I Have Been Reading The Baudelaire Fractal...


I have been reading The Baudelaire Fractal, over the course of some weeks, without a bookmark. It wasn’t a method I established before I began, nor developed with very much intention, but each time I stopped reading there seemed no suitable scrap at hand to mark where I’d left off. Now, I’ve adopted the mode, and don’t look to mark my place. I simply leave off where I leave off, resting my mind carefully on the last few lines read, and close the book on its nice, thick pages.

I often read in the morning, when the Louisiana winter sun is good on my back steps, facing across the small yard towards the back of an abandoned house.

Each time I pick up the book—which is often each morning for a few days in a row, but other times set apart at longer intervals—I flip around to where I think I last stopped. I am a slow, stubborn reader. I never make very much progress in one sitting, in terms of pages through the book, though at best, I make a good deal of progress into the book. Or rather, towards the book. Or, from the book. Or maybe, with the book.

Lisa Robertson’s prose is so layered with annals and asides, that when I flip through The Baudelaire Fractal trying to find where I left off, I often decide on a section I’ve already read, some slight new angle in it reflecting the light to catch my eye in an unfamiliar way, so as to convince me. Other times, I pick up ahead of where I was, seemingly recognizing a stylistic ornament or image, only to realize after a paragraph or so, that it simply resembled something from earlier in the text.

When the narrator of The Baudelaire Fractal, Hazel Brown, wakes up one day to discover that she has written the complete works of Charles Baudelaire, Robertson writes,

The Vancouver hotel room I occupied that morning seemed in my state of half-wakefulness to contain all the hotel rooms and temporary rooms I had ever stayed in, not in a simultaneous continuum, nor in chronological sequence, but in flickering, overlapping, and partial surges, much in the same way that a dream will dissolve into a new dream yet retain some colour or fragment of the previous dream, which across the pulsing transition both remains the same and plays a new role in an altered story, like a psychic rhyme, or a printed fabric whose complex pattern is built up across successive layers of impression, each autonomously perceptible but also leading the perceiver to cognitively connect the component parts in an inner act of fictive embellishment. [1]

*  *

I have been reading The Baudelaire Fractal, over the course of some months, without a bookmark. It wasn’t a method I established before I began, nor discovered with very much intention. Rather, I think the method adopted me. I am a slow and stubborn reader, and a simultaneous continuum often crumbles before my creep. It seems to me that I’ve never fully believed enough in the linear progression of time to get the hang of it, though people in my life have told me this is clearly a garbage excuse.

I may have a tendency, as many people do, to form philosophical positions in relation to my incapacities. Which is perhaps why I stand in nagging opposition to linear and standardized time. I feel linear time as an imposition that boxes in our lives, wrangles down our lived moments into wriggling pieces that become little more than addings-up and leadings-to. Measuring the parts of the cut worm against a longer one, while each piece is already living on its own. Linear time and standardization make equations of our lives. And is indeed, a construct of capital, a force of empire, a result of extractive drives, white supremacy, and exploitation. If they can apply measures of time, they can apply value. And when they have applied value…

Ian P. Beacock, a writer based in Vancouver, whose name I couldn’t have invented, writes in “A Brief History of (Modern) Time” [2]:

…our sense of time has everything to do with how we relate to one another and understand our place in the universe. Judeo-Christian societies learned to perceive historical time as linear and unidirectional because of a particular story they told themselves about the fate of humankind. The Inca and the Mayans drew different cosmologies from different tales, cyclical and continuous. Time, in other words, has always been a product of the human imagination—and a source of tremendous political power.

The way most books are written has a great deal to do with how books are produced. Our conceptions of the novel, the short story, the roughly-single-page poem, have come into favor because of early and lingering market forces. Just as the 3-minute song came into existence because of the size of the vinyl disc and little more. When it came time to start cutting records, musicians would often cut their sprawling 7 or 9 or 18-minute compositions and improvisations into a tight 180-ish seconds. Therefore, we consume in these increments, too. We become so used to them that we think in these increments. We are adding things up. Making linear equations by our consumption increments. This page, plus these pages, plus those pages after equals: consumption of the novel. This poem, plus these poems, plus those, makes a collection worth buying, worth selling, prizing, etc.

But I am a slow, stubborn reader. I often forget where I’ve left off, or don’t care. I may have left off months ago, read around a constellation and come back to the thing a different person, with renewed or flagging gusto. Therefore, I take my position against linear reading. I am reading The Baudelaire Fractal, over a period of—

However long it takes to become a different person, a different version. Has it been a couple years now?

Kelly Krumrie, writing on fractals and The Baudelaire Fractal, says:

Hazel Brown has many things to say; she’s a composite, multiplied. Thinking of her as fractal is a way to visualize a person—a growing person inside of a book made of books. Thinking of her as fractal is a way to break out of language toward something both measured and immeasurable, to see what we can’t see, and by see I mean understand. [3]

“American railways recognized 75 different local times in 1875,” Ian P. Peacock says.

It’s possible I travel through 75 different local times, throughout my own day—those days when I am able to hold some substantial political power over myself, which is certainly not every day. It is possible that in each of the time zones, I’ve left off at a different place in the book.

Emmalea Russo and Michael Newton, writing in “Eternal Apprentice” on the business of producing books as a collective of hand-made-book-binders operating partially outside establishment methods: “The apprentice sifts, tries a way, sifts, takes it apart and puts it back together again. The apprentice grows accustomed to the method. Then an accountant visits and says that the method (say, for tracking the budget) makes no sense.” [4]

Standardized time, accountant.

A position against standardized time, is also one against efficiency, against the accountant and the books, against the useful, probably against product altogether.

For slowness, perspicacity, towards self-incapacitation becoming power.

Aimé Césaire:

I admire the perspicacity of poets: true poets. Baudelaire celebrating the useless and the dandy. Mallarmé pouring scorn on bread. Rimbaud spewing on the ‘centuries of hands’.”

“The true poet does not preach work. He preaches availability.

To be better able to reach the heart of things.

I demand the right to indolence. [5]

*  *

I am reading The Baudelaire Fractal, but torn sidelong in my reading, too, towards and across the Atlantic.

Ian, being a peacock, says that before 1918 “Russia was 13 days behind western Europe.”

I am thinking about the next 13 days. About what I am behind, what I must catch up to. I feel my incapacity to get through the next 13 days. My lack of political power. My lack of time.

I will read The Baudelaire Fractal over the next 13 days. For months now, I have been reading The Baudelaire Fractal over the course of the 13 days between Russia and Western Europe, in 1917.

I am thinking about how The Baudelaire Fractal seems to obliterate the reader’s sense of self-incapacity, by tracing routes of Hazel Brown’s self-incapacity. We see again, and again how it becomes capacity. How it is expands capacity. Robertson writes, “I have with time lost the immature sense of self-incapacity, so useful in my earlier studies as a disciplining constraint. Always there would be something else that needed to be consulted before I could understand the book in hand.”

In The Baudelaire Fractal, all these something else’s and studies are compressed into the book at hand, always folding in and in, inside of itself, with its nice, thick papers—the result of years of self-incapacity made power. Power to begin again, power to expand, to persevere in time and double-back. A capacity against time’s forward standard.

*  *

The first time I opened my copy of The Baudelaire Fractal, with its nice, thick papers, one fold of pages slipped loose of the glue and fell out. It was the pages after the epigraphs. The line: “These things happened, but not as described.” At some point, that loose fold became a bookmark, but then, again, became part of the book. It’s become an errant reference.

Robertson writes, “Always my path to that other text was slow, dependent on chance, libraries, and time-consuming love affairs.”

I am reading The Baudelaire Fractal, over the course of some time. Perhaps it has been years. Over the course of that time, The Baudelaire Fractal is many different texts. I start by seeing one text, at the beginning, which is simply an errant reference. Still, I am looking for that other text.

On my way to that other text, I pass through libraries, I depend on chance, I am changed, positionally, by time, consuming love affairs.

“By the time I had laboriously located the errant reference, my own position had shifted.”

The errant reference is what I began with. And, in another time, where I am at. And where I will stop for now.



[1] Robertson, Lisa. The Baudelaire Fractal. Coach House Books, 2020.

[2] Peacock, Ian P. “A Brief History of Modern Time.” The Atlantic, December 22, 2015.

[3] Krumrie, Kelly. “On Fractals, Part 2.” Tarpaulin Sky Magazine, April 2020.

[4] Newton, Michael and Emmlea Russo. Eternal Apprentice. DoubleCross Press, 2016.

[5] Césaire, Aimé,  Calling the Magician: A Few Words for a Caribbean Civilization. Refusal of the Shadow: Surrealism and the Caribbean. Ed. Michael Richardson. Trans. Krzysatof Fijalkowski and Michael Richardson. New York: Verso, 1996. 119- 122.


Ian U. Lockaby is a poet and translator who lives in New Orleans. He’s the author of the forthcoming chapbooks: A Seam of Electricity (Ghost Proposal) and Defensible Space/if a crow— (Omnidawn). His work has been or will be published in Fence, TYPO, Denver Quarterly, Poetry Northwest, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere. He edits the online journal mercury firs, and with fahima ife, co-edits the forthcoming journal LUCIUS.