BooksWeekend

Lyn Hejinian Imagines Life on Mars

The poet challenges assumptions about how thinking is a form of language.

The word “speculation” wasn’t always wrapped in connotations of mere conjecture—something based on fluff rather than fact, or a signal to watch your wallet and beware of a scam. In the late 14th century, “to speculate” was to contemplate with intelligence, to apply close observation, rapt attention, in pursuit of the truth by means of thinking. The disparaging sense isn’t recorded until the 1570s; the profiteering sense dates from 1774. Due, perhaps, to the complexity and opposing tensions embedded in its meaning, the speculative has become an essential vehicle for 21st-century anti-authoritarian thought. As Donna Haraway outlines with her concept of “Speculative Fabulation,” “it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what ties tie ties.”

Although “speculative” has only occasionally been applied to Lyn Hejinian’s work, her 40 years of innovation with language makes a case for the word’s original meaning as apt to her writing. Tribunal, released this past April, deepens this argument. Composed of three serial poems, each followed by an “Afterword” of two quotations, it extends the literary techniques of her most celebrated works in a volume that critiques our social, political, and aesthetic moment—for Hejinian these concerns are always entwined, challenging us to speculate within and beyond the present. Tribunal’s urgency draws on the tension between the numerical system and improvisation of My Life (1980); the philosophical sensibility of Happily (2000); and the linguistic complexity of Writing Is an Aid to Memory (1977). Synthesizing techniques Hejinian has honed since the beginning of her career, Tribunal challenges assumptions of what poetry can think through, and how thinking as a form of language transpires.

The first series, “A Human of Mars,” opens the book with an overt nod to speculative literary genres, working with the trope of the alien planet in 52 numbered sections. While writers such as H.G. Wells explore Mars as an allegorical vehicle through character-driven narrative, “A Human of Mars” is language-driven and unfolds in an ambient flow, in sections metered into 5 sentences:

1

I am a human in the absence of others of a yet better red.

Omniscience is violent, infinite.

There are no straight lines except those I make, and I do this rarely.

I don’t foresee that I’m here by choice or of necessity, perhaps I will never know or never want to know.

There are no birches here nor lemons nor elk nor signs of social

insects, but there are flakes and something similar to red slate and mirages

very close at hand.

In this section we find techniques that repeat throughout the first series: declarative statements (“I am,” “Omniscience is,” “There are”); the predominance of the pronoun “I”; lists describing the world; a telescoping in and out from phenomena (birches, lemons, red slate) to abstraction (violence, the infinite). By repeating these techniques Hejinian simultaneously suggests a Martian narrative while opening to larger philosophical questions about the implications of this narrative vis-à-vis what it is to call oneself a human.

The story of the planet Mars, as it has been told in Anglo-American culture, depicts an angry, red place and a people named for the Roman god of war. Martian invasion narratives reflect humanity’s fears, as well as fictive and actual plans for colonization. These desires and terrors have little to do with the actual planet. However, they have a great deal to do with the collective imagination’s propensity for threat, alienation, and colonization. What then, Hejinian’s series asks, are the conditions of being human, if we view being-human through the red-glass lens of the Mars we have created?

The “human of Mars” is unsettling, but not entirely unsympathetic. This poem’s “I” relishes the phenomena of its landscape—“Red arts, red candies, red controls”—and states, “I eat raspberries, binge on tomatoes, and dream of bleeding cows.” Such lists register an appreciation for both art and control, for both sweet and violent nature. This “I” is also utterly alone—“The human (so it was called and then subsequently culled),” the voice utters, along with, “Some version of ‘I’ is a cartoon pig.” This ambivalent picture of humanity captures a complexity often lost in black-and-white assessments, proposing a unique tribunal for thinking through who and what we are. While performing a critique, this tribunal doesn’t seem interested in passing judgment, but instead proposes a continuous pursuit of comprehension, even if the object cannot be known: “The riddle persists: who am I?,” as the human of Mars asks at the end of “36.”

If “Human of Mars” proposes that humans are of the imaginaries they construct, Tribunal’s second section, “Time of Tyranny,” focuses on what it is to be of tyranny, of its structures and systems. As Hejinian proposes in “Human of Mars,” there is no possibility of extracting thought, self, and language from larger context. Thus in “Time of Tyranny,” tyranny infuses and is embedded in our time. We are riddled with it, and Hejinian frames it as an active force that scuttles, gropes, tortures, narrows, names, and questions. Central to this section is the following question: if it matters how we language (to echo Haraway and Language Writing, among others, who hold that how something is articulated is what is articulated), what do we do if our signifying systems are vehicles of tyranny?

For language-workers, the response must come from within the signifying system. One technique in “Time of Tyranny” is to skew otherwise fluid syntax by using the phrase “of which” in a slightly a-grammatical way. For example, from the beginning of the third poem in the sequence:

Language is a victim of its own success

while into the carriage comes a louder lyric me

of which the Cockscomb Mountains are like apples rotting in the dust

that none of us would be content to leave unlifted

[…]

This happens in 16 of the 52 sections—always at the beginning of a line and always followed by a simile—and invites speculation into the language of comparison and difference. In addition, the poems of this section are all 14 lines, evoking the sonnet form, which has connotations of authority, rule, and dictated structure—ingredients that, when mixed just right, result in tyrannical systems. However, as with the “anti-sonnets” that comprise Hejinian’s 2016 The Unfollowing, these sonnets do not observe the form’s iambic pentameter, rhyme scheme, and volta in a traditional way. Instead, they ruffle and riffle the expected rhythm and re-distribute rhyme from its privileged position at the end of a line. The poem “49” begins:

We live in toppled times under a feat of tyranny; let’s not

fake getting lost, let’s do it, let’s not do it intermittently, let’s be

lost, disoriented and never to be bound so all can hear

the hiss of the adverbs we shoot into tyrants’ eyes, quivering

shafts slippery from limbs and aimed by eyes under feathered

lids. Our features are like stale bread, my headache bad

as a blueprint for butter. Windows: how stupidly the intensity

        […]

While the sonnet’s rhyme scheme might provide the ghost of a rhyme at the end of some of these lines (the ē of be, quivering, intensity), the interior play of sound is every bit as strong, chiming within and against other echoes, as in the way the advertisement sound-bite “just do it” cycles through “let’s do it” and “let’s not do it intermittently,” which chimes with “tyranny,” “quivering,” and “intensity”—a cluster of words with connections one could spend hours unpacking—a toolkit, we might propose, for the reader’s independent thinking. Sound also joins unlike things: for example, the fifth line’s “eyes,” “limbs,” and “feathered” sonically set up the following line’s “like stale bread.” The meaning and imagery in line six bear little connection to what has come before and would be almost entirely disjunct without this sonic connection. By privileging sound Hejinian resists rigid strictures of meaning, foregrounding physical aspects of language (such as raw sound, a vibration felt in the body and/or heard by ear) shared by all.

While “A Human of Mars” employs speculative thought within the context of Martian narratives and “Time of Tyranny” intervenes in language systems, “Ring Burial,” the third and final section, speculates in a philosophical mode on matters of art, politics, environment, and culture, ending the book in a retrospective hue:

18

            The future defies timing

            Spaces gather.

            Predilections repeat, accrue, laying down sediments, depositing life that’s been lived, living that is gone.

This mode feels nearly posthumous: lived through, reflected on, and just beyond the frame, foregrounding embodied experience. Built of 53 sections that return to the first section’s use of the sentence-line (although without a fixed number of sentences per stanza), “Ring Burial” is both a refrain to the first two sections and an independent philosophy, charting ideas, following them until they dwindle, then picking up the pen and beginning again. As refrain, lines such as “The raspberries couldn’t possibly survive the three day journey from the field where I picked them to those to whom I sent them: as a gift? as an insult?” and “With the melancholy of self-condemnation and a pen, I, also a tyrant, draw a wall” reframe figures and concepts from previous sections. Lines like “Closure rejects and exhibits its rejection” refrain Hejinian’s previous works (the now-iconic essay “Rejection of Closure”) and larger project, suggesting the book as a collection of shifting modes in conversation with a much larger field. The way that these moments will feel and mean depends on them, and also depends on the reader. This, along with the section’s tendency to pose questions (and leave them unanswered) acts as an open invitation for us to join this tribunal of grand speculation.

Tribunal (2019) by Lyn Hejinian is published by Omnidawn and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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