Bear with me while I tell you, briefly, about Epicureanism: a philosophy about a world without divine judgment, where nothing you are or do in your lifetime is anything more than what it is. This is a world without sin but also without transcendent meaning. There are definitely gods, as befitting an idea forged in ancient Greece, but there is no grand, God-given plan. Amanda Jo Goldstein calls this philosophy “hard medicine to swallow.”
Lisa Robertson’s 3 Summers (Coach House Books 2016) is a ten-poem collection that grapples exquisitely with Epicurus’s materialist conundrum: if we live in a world that makes nothing more of us, what should we then make of ourselves and of the world? At a time when many of us feel bereft of a clear path forward, our sense of the liberal progression of history exploded by recent and not-so-recent events, such a conundrum may seem timely, important—and depressing. To whom can we turn for guidance?
One answer—the one that fascinates Robertson—comes to us by way of the Roman poet Lucretius. In his epic poem De rerum natura (On The Nature of Things), Lucretius aims to promote Epicurus’s thought by setting it to verse. If Epicureanism is harsh, the logic goes, then a little poetry might sweeten things up. And so, without recourse to divine wisdom or divine reward, Lucretius endorses teachings that align freedom with the avoidance of fearfulness and destructive passions. He tells us to live with principled restraint and an eye to behaviours which lead to happiness in the long run: among them temperance, the cultivation of friendship, and the reading of philosophy.
3 Summers is a mid-career collection that arose from Robertson’s time reading philosophy and cultivating friendships (I can’t speak to temperance) as Bain-Swigget Visiting Lecturer at Princeton University and during a fellowship to the Warburg Library in London. It includes a poem comprised of lines from the introductions to every translation of De rerum natura found in UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. Yet it is also, as the collection’s opening poem reveals, a response to Robertson’s own embodiment in particular, personal, times and spaces. The poet’s interest in materialism starts with the body; she begins by situating her poet-speaker as a subject who is subject to desire:
4:16 in the afternoon in the summer of my 52nd year
I’m lying in bed in the heat wondering about geometry
As the deafening, uninterrupted volume of desire
Bellows, roars mournfully, laments
In Robertson’s poetics—not just here but more generally—words, bodies, and emotions are inextricable. There is potential for discovery in this knottiness because, as Robertson notes in an interview for CWILA, emotion “cuts through certain conventions to find ways of working with language that feel direct, liberatory…We can’t free bodies without listening to bodies, including our own.” In 3 Summers, cutting through conventions might mean opening to the body’s inner logics, discovering, for instance, what hormones can teach us in their “the mystic dialectic” with and against “toxins,” or in their affinity with pleasure: “the juiciness and joy of form/ otherwise known as hormones.” In the absence of transcendent judgments, to whom should we listen? Another of Robertson’s answers: ourselves.
This is not solipsism because, as Robertson contends, we don’t know ourselves anyway. “We were always running away from our bodies and then we weren’t,” she writes in “Toxins.” “Mostly my sex was blind and stupid and this was a way to live.” In lieu of appetites or affections (the usual materialist vocabulary), hormones and toxins, lesions and sutures, are for Robertson another way of saying that we are subject to our embodied selves: subject to inspiration, lassitude, compulsion and desire. The material agency of the body is glorious and intense. But it also offers a kind of melancholy proof that we are doing it wrong, looking for outside encouragement when we really should be attuning ourselves to ourselves: “what if we’ve made the wrong use of the joy of our bodies?” she asks in “Third Summer,” “what if we’re to be formal translators of bird cries/ …from beak to beak/ in anyone’s Latin.” Reading Lucretius, for Robertson, undoes ego and anthropocentrism by unthinking the exceptionality of the human soul. It makes space to imagine humanity in the service of avian society, translating that which is only ever sung aloud (or chirped or warbled) into a dead language that, nowadays anyway, is mostly only read—in translation.
What will reading this collection do to you? It will bring you into felt proximity with time, mortality, embodiment, nature, commodity form, and other hard medicines to swallow. It will also sweeten a harsh world with poetry. Yet, as Robertson’s final poem, “Rose,” playfully cautions, when you don rose-coloured glasses, you commit to seeing the world in a certain way. Realizing that the only things made more vivid by the glasses are those that contained a hint of rose from the start, Robertson laments that “nature wasn’t helped any. Greenery dulled and flattened. The dirt looked cold.” Wearing the glasses, she writes, “I remained as surly and withdrawn as ever. As medicine, they were very weak.” What the glasses are actually good at illuminating is, unsurprisingly, philosophy: Nietzsche’s concept of the “Great Health,” for instance, “confected with the help of the new spectacles.” Brought together into a sweet confection, mixed with candy colour, glasses+philosophy becomes a single lens through which to see that a commitment to finite embodiment is also a way to live fiercely: an “insistent stratum of morality and pathos” upon which, Robertson says, “[I] found my lightest, most evanescent attachments. Rosily I will squander myself.”