Thursday, January 02, 2003

Some works appear destined to change one’s mind.

It took me several months to get around to reading Lyn Hejinian’s My Life when it was first published by Burning Deck in 1980 because my initial reaction thumbing through the small volume was negative. It felt far too much to me like gazing into a mirror – as though Hejinian had dutifully plagiarized my own approach to the new sentence from Ketjak, perhaps with less use of found materials, using My Life’s outer structural elements of one paragraph for every year in this unusual autobiography & one sentence for every paragraph – thus 37 paragraphs each containing 37 sentences – to construct a work that looked different, but which really differed principally through an uncritical approach to the question of autobiography.

This wasn’t the first time I’d had a less-than-positive initial reaction to Hejinian’s writing only to revise my opinion completely soon thereafter. When, sometime in the early 1970s, Occurrence editor John Wilson first had Hejinian send me a packet of writing, I’d recognized instantly the strong sense of style, but had felt that it sought out lushness for its own sake – and I wrote her pretty bluntly to say so. When I got back a letter that took my grumpy misreading seriously but didn’t back off from her aesthetic commitments, I realized I was “misunderestimating” her indeed. As I was aware that I had had similar responses at first to other poets whose work later became exceptionally important to me – Clark Coolidge would be a case in point – I decided to just hold off until I got a better sense of things. This was true of both her work initially and later of My Life.

It was through the poetry of another writer about whom I might make that same “lushness for its own sake” charge that I came to reassess Hejinian’s approach to poetry generally – Ken Irby. The fourth issue of Hejinian’s chapbook series, the original Tuumba Press project, was Irby’s Archipelago, published (it says on its intensely blue cover) in November 1976. One month earlier, however, I’d run into Hejinian operating a stall at a small press fair at San Francisco’s Fort Mason, with this book front & center on her table. Irby is nothing if not a poet of the ear, perhaps the purest example of this of this obvious possibility within Projectivist poetics, and he’s something of an acquired taste. By 1976, I’d been a serious Irby aficionado for over a decade & felt at times (as I still do) as though I were a member of some secret society: The Serious Readers of Kenneth Irby.

On the spot, Hejinian & I got deeply into a wonderful conversation about Irby’s poetry & realized who each other was – I mumbled some sort of apology over my intemperate response to her material (which, as I recall, she deflected, saying that it was entirely unnecessary, a judgment more generous than true). Relatively soon after, Hejinian & her partner (now husband) Larry Ochs moved south from Willits to Berkeley & I got to know both them as two of the most probing, inventive, talented & imaginative people on the planet. Each of her first four books – A Thought is the Bride of What Thinking; A Mask of Motion; Gesualdo; & Writing is an Aid to Memory – had been so utterly different that I believed I could not, in fact, prejudge this one on a thumb-through. So when I didn’t immediately respond well to My Life, my reaction was to set aside until some time when I could look at it again with fresh eyes.

That opportunity came on a transcontinental flight back from the East Coast to San Francisco early in 1981. I got into my seat, buckled up, pulled the book from the Danish book bag that was my constant companion in those years & did not set the volume down again until I finished it, literally as the plane was making its approach into SFO. Thus I read it for the first time in a single sitting, something I never do with anything beyond a 20-page chapbook. That reading is still, to this day, the last book with which I’ve done this.

My Life was not, in fact, the book I’d expected (or dreaded) at all. Where Ketjak is very much an outward facing text, My Life operates by facing (as would any memoir) backwards. This focus transforms the project entirely. Where Ketjak uses repetition to make “the new sentence” possible, by literally breaking apart the residual narrative instincts in my work, My Life proceeds by simply assuming the new sentence as a given & using repetition thematically, both within the body of the text proper and in the epigrams that head up every paragraph. Where the structure of Ketjak is accumulative and essentially musical in its movements, My Life functions as a series of compositions all roughly equal in size – there is a logic (a narrative dimension that is only half hidden) both within & between paragraphs. The requirement of composing such structural equivalents – their formalism is reminiscent of a sonnet sequence, although, in the 1980 edition, of 37-sentence prose sonnets – places enormous compositional demands on Hejinian, which she moves through with a sweep & grace that is stunning, one jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring turn after another. Even for someone thoroughly knowledgeable as to the implications of langpo in 1981, someone who had in fact read all of Hejinian’s earlier volumes, My Life is one of those reading experiences that very thoroughly cleaves the world into before & after.