Poetry

One Poem by Lyn Hejinian

Our poetry editor, Wendy Xu, has selected an excerpt from Lyn Hejinian’s forthcoming Positions of the Sun for her monthly series that brings original poetry to the screens of Hyperallergic readers.

Transverso, part of 100 Years of Athos Bulcão at the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, Belo Horizonte (photo by Elisa Wouk Almino / Hyperallergic)

 

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In whatever one does, one deploys or proffers or expresses or articulates or displays both conscious and unconscious style. Or we could call it esprit, and that might entail panache, éclat, or, antithetically, despondency, dysphoria, ire. To the degree that one’s style (or styling) is conscious, it’s an expression not just of one’s attitudes but of who one thinks one is or wants to be or wants to be believed to be. It’s more than adjectival or predicative; it’s self-definitive, a mode of transit. To the degree that it’s unconscious, so-called natural, or, rather, to the degree to which, as far as oneself is concerned, it’s formative (constitutive of how one is, the determination of one’s manner)—it’s adverbial. And also probably predictable. Either way, one adopts style on behalf of its survival value. It provides one with a way to practice overcoming something, even perhaps oneself, or the moods that seem identical with oneself, self-determining. The idiom that describes one as “retreating into one’s interiority” misrepresents the situation. Introspection is not a retreat; it’s an advent, into an unquiet space, generally gloomy, certainly not restful. We are not talking about oblivion here, nor safety, nor domesticity, nor the familiar; interiority is much more likely to present one with troubles. Among the more mild of them are doubt and ambivalence, since they are indigenous to interiority, which is, after all, an arena for muddling. Through style, the deployment of our adopted syntax, we (humans) forge connections. Connectivity is the advantage humans have over happenstance. Weak as we are, it’s our principle instrument of defense. We develop syntax, take on style, so as to prevail. Without the network of connections that result, we, as solitary individuals, are pathetic, innocuous, blank, weak, incapable of defending or even taking care of ourselves. Style allows us to link ourselves, even if negatively, to other beings. Grammars—by which I mean all kinds of connecting tactics—are our instruments of invention, as well as of power. But they are only a crutch. Having a capacity for grammar hardly justifies our thinking we have mastered the world. Time goes by. The funeral for the dead boy is over. It’s almost December. It’s dark, very late, a man is passing slowly through the neighborhood. He pushes a grocery cart, the bottles and cans in it clink and clatter. He sings something, a short refrain, hardly more than a mumbled melody—or memory—embedded in his voice. As he sings, he gains something: weeping—he weeps. A flash of pathos. Yes! But freedom is always qualified—dedicated, flaunted, overseen, negated. The gravitational force of weeping pulls at one’s inner world, from which it picks up scraps of the past. The gravitational force of the happy imagination pulls at the outer world, dragging material into perception. Askari Nate Martin sighs in his sleep, and Maggie Fornetti feels his breath on her face before she realizes she’s heard it. His breath is slightly stale; she turns over, the comment “I’m changing my olfactory orientation” crosses her mind and amuses her, and she falls back to sleep. Freedom lies in dreams. Somewhere non-freedom lies, too. Cretaceous thimbles, metal delectables, sporadic blankets, and effigies en croute? I must think of myself as a plaything of chance, a product of contingency. I remain still largely indeterminate, incompletely formed, despite my being now over 70. I’m subject to the weather, to aging, to gravity, to thirst. I’m subject to myriad objects. Here are some of the many useful instruments of a late November day around the Thursday of Thanksgiving: baster, bed, belt, blanket, book, boots, bra, bread board, broom, bus, candlestick, carving knife, cash, cell phone, chair, Clingwrap, coat, coffee maker, colander, comb, computer, deodorant, desk, dishwasher, doorknob, dust pan, envelope, faucet, file folder, garbage can, glass, glasses, gravy boat, hairbrush, hair dryer, hand lotion, jar, key, knife, mouse, mug, notebook, paper, pen, pencil, pie dish, pillow, plate, platter, postage stamp, pot, printer, radio, rake, refrigerator, roasting pan, rolling pin, shampoo, shirt, shower, sink, skillet, skirt, soap, socks, sofa, spatula, sponge, spoon, stapler, stove, sweater, table, toaster, toilet, toothbrush, towel, umbrella, underpants, waste basket, watch, wine glass. Interrelated objects, producing occasions and prompting responses, can assemble into riddles. As such, their functional identity is in abeyance; who knows what’s possible. Indeed, who knows what’s happening, what has already happened? “If you abolish the whole, you abolish its parts; and if you abolish any part then that whole is abolished.” What am I? Riddles proffer objects, situations, or images, but their identity is withheld. Memory has to cast about, so as to establish a connection with fate. And even then, though riddles arrange the sensible, they withhold the sense:

A birch tree with ideas
Freedom as gravel on a private road
A melancholy admiral

The pleasure we feel when we get the riddle’s answer is only partially intellectual. The real pleasure comes from the illusion of restored order. Dispersed parts are reunited into their apparent whole. Allegories, on the other hand, are not made out of parts, and the captioning of an allegorical image or situation activates what was in abeyance, latent, dormant—but not fragmented. “The stars have […] virtue for the allegorist: they belong in constellations. They are known from the earliest times to move in a strictly ordered system of mutually dependent relations.” Dawn is not far off. The stars are fading. Maggie Fornetti is asleep on her side, right leg straight, left leg bent and drawn close to her body, left arm across her chest, right bent and tucked close to her side. Askari Nate Martin is asleep on his back, arms folded, legs straight, toes pushing at the bedding at the end of the bed. Loss and forgetting are intimately bound to the affective life of married love, with its intricate temporality, its persistent (though sometimes hard-won) lack of closure. In the course of a day, through the myriad small temporal increments, power relations in the domestic sphere shift, fading only temporarily as everyone sleeps. One night, I dream thirty words. Or I hallucinate them (they have the convincing force of perceptual truth when it grabs reality and won’t let go) and see:

a pronoun dog along, an adverb on
the space and seam and purple is
for every idiocy perfection of the abstract sea
in rectangles of unaffiliated violet
or pink vivacity

I’m not responsible for the words, they just show up in the dream. But they become my responsibility. I am tasked with situating them, placing them. And to do that I have to recognize the “units” into which they should be grouped. “Endlessly”—that’s how I characterize my effort in the dream—endlessly, I “phrase.” I have to pace and place the semantic arrival of the words, their “meaning units.” But I’m not sure where to insert divisions. Selection requires decision, but (in the dream) indecision is what makes the phrases vivid. Indecision leaves intact the power of hallucinated particularity. I come to no conclusion. Waking, I quickly write the dream words, lineating as I do so, increasingly uncertain that what I’m writing down are actually the words that came to me, displayed on the dream screen. Waking solves nothing—quite the opposite. There’s no epiphany. Of course not. Epiphanies negate particularity. Something ordinary and everyday, just as much as something outrageous or surprising, can be transformed into an aesthetic event, undergo an aesthetic realization, but it does so precisely by remaining particular. Still, it’s difficult to resist the pull of seductive totality, which even the particular can exert. As, for example, in minimalist painting—and, perhaps, more problematically, in minimalist musical compositions, whose micro-modulations can become as pervasive as dust. The music may be luscious, and its intentions may be innocuous, while the effects are insidious, producing the mollifying effect of an all-encompassing ideology. As such, the performances of it become an elaborate advertisement for something that its listeners can’t name but begin to long for—something that constrains their freedom, even as their minds wander. Traveling (which is by no means always a manifestation of freedom) seems to remove one from everyday life (demanding repetition). And yet, one of the great pleasures for a visitor comes from gaining competency in the everyday life (free-ranging repetition) of the strange, new, foreign place he or she is visiting—discovering where and how to get groceries, mastering the public transportation system, figuring out how to use the bathing and toilet facilities, etc. Pleasures? Those pleasured visitors, reveling in their competency, are probable tourists, business people, politicians, entrepreneurs. But there are exiles there too, expert at exile, old hands at getting by. Roy Robinson Trelaine has a raw blister on his right foot and this may be what’s preventing him from moving swiftly forward again into the battle (his term), which, however, hasn’t yet begun. With the pain, such as it is, comes a flicker of history. A spasm of memory—physical, physiological, geographic, and seemingly perpetual. The refugees, exiles, fugitives, or the merely stranded, confused, lost, or even, often, merely homesick—they suffer nausea, loss of appetite, agoraphobia. Much of everyday life in the nineteenth century took place in interiors—in the domestic sphere. In the twentieth century, it moved increasingly into the streets, at least in cities. In the twenty-first century everyday life has moved again, onto screens. At Café Roma, Alice Milligan Webster and Judge Lorna Kelly Cole are sharing a convivial moment of misanthropy. Gears mesh, systems circle. In an essay on circuits and screens, capitalism’s inventiveness is acknowledged, along with the complexities of its flow, over filigrees, planes, and curls. Gates swing with creativity, familiarity exerts creative sway. Two children, neither more than five or six years old, are running at pigeons on the sidewalk outside the café. The children are wielding wooden sticks like swords, jabbing at the pigeons, shrieking. Bulky, awkward, stupid, the pigeons, entirely without merriment, stay just out of reach. Here perhaps we can note “the power of nature,” a subtle version of nature’s destructive capacity: the tumult of storms, the geological upheavals of earthquakes and volcanoes, etc. We animalize them, so that we can turn them loose, unleashed, except in the case of drought, an ongoing devastating non-event. The clouds refuse to release rain. Representations tend toward the metaphorical when they monumentalize. Memory presents itself conceptually as something very like nature, as all one thing, largely contingent, autonomously rational, with cycles of recurrence that are never the same. Like nature (at least until humans mucked with it so mercilessly that it became unnatural out of sheer self-defense), memory is self-stabilizing, but only because time is on its side. Elation gives way to calm, grief to acceptance or the lassitude of depression. The sky is the most standard blue. The blue everywhere is sky. When will it rain?

 

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Lyn Hejinian teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, where her academic work is addressed principally to modernist, postmodern, and contemporary poetry and poetics, with a particular interest in avant-garde movements and the social practices they entail. She is the author of over 25 volumes of poetry and critical prose, the most recent of which is The Unfollowing (Omnidawn Books, 2016). With Barrett Watten, she is the co-editor of A Guide to Poetics Journal: Writing in the Expanded Field 1982–1998, and the related Poetics Journal Digital Archive (Wesleyan University Press, 2013/2015). She is the co-director (with Travis Ortiz) of Atelos, a literary project commissioning and publishing cross-genre work by poets, and the co-editor (with Jane Gregory and Claire Marie Stancek) of Nion Editions, a chapbook press. In addition to her other academic work, she has in recent years been involved in anti-privatization activism at the University of California, Berkeley.

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