In The Weather Lisa Robertson engages with the pastoral genre of poetry, in order to draw attention to its architecture.
The pastoral in art refers to the romanticization of rural life — particularly the lives of farmers, shepherds, and other rural labourers — which results in unrealistic depictions of this life as extraordinarily idyllic.
Pastoral poetry commonly foregrounds capital-N Nature as a stately if not a pseudo-sentient force, and supposes a personal connection between the rural peoples and that Nature — the “land” — as a thing both present (in a personal and fulfilling relationship between Man and Nature) and absent (in contemporary and/or “civilized” life, that of the polis or city).
The pastoral genre can be considered, in this regard, to be similar to the genre of lament. The pastoral expresses grief at Man’s separation from Nature, mourning the loss of an idyllic rural life.
(I use the supposedly “generic” gender term pointedly here, to point out also the invisible ideological sexism involved in the assumption of “Man’s” ability to represent women in words and the world.)
Robertson’s encounter with the pastoral genre forces her to recoil from it, and then, as a political writer, to engage with it in order to collapse its architecture through a hollowing out of its form, unearthing and removing its hidden supports and foundations.
In particular, Robertson seems troubled by the reduction of the feminine in some entries in the genre to a simple association with nature and the land — women in the pastoral exist to symbolize the landscape and serve as landscape themselves, to be admired and ploughed, and upon which to raise families.
In Robertson’s pastorals, the language of landscape is replaced with the language of weather, a landscape always in flux and whose essential character is typified by a manic unpredictability.
Women in Robertson’s pastorals are not milkmaid mothers but picnicking lesbians, who smoke and generally overturn convention while engaging in a conventional pastime (picnicking) just as Robertson is overturning conventions while engaging in a conventional pastime (writing in general — which for a period of literary history was perceived as the domain of males — and pastoral poetry in specific).
Women are tied here not to the landscape, but to the weather — their identities and social roles existing in a state of flux, just as the weather exists.
The book may sound dry from that brief overview — but rest assured, this is not the case. Robertson’s language is sparkling and sharp, and builds momentum through its rhythmic motion to produce a dense and difficult, but enjoyable and readable book.
The majority of the text consists of prose poems, each named after a day of the week, and utilizing almost ritualistic repetition. In “Wednesday,” Robertson begins:
A beautiful morning; we go down to the arena. A cold wintry day; we open some purse. A day is lapsing; some of us light a cigarette. A deep mist on the surface; the land pulls out. A dull mist comes rolling from the west; this is our imaginary childhood. A glaze has lifted; it is a delusional space.
Breaking these lines down, which are typical of the structure of most of the “Wednesday” poem (and, in their accumulative build, much of the book), serves as a useful introduction to the ways in which Robertson is making use of and overturning pastoral conventions.
Each sentence in the passage consists of two independent clauses linked by a semicolon, the first of which is a weather description and the second of which describes the various actions carried out by two people (the text as a whole suggests that they are lesbian lovers), apparently picnicking.
An associative link is formed between the weather description and the character action through the use of the semicolon, establishing a relationship that might be interpreted as causal; as if the action of “going down to the arena” stems as a logical result from the condition (specifically: the weather condition) of the “beautiful morning.”
This linkage seems obvious and plausible, but in other sentences the logic seems lacking or confused — purses are not necessarily opened due to the fact of it being a “cold wintry day.” Perhaps this cause-and-effect relationship is present only in certain sentences, or perhaps Robertson is moving us, in this second sentence, into a more associative logic, where purses pop open like umbrellas when the clouds threaten.
Regardless, our next weather description, “the day is lapsing,” is a more poetic statement than the previous two, uncommon phrasing which motions to a pre-lapsarian “day,” associated with this idea of a lost Utopia that we see in some pastoral writing.
The response — to light a cigarette — seems most notable because of the ritual involved in smoking and the passage in time that is marked by the regularity of the habit.
This is simply a brief glossing of the passage, and represents my own interpretation, but the potential depth of Robertson’s language is apparent in even these few short lines.
It is her ability to craft work with such density while still being articulate that attracts me most to Robertson’s work; she is, in my opinion, one of Canada’s best poets, and her books are consistently inventive and accomplished.
Robertson often rewrites or draws inspiration from classic Roman literature, and The Weather rewrites the pastoral with confidence and cunning. Robertson makes specific edits on pastoral rhetoric — “Shadow for Hour. Tantrum for Lyre. Lure for Light” — replacing temporality with abstracted absence, lyrical harmony with violent disorder, purity of being with sexual energy.
The result is a dynamic, energetic book that is as well-written as it is intelligent.
Support authors (and this site) by buying books! (If you buy this book through that link, this site will receive a portion of the sale to support its operations, but it won’t cost you anything extra.)
You an also support Jonathan Ball, this site’s author, directly, and thus help fund his many projects, including this one (and help put his daughter through university)!