world to ask of Persephone a dose of beauty. What does she learn there? That “the underverse belongs me further” (“Standing Wave”), “the unity is submarine” (Kamau Braithwaite), that intelligence is neither dry nor always apparent at the surface? She possesses a “green extravagant mind wet and moving” (“Chthonics”) like swamps and rainforests, a kind of wet that horrified most male philosophers. Rag Cosmology begins with Heraclitus, “Souls take pleasure in becoming moist,” but there are always variations. Herakleitos, differently translated, says “The psyche lusts to be wet [and to die]” (Guy Davenport, Seven Greeks). It’s difficult to reconcile how death’s at the end of all desire, because “actually - you die into life” (“Blue Hole”), says the voice to a friend whose living and dying is now done. There’s so much sea spreading out, like there is so much rain falling through green canopies of trees. There’s so much floral in the animal as Psyche watches flowers bloom and decay. “I am animal; there is no becoming. I roam the various streams of information seeking the live bits” (Michelle Detorie, After-Cave). She’s part of a body that gushes and is not static, a “sporophyllic mouth light in the velvet” (“Vibration Desks”), plural and multiplying. She descends into an underverse made of velvet and returns with poems.
There’s form in the poem’s sequences but no arrow or circle, more like clouds mingling in vaporous relations. Desire in clouds turning on other desire, by this making life because the voice of the poems likes life, wants to make it. Like Dante’s vision of the Empyrean there’s a bliss of going on: “a swarm of bees that in one instant plunge / deep into blossoms and, the very next, go back / to where their toil is turned to sweetness” (Paradiso XXXI 7-9). We have to tell the truth about the bees whose work is fucking the flowers. To be willing to call this work, notice desire’s labour, alters what’s sensuous. That the bees’ desire replenishes as it seeks, turns toil into sweetness, alters seeing: “A honeybee…flying into the folds of a poppy…sees a gaping violet mouth” (Maggie Nelson, Bluets). A flower is there, like a poem is there, does either appear as a resource? “THE DATA IS FEMININE” (Michelle Detorie, After-Cave), does your language know how to perceive it? How does this data register, where does it resonate? If the poem is more like an interaction between bees and flowers, is it still pleasing? The data is not narrative, has no plot, is continual process for its own purposes and rhythms. You attend to it. “I invite the nucleus into this cloud of time and desire” (“Vibration Desks”). There is something you can do. To make an invitation amidst the breadth of agendas.
When she speaks it’s without the violence of explosivity, a soft puff of air from the mouth that has something to say. A puff of leaves unfolding in their own time: “simply to shake the green plosions / and the tree cloudlike, moves moisture, grows wider” (“Chthonics”). These forms repeat because they’re elemental: the trees’ canopies form shapes like river deltas, like towers of vapour bringing wet and thunder. Celan speaks of a “soul forming clouds, close to the true shape once more” in the poem “Snow Bed.” There are so many demands for the explanatory, for there to be plot that is traceable in a way a tangle of roots in moist earth is not. In plosions are ways to unlatch this, “by which you stare at the day resplendent / in your lack of plans your unrhymed / desires free to dabble in doubt” (“By Which”). This is how inventions that like life may be formulated; the poems ask to make use of them. Make ritual or make spell and something more like love opens beyond the explicable, “a love weird enough to be a spell / that breaks the spell” (“Vibration Desks”). Breaks the spell of what? All that’s seductive and hates life. That considers what’s at work in the world to be optional to the world. What weapons could be inventions against this? Utterances as counter-spells, a sequence of them, a cosmology of them.