Showing posts with label Lyn Hejinian. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lyn Hejinian. Show all posts

Monday, December 10, 2012

When, in 200 years, students are reading the poetry of Lyn Hejinian – as certainly they shall if humans are still about – those readers will undoubtedly begin with My Life (hopefully in its initial Burning Deck version, not because the earlier edition is “better,” but because that is the volume that changed the lives of so many other poets). Those who go on to read Hejinian’s finest work, however, will then turn to The Book of a Thousand Eyes, which Omnidawn brought out earlier this year.

Coming in at 333 pages, Eyes is a project on which Hejinian has been working for decades and the concentration of effort yields remarkable insights. Although 95% of the volume is in verse, Eyes is – alongside Tony Lopez’ forensic masterpiece Only More So – the deepest thinking over the role, form, history & future of the sentence I have encountered:

Perhaps my dear family can profit from my story

As it continues two pickpockets are denying a robust policeman’s suggestions that they are ‘suspiciously encumbered’

If encumbered, they insist, they would resemble kids with a lot to say

They would resemble unwanted sympathy

They would not be like holes in a hallway

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Monday, October 17, 2011

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Friday, January 03, 2003

Lyn Hejinian has offered the readers of My Life a unique look into the compositional strategies of the project by publishing two different booklength versions. The first, published by Burning Deck in 1980, includes 37 paragraphs of 37 sentences each. The second, published by Sun & Moon in 1987, offers 45 paragraphs of 45 sentences each. Thus, in addition to adding eight new paragraphs, one for each of the intervening years of the project, Hejinian also added eight sentences to each of the existing paragraph of the first version. Hejinian also appears to have made small additions to at least one existing sentence within each paragraph. Here is the seventh paragraph of the 1987 version, known by its epigram “Like plump birds along the shore,” with material new to this version printed in boldface:

Summers were spent in a fog that rains. They were mirages, no different from those that camelback riders approach in the factual accounts of voyages in which I persistently imagined myself, and those mirages on the highway were for me both impalpable souvenirs and unmistakable evidence of my own adventures, now slightly less vicarious than before. The person too has flared ears, like an infant’s reddened with batting. I had claimed the radio nights for my own. There were more storytellers than there were stories, so that everyone in the family had a version of history and it was impossible to get close to the original, or to know “what really happened.” The pair of ancient, stunted apricot trees yield ancient, stunted apricots. What was the meaning hung from that depend. The sweet aftertaste of artichokes. The lobes of autobiography. Even a minor misadventure, a bumped fender or a newsstand without newspapers, can “ruin the entire day,” but a child cries and laughs without rift. The sky droops straight down. I lapse, hypnotized by the flux and reflux of the waves. They had ruined the Danish pastry by frosting it with whipped butter. It was simply a tunnel, a very short one. Now I remember worrying about lockjaw. The cattle were beginning to move across the field pulled by the sun, which proved them to be milk cows. There is so little public beauty. I found myself depended on a pause, a rose, something on paper. It is a way of saying, I want you, too, to have this experience, so that we are more alike, so that we are closer, bound together, sharing a point of view – so that we are “coming from the same place.” It is possible to be homesick in one’s own neighborhood. Afraid of the bears. A string of eucalyptus pods was hung by the window to discourage flies. So much of “the way things were” was the same from one day to the next, that I can speak now of how we “always” had dinner, all of us sitting at our usual places in front of the placemats of woven straw, eating the salad first, with cottage cheese, which my father always referred to as “cottage fromage,” that being one of many little jokes with which he expressed his happiness at home. Twice he broke his baby toe, stubbing it at night. As for we who “love to be astonished,” my heartbeats shook the bed. In any case, I wanted to be both the farmer and his horse when I was a child, and I tossed my head and stamped with one foot as if I were pawing the ground before a long gallop. Across the school playground, an outing, a field trip, passes in ragged order over the lines which mark the hopscotch patch. It made for a sort of family mythology. The heroes kept clean, chasing dusty rustlers, tonguing the air. They spent the afternoon building a dam across the gutter. There was too much carpeting in the house, but the windows upstairs were left open except on the very coldest or wettest of days. It was there that she met the astonishing figure of herself when young. Are we likely to find ourselves later pondering such suchness amid all the bourgeois memorabilia. Wherever I might find them, however unsuitable, I made them useful by a simple shift. The obvious analogy is with music. Did you mean gutter or guitar. Like cabbage or collage. The book was a sort of protection because it had a better plot. If any can be spared from the garden. They hoped it would rain before somebody parked beside that section of the curb. The fuchsia is a plant much like a person, happy in the out-of-doors in the same sun and breeze that is most comfortable to a person sitting nearby. We had to wash the windows in order to see them. Supper was a different meal from dinner. Small fork-stemmed boats propelled by wooden spoons wound in rubber bands cruised the trough. Losing its balance on the low horizon lay the vanishing vernal day.

I know of no other poet of my generation – & perhaps only Jennifer Moxley from among younger writers – who could write a phrase such as “vanishing vernal day.” This is just one of dozens of small, almost intimate details in this paragraph alone that render Hejinian unmistakable as a poet, & which together account for the passionate advocacy her poetry inspires.

What interests me here, first, is the absence of any formal system for the incorporation of new material into the piece. Six of the eight new sentences in this seventh section are introduced in pairs – in the book’s first paragraph, however, there was just one pair, plus another group of three clustered together, while in the eighth paragraph, all new sentences appear by themselves, singletons of new data & context. And of course, after the 37th paragraph, all additional paragraphs can contain only new writing.

In the seventh paragraph, the new material transforms the section’s beginning and end, but makes relatively modest interventions during the main body of the text. The most significant of these latter insertions is a sentence (plus two words) positioned between two sentences that were built around uses of the word “ruin.” Where in 1980, the text made a sharp turn precisely at the point of the two meanings assigned to “ruin,” in 1987 these meanings function far more softly, echoing their common moment.

Three sentences can be read as alluding to the phenomena of heat-based mirages rising up of the pavement:
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>The explicit new second sentence of the paragraph, which sets up the structure for the image schema – the length & detail of this sentence are necessary if the paragraph is to intelligibly re-invoke this construct later with shorter, more brief sentences
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>A sentence one-quarter of the way through the paragraph that reverses the point-of-view, focusing instead on how the narrator is “hypnotized” by the waves of the mirage
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>The final sentence in the paragraph, a moment of closure radically different from the 1980 homily
A fourth sentence is also plausible if one incorporates “The sky droops straight down” into this same image schema. Thus a point of reference that was not even hinted at in the 1980 version of the paragraph becomes the controlling image schema for its 1987 incarnation. This transformation is not insignificant. The nature of this paragraph has not been “updated,” but completely re-envisioned by the process. The frame of late ‘40s radio dramas – which then models the role given over to family stories in the 1980 version of the poem is far less of a master paradigm for the paragraph, replaced in fact by the presence of mirages. While its own juxtaposition to family narratives has not changed in the slightest, its position overall within the paragraph redefines the meaning of that juxtaposition.

There are, of course, several other things going on here, more or less at the same time. Two of the eight new sentences – “lobes of autobiography” & the question “Are we likely to find ourselves” – function as metacommentary on the process of My Life itself. The sentence concerning “small fork-stemmed boats” can be read – although I’m suspicious of this as the scale seems wrong – as related to the narrative of childhood engineering, damming the gutters, that is constructed via several sentences of the 1980 version of this paragraph.

Also of considerable interest to me are the two words now added to the final phrase of what had originally been the seventh sentence: “without rift.” I think that it is possible to interpret that sentence in just that way, so that these words add relatively little to what has already been written. But it is also possible, or at least was in 1980, to see in that image of the child the twin masks of theater – comedy & tragedy – which then allude back again to the image of “radio nights.” Here again, Hejinian’s intervention mutes or thwarts that reading – it’s a different text in 1987, with connotations distributed accordingly.

Both versions of My Life are remarkable works, although I have a personal bias toward the earlier version that is really an allegiance to the intensity of my first full reading of it on an airplane. Potentially, a project of this sort is infinite in the sense that it never need end so long as the poet herself continues to live & write. Hejinian did continue the actual process for some time after the release of the Sun & Moon edition, although no later version has been published.

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.

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.