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A Review of Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture by Lisa Robertson

CENTRAL QUESTION: How is a harbor like a sidewalk?  

A Review of Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture by Lisa Robertson

Stephanie Burt
20 Snaps

The nominal author of these twenty short prose works, the Office for Soft Architecture, is really the poet Lisa Robertson, a Vancouver- based experimentalist whose previous writings have proven that difficult—even near-impenetrable—verse can wink, and dazzle, and charm. (Especially recommended: Debbie: An Epic.) Robertson’s Office writes prose about, or around, or prompted by social history, urban geography, and visual art, especially but not only in Vancouver. Her fascinations generate Occasional Work (catalog essays for galleries, commissioned journal articles, reactions to special events) and Walks (urban stroll-pieces, dérives, pages from a Rough Guide in a dream).Thirteen of the former, seven of the latter, assemble in this palm-sized, vivaciously illustrated paperback, whose pictures include cute postcards, Eugene Atget photographs, and even a paint-tint test.

The Office designs its fluidly tricky prose to match the special readiness for change that Robertson sees in her city, a metropolis more international and with looser ties to the past than most. Her watercourses and traceries of sentences bring to mind both the parallel-universe prose of Ben Marcus and the distant models whom the Office itself namechecks, John Ruskin and Walter Pater, whose essays on individual artists and edifices tried to tell Victorians how to live: “We think of the design and construction of weather description as important decorative work. What shall our new ornaments be? How should we adorn mortality now?” The Office answers such permanent questions by way of excursuses, circumambulations, inquiries off to one side of such topics as the perceptual psychology of color: “We are aligned with a surface. We exchange mineral components with historical territory, less like cyborgs than like speaking, ambulatory dirt.… Color receives belief in the form of a name.” On scaffolds: “The history of scaffolding has been dismantled.… So we study the construction of the present and form theories. We use the alphabet as a ladder.” On thrift stores and thrift scores (“The Value Village Lyric”):“We cannot fix our object. We are anxious and bored and must shop. With this scribbled grooming we thatch ourselves anew.”

Thus the Occasional Works. Even more original, and well within prose-poem territory, are the Walks, tropes for self-guided (by Robertson’s secret self) tours, each one arranged around a Vancouver feature: library, park, café, shopping arcade, “defunct light-industrial district.” A greenhouse morphs into “spiritual diorama”: “The glittering attires and airs of summer began to vitrify so that we felt ourselves on the inside of a sultry glass, gazing towards an agency that required us no more than we required the studied redundancy of our own vocabulary. Hope became a spectacle, a decoration. Anger was simply annulled.”

Even in the Occasional Works, Robertson’s rococo prose (it even includes a defense of its own “decoration”) morphs into something much more ambitious than the incidental, explanatory writings the table of contents suggests. Robertson seems to see through the visible world, to look past the fixities of edifices into the fluctuations of hearts or minds, and then refocus on what she can see. For her all things provoke acts of attention, and hospitable ones at that: sentences play around and about, on sidewalks or ladders, in gardens and sheds, through strawberry patches, over and under tentative city plans with which to relineate our own lives.

Stephanie Burt
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