My friend the writer Sara Renee Marshall introduced me to the work of Lisa Robertson, recommending her Occasional Work and Seven Walks and the Office for Soft Architecture. Sara, also a walker, is a keen and sensitive observer of space. I like the way she sees. And I see what she sees in Robertson, a writer for whom, according to critics Ryan Fitzpatrick and Susan Rudy, “space is not reducible to singular, official narratives, but is the result of the complex and contradictory accretion of multiple historical trajectories” (Fitzpatrick & Rudy 173). It’s what I’ve been calling in my own writing, layers of place.
Reading Lisa Robertson, I only understand about one sentence out of five, and then that one crystallizes and the others around it become clearer. (I am a terrible reader, truth be told. I have a wandering attention span, an anxious mind.) But those crystalline moments in Robertson magnify with every reread and I am further impressed by the text’s connections to disappearing and ever-changing structures. She calls her perspective in these essays the “Office for Soft Architecture” and she uses official-adjacent language to comment on different “structures,” that may even be temporary or in motion, such as scaffolding, gardens, and fountains.
Noting the fact that I am walking and writing through constantly changing spaces with deeply layered (and often troubling) histories is something I am trying to do more and more. It is an aspirational responsibility, I think, to be aware of the time you are traversing and, especially, the people who have been wronged in that space. Robertson, writing about the impulse to create the Office and to write about her city, says:
The Office for Soft Architecture came into being as I watched the city of Vancouver dissolve in the fluid called money. Buildings disappeared into newness. I tried to recall spaces, but what I remembered was surfaces. Here and there money had tarried. The result seemed emotional. I wanted to document this process. I began to research the history of surfaces. I included my own desires in the research. In this way, I became multiple. (Robertson 1)
This catalog of motivation serves to create a sidelined personal presence in the larger historical motions of place. “The result seemed emotional” creates a narrative distance; we can barely find a subject in Robertson’s institutional observations. Critics Fitzpatrick and Rudy also remind the reader in their article on Robertson, geographer Doreen Massey, who is one of the foremost thinkers on the shifting identities of place, was an influence on Robertson. Massey asks—as Fitzpatrick and Rudy borrow for their title—“if everything is moving where is here?” (Massey qtd. In Fitzpatrick & Rudy 173). Fitzpatrick & Rudy connect Robertson’s own transient moves between countries and continents to their own upheavals of location as academics (I can relate).
Brenda Coultas is another contemporary poet who uses the position of the flȃneuse to document an elegiac connection to a changing landscape. Her collection A Handmade Museum, in part, chronicles observations of her changing neighborhood, the Bowery at two periods: before 1900 and after September 11, 2001. She documents, in particular, a part of the Bowery that includes historic single-room occupancy hotels that, in 2001, had been scheduled for demolition. In the introduction to this part of her book called “The Bowery Project,” Coultas explains,
I lived a block from this section and traveled through it daily. My intent was not to romanticize the suffering or demonize the Bowery or its residents, but rather to observe the changes the Bowery was currently undergoing and to write about own dilemma and identification as a citizen one paycheck away from the street. (11)
In this project, Coultas is both within and removed from that which is observed; she becomes insider and outsider. Her style can tend toward the concrete amalgam or catalog of images; she undertakes a record of what is there, beyond the self. In “At the End of the Month in the Beginning of the Year” she writes:
Things given back to the street: green sweater (pulled from trash and dry-cleaned), found basket (torn handle). (February 2, 2002)
A futon mattress, the frame torn into smaller pieces, brown felt western hat (February 23, 2002, Bowery & Houston)
Ice cream or frostydrinkmaker machine on its back. I stopped to examine it and to help a man who was lifting a wheelchair up and over a 6-ft high fence. He shook my hand. Bought 8 T-shirts that said something about New York, that I loved it or that I had seen Little Italy or Chinatown or Spider-Man, bought Gucci watch, $10, on Canal St. (June 15, 2002, Lower East Side) (40)
In this poem excerpt, Coultas demonstrates the accumulative power of these listed objects. The objects are personified, like “the frostydrinkmaker machine on its back” to suggest the ways society and capitalism are abandoning people (and evidence of them in their discarded belongings) by removing a place. Coultas is not completely removed from the systems at work that both change and destroy an environment. Similarly, Coultas is framing these details seemingly aware of the way her gaze might do more to valorize a sort of urban picturesque.
Moving forward, I aim to more completely examine my own surrounding’s layers and to acknowledge my role in a changing space. As Robertson says, “we were radically inseparable from the context we disturbed” (Robertson 196). In the coming installment, I will look at my own neighborhood’s context, its history, and my small part within it.
Lindsay Tigue is the author of System of Ghosts, which was the winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize. Tigue writes fiction and poetry and has been published in journals such as Verse Daily, Blackbird, and the Indiana Review. She was a Tennessee Williams scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, a James Merrill fellow at the Vermont Studio Center, and a former assistant to the editors at the Georgia Review. She is a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University and is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Georgia.
Read earlier posts from WALKING THROUGH here.