Friday, September 06, 2002

Two books that surprise me with their similarity are Frank Stanford’s The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You and Lyn Hejinian’s A Border Comedy. On the surface, two more dissimilar poems could hardly exist. Hejinian’s exegesis on the comic is such a compendium of her reading that each section has its own bibliography. Stanford’s surreal memoir was written when he was a teenager and barely admits to its literacy, let alone the encyclopedic reading that one suspects lurks below the deep swamp facade.
What these two projects share, however, is their conception of the line. In each, the line is highly flexible: basically long, but with great variety in length; basically discursive, a monologue that readily admits other voices; close to speech and yet not tied to it in the strict sense of the projectivist uses of enjambment.
who is that Sylvester
why that’s my cousin McGillicutty
what’s he doing with them boards
he’s mending the fence son
why’s he doing that
cause I got him the job
what’s he doing with the bootlegger’s lumber
he’ll never miss it
what’s he making
that’s his trade he has to make them
McGillicutty you say why he’s the undertaker
like I say somebody got to
I don’t care what he is you tell him to quit hammering on that coffin
Jesus was a carpenter
he wasn’t no undertaker and he didn’t build no caskets though
I say McGillicutty he said you spooking this boy
how bout fixing me that swinging board so I can get my whiskey
will do brother
McGillicutty limped over to where we were he said I through anyway
who passed Sylvester said
boy child drowned in the barr pit
what your first name I said
Mulciber he said
what happened to your leg
mule fell on it
don’t you know no better than to be nailing coffins when it’s dark
I like to work at night
take your work someplace else then
you ain’t got to leave you can stay with us but the casket give me the heebie jeeies
I see
Sylvester said cousin you got the dimensions right
well now I don’t know
I knew the two negroes was jiving me
look here at this boy reckon he’s about the right size
Sadday night if he ain’t
they got ahold of my arms and legs like I was a dead man
leave me lone I said
but they dropped me in the coffin
it was shored up on two saw horses like a boat
the shavings of wood inside were like a nest of dead wasps
it felt so good real tight like new clothes that fit
like a muscle man T-shirt


A comedian is a foreigner at border
Or comedienne – antinomian
Performing the comedy known as barbarism
An encounter
(Encounters, after all, are the essence of comedy)
With forge and link
Which doppelgangers (perfect matchers) match
With whistling in the left ear
And symptoms of melancholy – gloomy dreams, twitching, jerking, itching, and swift changes of mood
With the capacity to transform an inaccessible object into something we long voluptuously to embrace
And ourselves into an unquiet subject – at last! Baffled!
After all, it’s a rare miracle (called “omnipresence”) when one can appear in many places at once
Change, then, is the exemplary connection
Between romance and improvement
The press of the curling tree in the pink of the shadowy snow
Out of nowhere – uncanny
And falling under a squirrel’s frenzy
The color of  the sky is cast in territory belonging to “the public”
Under spell part globe, part departure of a vessel
Passing speech through law
Turning south
Where we’re the oddballs and peppercorns
Picking pace
Like other comic poets
I should point out here
That tragic writers have merely to let their characters announce who they are for the audience instantly to know everything
Whereas comic writers use original plots
And start from scratch

I’ve seen Battlefield characterized as a novel, as has Hejinian’s My Life – it is evident that the 19th century novel, as well as the great personal narratives of that era, continue as influences on her writing. A Border Comedy and Battlefield are both booklength poems deeply involved with the telling of stories. The diversity of characters – voices – that shows up in each is extraordinary (and accounts in part for the richness one feels reading either work). Yet the differences between Stanford’s backwoods America and Hejinian’s internationalized urban one could not be more pronounced.

The fundamental neutrality of the device has seldom been more clear. The writer who understands its potential can put any formal dimension to almost any purpose imaginable. In each poem here, the line governs the reader’s experience. Line breaks are almost always perceptible, but largely deadpan in affect, not eroticized the way one finds in works of high enjambment (even as the erotic enters into both poems). The variety in line length controls tempo and can make the process of absorbing long passages far less difficult – though Stanford at times stretches the line out for just the opposite effect. The result is two irresolvable visions of American life.