What Do You Know: a Read on Larry Eigner

One difficulty I have in reading Larry Eigner's work is in holding myself back, overcoming my desire to skip ahead to the payoff —"the big cigar" (as Kathleen Frumkin put it) — then realizing there is none: this is it — what you see (intuit/record) is what you get. As in Eigner's poems, so in life; an insistence on time-bound perception contains a powerful lesson. One is enjoined to pay attention to what's there, as and when it is.

Touching, via words, on the immanent borders of the world — a registration of concrete particulars in time — the spirit accounts for itself in terms of sense impressions, even when speculative. A poetry of highfalutin pronouncements might miss out on what's right in front of your eyes.

"My eyes are too big for my head" — a favorite phrase of Larry's (in conversation), remarking on the difficult task he sets himself:  how to satisfy this voracious desire to know? But reflecting back, equally, on that movement, there is in his prose and poetry a funny, tender, mocking sense of the vanity in all attempts at final reckoning. The truth is it's provisional, to be gotten to as one goes along, and within limits any of us naturally occupy.

Eigner's poems enact a coming into knowledge of the world. That revelation entails an active subject following contours absolutely given by an objective state but necessarily infused with desire to achieve a processional, unfolding, and only tentatively balanced reality. The world is revealed in process of perception.

Taking his cue from Dr. Williams, Eigner enacts revelations of truth standing apart from and at the same time constitutive of the  dialectic movement of the mind:

"Winter / 3 black figures / in the street / all / turn out / to be/ school girls" (WPAT p. 71)

"curtains / shades / the ocean / and the sky / both deep / hills" (WPAT p. 52)

In Eigner, the desire to know anchors itself in the discrete particular, recording sense data in an empiricism derived from Williams, Pound, and Olson, then stretches itself by a series of shifts of attention, to create an arching figure for knowledge. The shapes those figures take are products of an insistent, restless movement on the one hand, and on the other a refusal to compromise the harvest of the moment by subordinating it to any totalizing statement. Thus the dialectical movement of the poems is made
possible by an openness to embrace the manifest, contingent phenomena of temporal existence and a willingness of mind to release its hold at any point. The truth of the mortality of the subject is thus built into its appropriation of the world.

Eigner's ambition, his great desire to know, tempered by his understanding of the limits of knowledge, are refected in this comment:

"A poem can't be too long, anything like an equatorial superduper highway girdling the thick rotund earth, but is all right and can extend itself an additional bit if you're sufficiently willing to stop anywhere." (WPAT)

Recently Larry said to me, not without some self-irony I think, that his mother once told him poetry ought to communicate, and that being old-fashioned like his mother he agreed. He strives for clarity in his work, he went on to explain, and operates according to the following formula: clarity = immediacy + force.

The clarity Eigner achieves in his poems may thus be viewed as deriving from the availability of his subject matter combined with the assertion of his method. The available, phenomenal world is transfigured in verse by a muscular, insistent attention sounding itself out in words spaced carefully down the page. What resonates in the making exceeds the limits of its sources in the phenomenal field. It hovers just above and around these words on a page.

I seem to be approaching a Bloomian argument for Eigner as Emersonian Yankee transcendentalist. I would rather offer this postulate: that "birds" in Eigner represent sound more than vision, and that this fact has epistemological repercussions.

The personal context from which Eigner's work has been produced is in some sense priviledged; it has involved a primarily fixed location in space, with windows framing a landscape of street, trees, wires, sky, etc., and a vast, open expanse of daily time. Eigner's confinement has given him a concrete model for the situation of the individual consciousness in its effort to comprehend the world.

Bird song calls attention back from thought to the actual world in time. But by its projective, sympathetic articulation it also establishes a continuum of inner and outer states within which poetry may take place as natural process.

Rilke wrote, "The bird is a creature that has a very special feeling of trust in the external world, as if she knew that she is one with its deepest mystery. That is why she sings in it as if she were singing within her own depths; that is why we so easily receive a birdcall into our own depths; we seem to be translating it without residue into our emotion; indeed, it can for a moment
turn the whole world into inner space, because we feel that the bird does not distinguish between her heart and the world's." (Letter to Lou Andreas-Salome, February 20, 1914, trans. Stephen Mitchell.)

"different / times / birds / the wind / sound / from leaves / the moon / is / miles from air / trans / formed?" (WPAT, p. 120)

"birds   birds / what little nudes ripping around / feet, feet , feet, feet / really headed somewhere" (TWAIS,P, p. 153)

Sounding out his attention, within the confines of the page, Eigner produces work that is equally about the world and of it. What makes Eigner 'hard to read?' This understated registration of current, fleeting phenomena in time begs the questions implicit in the reader's expectation of a mythic shadow world. What you see (hear) is it. Isn't it 'enough?' (What would be?)


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