Search This Blog

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Engaging Lyn Hejinian [an inter-chapter]

The vortex, as understood by Ezra Pound, is a figure of sustained energy, a form dependent on the concentration of the reader and transmitting immanent sources of coherence, a collective imagination embodied in gods and goddesses, figures for all that is sacred but whose effects escape ordinary language.  Contiguous to the plane of immanence are multiplicities: presences remembered from a life lived with care and sincerity, as well as the luminous details associated in memory with those persons. Within the realm of such subjectivity as Pound’s there is no necessary correlation with social fact. His are authoritarian fantasies, a solipsism on a cosmic scale like that to which Ahab and his crew were victims. The correlation and assessment of social fact are central to language-based procedures of many contemporary poets, many of whom are indebted to Ezra Pound for his contributions to the invention of open form. Early in her career Lyn Hejinian wrote, “The text is anterior to the composition, though the composition is interior to the text.”[1] That anterior text disclosed in postmodern or deconstructive philosophy is also signaled by the role of sacred books in pre-literate societies, where the printed word contains clues to wisdom and fate. Maria Sabina invoked her little people who taught her to read when she had entered a trance state, for instance.[2] In Hejinian’s poetry the work occurs at the obscurely demarcated boundary between exterior or antecedent, interior and present conditions of life.

In the “The Rejection of Closure,” she wrote, “The impasse … that is both language’s creative condition and its problem can be described as the disjuncture between words and meaning, but at a particularly material level … Writing’s forms are not merely shapes but forces; formal questions are about dynamics—they ask how, where, and why the language moves , what are the types, directions, number and velocity of a work’s motion. The material aporia objectifies the poem in the context of ideas and of language itself” (42). The “open” text as opposed to the “closed,” she assert allows multiple readings. Her familiarity with Deleuzian and Spinozistic thought is evident from her word choice.  Her own synopsis of the meaning of this fundamental essay appears on the Poetry Foundation website. [3]
In “The Rejection of Closure,” I give no examples of a “closed” text, but I can offer several. The coercive, epiphanic mode in some contemporary lyric poetry can serve as a negative model, with its smug pretension to uni­versality and its tendency to cast the poet as guardian to Truth. And detec­tive fiction can serve as a positive model, presenting an ultimately stable, calm and calming (and fundamentally unepiphanic) vision of the world. In ei­ther case, however pleasurable its effects, closure is a fiction, one of the amenities that falsehood and fantasy provide.
Earlier in discussing immanence I have distinguished between epiphany and the plane of pure immanence theorized by Deleuze.

The hallmarks of “language-centered writing” populate the surface of Hejinian’s A Border Comedy.  The text, like much of Hejinian’s work, can be understood formally as a serial chain or concatenation of observations with multiple recursive and spiraling elements. “So I can say that my sentences which I dot  day by day / They are full of disjointed dreams, audacities, unsystematic lampoons of systems, and all manner of reversed reveries / In dreams we are stunned by demands (“Book Five” 71).  “Day by day” is a reference to her writing practice. Each day she produced several discontinuous sentences, not following a defined path but a disjointed procedure, each of fifteen books is under construction, as if simultaneously.
That’s why I’ve kept this writing of fifteen books unfinished
Fifteen underway
I move from one to the next
In the course of many days adding every day
A few Lines to a book
Each of which takes a long time and considerable thought
And that passage of time facilitates forgetting
Then forgetting makes what’s been written unfamiliar
As if some other writer had been writing (“Book Eleven” 151)
 As a result, each “Book” is both sustained, but fragmented with traces of internal demarcations. Sometimes the text follows suggestions contained within recurring syllables, often with a sense of unravelling thematically interrelated bundles of observations. These “wholes” within “wholes operate at a level of what Pound called “logopoeia,” “Each tenuously connected to the next,” (the phrase repeated on pages 27 and 31).  Sentences are often sardonic, melding a surrealistic use of images with irony, yielding pithy utterance, “Fate is a form of censorship” (“Book Two”24).  In “Book Six,” I think I hear Wallace Stevens, inflected by Ann Hutchinson, “A comedian is a foreigner at border / Or comedienne—antinomian / Performing the comedy know as Barbarism” (78). The political overtones of her sentences has sustained itself in the interim since composition.[4] Her observations align with  the progressive or evolutionary view of social fact shared by many poets identified with “language poetry.”[5]
With board to water
Hardly knowing what I want
To beat the current?
To cross and see what’s waiting on the other side
Juxtaposed and progressing?
And myself telling?
I see a luminous blue cave and dogs dashing from it (“Book Two” 26-27)
Not knowing is essential to the engagement with word, current, and image. “Current” combines connotations of both serial form and energy or force. Drawing from Martin Heidegger in “Book One,” she cites “A space, as Heidegger says, for which room must be made room, not at but in a boundary” (“Book One”18). Kit Robinson, she cites, concerning the same theme of beginning within a continuous stream or current, refers to “interstitial time” (17). Liminal space is populated with liminal personae.
For changing sexes
In changing dreams
A breast appeared, off me, but incompletely
On the man I am
A woman
I or she
All of this being “gender by degrees” (17).
As in the case of the neo-barroco poet, Roberto Echavarren, Hejinian’s poetry engages impossibilities of presence and liminal borderlands. Both poetries invoke Deleuzian energies to instantiate an unfolding of continuous form marked by sinuous temporal undulations. Phenomenal presence is marked by a disconcerting language. “Gossiped, gendered, snipped” from the first page of “Book Three” resonates with “Tilted, shifted, and pulled” from the last page of “Book Two.” Sentences that are syntactical echoes engage one another. Following the multiform complexities of Hejinian’s continuities is, as she seems to have intended, endlessly open and endless in the fascinations that arise. The forwarding energy negates any desire, or indeed hope, for closure. Is the reader then solely set adrift on brilliant seas of cross-woven allusion and perception?

Gerald Bruns addresses Hejinian’s poetry this way, ‘For Hejinian … “open” means more than open ended, playful, aleatory, or nonlinear; it also means open to what is outside the poem. (Imagine a porous poem.) She writes: “The ‘open text,’ by definition, is open to the world and particularly to the reader. It invites participation, rejects the authority of the writer over the reader and thus, by analogy, the authority implicit in other (social, economic, cultural) hierarchies. It speaks for writing that is generative rather than directive. The writer relinquishes control and challenges authority as a principle and control as a motive. …”’[6]

With no pilot or guide, I happily bathe in the waters of unconditional expressivity. Hejinian pulls back.
We do not want all loss of boundary
At boundary is the body of experience
It affirms our solitude but negates it too
It makes conjunction has beauty and clue
It makes of the body an erotic talisman (“Book Four” 59)
Through rhyme and rhythm, the reader has been returned to realms of lyrical, song-like intensity. I am reminded of the work of a lonely poet in Mexican exile during the 1940s, Emilio Prados. His body became a temple, dedicated to solitude, as his sense of himself merged with the night sky, morning star, and the garden within which his spirit had been enclosed –expressivist and symbolist energies, his own body his only lover in a desperate gesture of consolation.

The body as “erotic talisman” knows gender in performance—no question of origins here. Boundaries rooted in gender are crucial to self-recognition at levels that do not register in mirrors. “Narcissus cannot face himself / But sees instead that same image we ourselves see” (“Book Three” 44). Registration occurs in performance, in the conviction that underlies action.
He lifts up his shirt
He is another
And another wearing high heels, his sex distending his silk dress, was walking
toward me while he tenderly sucked pearls (“Book Four” 59).
The comedic and the sublime are charged polarities in no sense contradictory. She concludes, but not on the final pages of A Border Comedy,
I began  all this months ago, years maybe—in June, anyway, of 1994
I thought I could, as it were, follow a poem that kept itself  apart from me
And from itself
A short lyric of shifts
A page or two at most
A poem of metamorphosis, a writing in lost contexts
I would write a line or two
No more and go away
And come back another day only to add something that would change
On the scales of poetry
Weighing the pans
With devices meant to delight justice precisely where its tied to reality
At the point sublime” (“Book Four 63)
In a chain of allusions and perceptions each observation alters all antecedent elements. As a result of her serial practice of composition, the poem attains the property hypothesized by Pound of being a crystalline, three-dimensional network of interlaced elements. Attention measures the relative density of what might be found on each pan of the balancing scale. “Scale” is a multilevel pun. Joy, like sexual frisson. A Border Comedy is rife with libidinal energy. Her metaphor of the balancing scale suggests the abysmal terror that Prados associates with solitude.
X: Pointer On A Scale At Dawn
I don’t know what stroke of an ancient axe
divided my heart;
divided my flesh,
leaving it to bleed in empty space.
My body remained open
like the soul within a scream;
having been born partly in the sun,
like the sky,
partly in the dark of night
in silence.
After the attack,
erupting from sleep like a river,
I was losing myself in the addiction
that kept me upright before oblivion.
Now, that I am arriving,
that I return to what is lost;
in putting on my present sadness
finally I live like a man,
I find myself in joy on the verge of the eternal
like a pointer on a scale at the dawn of my own self.[7]
William Carlos Williams too, as discussed earlier, meditated on the abyss. Faces obscured in mirrored reflections haunt the next chapter. I ask you to remember Williams’s “Danse Russe.” Those figures of hypostasis that Pound evoked in the Pisan Canto may have been on Hejinian’s mind when she wrote of Neoplatonism, “I think of some philosopher’s saying that the gods’ metamorphoses  are divine duplicities.” She quips “lies ? And I disagree” (A Border Comedy, “Book Eight” 106).  Her comedy never terminates.

Donald Wellman

[1] “If Written is Writing,” The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, eds. Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein (Carbondale and Evansville: So. Illinois Press, 1984): 29.

[2] María Sabina: Selections, ed. Jerome Rothenberg, contrib. Alvaro Estrada (Berkeley: U Cal P, 2003).

[3] “The Rejection of Closure,” The Language of Inquiry (Berkeley: U Cal P, 2000):  40-58
[4] I am writing during the run up to the 2016 presidential elections.

[5] Bruce Andrews, “Ideology and Discourse form a Machinery, an Apparatus with regular rules. … Faced with rules or patterns of restraint –the negative face of ideology—writing can respond with a drastic openness.. open up new relationships by crazed collisions.” “Poetry as Explanation, Poetry as Praxis,” The Politics of Poetic Form and Public Policy, ed. Charles Bernstein (NY: Roof Books, 1990): 30-31.

[6] The Material of Poetry: Sketches for a Philosophical Poetics (Athens: University of Georgia Press 2005): 29.

[7] Enclosed Garden / Jardín cerrado, tr. Donald Wellman (New Orleans: Diálogos, 2013): 243.