Sous les Pavés, la Plage!

This past fall I read—or, more accurately, got sucked into—Lisa Robertson’s Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture for my class on hybrid/mongrel literature. There was something about the composition of these seven pieces that kept leading my mind back to the writings of the Situationniste Internationale. I hadn’t any previous contact with Robertson or her work and was curious if there were any connections—direct or otherwise—between she and the SI. Poking around online failed to yield anything of note, so I chalked any similarities up to either, a) benign coincidence, or b) unattributed and unacknowledged inspiration. The “Seven Walks” comprise the latter part of her book Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture and I hoped to read the whole thing (we only had photocopies for class), but my attentions were pried away by other callers.

Last week I was finally able to get a library copy and began reading the rest. So far I’ve only made it to the third essay, though that’s because while brief, they beg to be reread and I happily oblige. It turns out that the essays that make up “Occasional Work” are the fruit of some collaborative projects done while Robertson was a resident of Vancouver, BC. Each essay is preceded by a note on the collaboration and, as she lays out in her acknowledgments, “is followed with a list of sources, in part to recognize influences and borrowings, but also to hopefully tempt a reader away from this book and towards the stacks.”

So far, so good. Right up front the intent is for this writing to be part of a larger conversation with other texts and the readers thereof. The implicit connotation I gathered from this statement was a desired association with concepts laid out in Lyn Hejinian’s essay “The Rejection of Closure” (Robertson has elsewhere cited Hejinian as an influence, an element I wish to approach more deeply in the near future). At the very least, this text exhibits an openness to direction and an unwillingness to succumb to a particularly directed reading.

To keep myself from excessive tangentialism, let’s move right to the third essay, “Site Report: New Brighton Park”. Robertson’s third sentence: “This is an inverted Utopia, where sous la plage, le pavé.” The context here is irrelevant to my aims, I’m concerned here with the italics. For the unacquainted this is a play on a notable slogan borne of the Mai ‘68 demonstrations: Sous les pavés, la plage (under the cobblestones, the beach). I know this reference only because of my own romantic infatuations with the events of that period and the work of the aforementioned SI, but Robertson dropped her italicized inversion into her piece sans contexte. How is any reader unschooled of such a marginally obscure factotum supposed to comprehend her statement?

It’s difficult to launch any manner of full-blooded critique on a sentence that’s so provocative and engaging. Truth is, I think it’s a marvelous turn, the kind I wish I had thought of first. The longer I sit with the sentence the more exemplary it becomes of two divergent thought strains: 1) as a notifier of openness and, 2) as a pawn in a tug-of-war over how deep a reference should be buried without its source being identified. I realize it doesn’t always behoove a writer to reveal all the sources of inspiration for a piece, even when some are listed. That’s part of the poetry game. But in this instance attention was called via italics and, perhaps less pointedly, by the fact that it’s left untranslated.

I wonder if my question here only applies now to a “post-canon” literary universe where the infinitude of knowledge is available to anyone with the ability and/or wherewithal to find it. Of course I mostly mean Google, but this capability post-dates the material in this book. I wonder if “openness” is related to the crater where the referents are to be found. Or is it nakedness? How one seduces the text alters how the covers come off, or if they come off at all.

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