Monday, July 21, 2008
by Lyn Hejinian
To write constructs a whole out of increments. These units are both measure and memory. Each part may be a word or a phrase, a sentence or a paragraph, but no matter the dimensions, it is a memory of a certain measure, even though the measure of its actualization may be different than that of which it is a memory. What does that mean? Hold on, as I’ll eventually return to that point in another capacity.
I want to begin with the sentence. No matter what characteristics a sentence may assume, it begins and ends within the text itself. Even a sentence isolated from the larger text from which it originated is not liberated from context. An independent sentence is still dependent upon totality, even though its characteristics may be fragmentary. A fragment is itself, isn’t it? Even if it once belonged to something else! Context is not eliminated, but realigned. There is a shift!
The entire content of a text either may or may nor be contained in the sentence- but everything has to fall into a sentence, doesn’t it? And by sentence, we’re going to jettison any grammatical requirements of that term. What “it” is, is “it” enough. A sentence may even consist of a single word. This allows greater mobility, as the sentence is something of an accordion – a pliable structure that hits different notes according to its extension (or contraction), as well as direction. “The obvious analogy,” Lyn Hejinian repeats throughout her long prose poem, “My Life,” “is with music.” Or as Charles Olson says, “…they must/ be played by, said he, the/ ear!/ By ear, he sd.” Variance in the fundamental unit of structure engenders not only difference, but also redirection of the unit itself. This variance falls into a pattern, that is, a rhythm. That is, music!
The fundamental compositional unit of “My Life,” first published in 1980 and expanded in 1987, is the sentence. Each individual sentence is a plateau and the act of reading is a leap from one level to the next, the “…planes of information intersect, coincide.” Okay, so the sentence exists as an increment of time, but also as a location – a movable point.
Fixed phrases, such as “As for we who “love to be astonished,” and “It is hard to turn away from running water,” reoccur throughout “My Life.” The latter phrase provides something of a guide to understanding the part that each phrase and sentence plays in the whole. Heraclitus said that “you cannot step into the same river twice,” and while these stable phrases give the semblance of fixity, they only highlight the instability of the text around it. Text itself is unstable, and all the more so because it hints that it is fixed. But Hejinian’s Steinian statement, “Undone is not not done,” is of course true, and it indicates how language has a habit of slipping away at attempts to force it into firmament. “A” does not always lead to “B” in language, even though that example is one based in the alphabet.
The sentence is a point on the larger grid of the text, but “a point, in motion, is a line.” Reading is motion, an act of travel precipitated by memory and gaze. The gaze of the reader provides the trajectory (aided by the projective train of text), while memory is the anchor - the semblance of coherence becoming, therefore, the thing itself. There are “No idea but in potatoes,” that is, the abstract can only grow out of the organically conceivable, out of what the language can offer (Also, I don’t want to move on from here without mentioning the luminous humor in such statements. Despite the sophistication and complexity of Hejinian’s work, she can be wonderfully charming and funny as well).
The conventional compositional unit of poetry is the line, tantamount to other increments such as sentence, stanza, or page. In a prose poem, such as “My Life,” sentence takes precedent over line. Okay, yeah! But here we see the paragraph as a mediator, it is the larger repository of sentences, whose very totality insinuates a complicit likeness between such grouped sentences. The paragraph provides an opportunity to take the dissonance of the sentences’ connections and unearth the harmony of the totality. Chronology loses its preeminence over just this totality. The line is a linear construct. The rewards of a clever “turn” of the line have long been the writer’s stock in trade. But with “My Life,” “The things I was saying followed logically the things that I had said before, yet they bore no relation to what I was thinking and feeling.” The paragraph is an entity of totality that does not necessarily refer to, but describes.
Perhaps “After a certain point, one no longer hears any new ideas, must make do with new facts.” The ideas, of course, are always the same, but it is the facts, the things, which change. “My Life” does not force certain ideologies upon the reader, but allows ideas to suggest themselves due to the reoccurrence of facts, of language. “Wanting to “explain” is like having a memory – the person posits itself elsewhere…” Here there is a separation between the explanation and the person. Explanation is not here the same as a definitive declaration. No, explanation here indicates possibility. Each sentence does not narrow the scope of possibility, but is ecstatically open to potentiality.
Where is a person?
Where is language?
The only thing conceivable is that which can be conceived through language, nothing exists outside it – and memory is contingent upon language. Each increment of language is a recollection of a stored moment, the signified increment of communication. Each unit is, as stated earlier, a measure reliant upon memory, otherwise the increment would be unsignifed and language, and as St. Augustine said, “…when there is no time, one cannot use the word “never.” Time is reliant upon language. Personality occurs through time too!
Look at this familial recollection that occurs early in “My Life:” Hejinian writes that “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 to the original, or to know “what really happened.” Is the impossibility of achieving empirical veracity troubling to Hejinian? No, Hejinian is an Emersonian optimist, in “My Life” she almost posits a utopia of ideas, of words. This is markedly different from a writer such as William S. Burroughs, for whom words form a prison of ideas around man, who would otherwise be liberated without the shackles of language. Not for Hejinian. For her, nothing exists outside of the story, outside of the language, and though the “life” which is constructed through the text is not a physical life, it isn’t the homunculus of the realist novel, it exists organically as a point in constant flux due to the atmospheric conditions of language and memory.