In Lyn Hejinian’s latest book, two long poems (but they hardly feel long) make short work of narrative and dismantle genre with an alert and damaging wit. First comes “Circus” or “Lola.” This prose piece, with its attention to rings, battles, payers and players, moves characters through a tightening, finally dismaying cycle of events. Next comes “Saga,” also titled “The Distance,” which applies pressure to two figures of continuity: the first-person speaker and the sea voyage. Together, these texts form a contrast of cyclicality and stasis and test the limits of writing as vehicle and vessel of both violence and knowledge.
Indeed the schoolbook-style, watercolor frontispieces for “Lola” and “The Distance,” depicting the unwieldy early bicycle known as the penny-farthing and a schooner, respectively, signal that the narrative forms they introduce might also be examples of extinct technology, not quite road- or seaworthy. With this warning flag up, Hejinian proceeds to revel in a dedicatedly defective craftsmanship.
“Lola” begins as a pitch-perfect homage to the work of Gertrude Stein, advancing in short prose sections from “Chapter One” to “Chapter Two,” titles she repeats until we do not know where we are. Eventually, we arrive at “Chapter If It’s True,” “Chapter Between Two and Three,” “Chapter Supplied,” “Chapter To View.” This recalls Stein’s delighted, flattening disregard for textual hierarchy, which produces the incandescent waywardness of such works as Four Saints in Three Acts. By the second page of “Lola,” chapters seem literally to have come loose from the structural framework of narrative: “chapters in a mood, mid-air, in plumes.”
Such recklessness is potentially hazardous for the characters who people “Lola,” characters inasmuch as they recur and have proper names. But in this work, even having a proper name is hazardous, since it allows verbs (and chapters) to happen to you. As the text muses about itself and/or about a protagonist, “Lola is conscious of fiction and therefore of chapters, she knows that things happen, things happen to her, chapter.” Initially, however, the characters are introduced in a state of virtual verblessness:
There are didacts, a killer, one polymath, a mother, a Russian gymnast, occasional passersby and idle salespeople, a juggler, a man with a sore throat, and a sorrowful child with cold hands and a three-legged dog on a leash, and all of these are players.
The sisters Hertha!
Abdul Tommy Ahmed!
It is not just with that final “Sue,” but in the very peopledness of these lines, that we hear Stein’s “Susie Asado” et al. The first sentence marshals its many nouns like a marching band around the goal posts “are” and “are.” The declarative energy of that nominative “players” is undone by the duplicity of the word itself, referring as it does to those who act with agency, seriously; those who act in a drama, falsely; those who play games, literally; and those who play games figuratively, bending the rules like Hejinian and Stein. In the second half of the passage, proper names spill out in freefall, with exclamation points like unopened parachutes, drilling for earth. The entire passage makes deliberate use of the page’s horizontal and vertical properties, another Stein signature.
For much of “Lola,” what “happens” is that as names are moved around in sentences and chapters, we get the sense of characters coming into the vicinity of one another, going to school or to the library, riding bicycles, and crossing paths with, longing for, or criticizing other characters with whom they appear in the same or neighboring sentences. The motif of the circus, with its routines and rings, points up the closedness of this world, in which these men and women, merely “players,” appear to go about their lives. At the same time, the metaphor of the circus also implicates Hejinian herself as the circus master, training her words through these sentences like dogs performing stunts. Accordingly, the sentences take delightful breakneck turns at every phrase: “Symptomatically belligerently Quindlan asks, What’s dubious about Fritos?” Hejinian has droll comic timing, and the heavy adverbial frontloading is lightly converted by the fulcrum “Quindlan asks” to launch the gold-and-flame-colored silliness of the Fritos logo high into the air, the question mark like the upraised arm that signifies a stuck landing and invites applause.
Thanks to its writerliness (and its writer), many delightful, unabashed set pieces grace “Lola,” including epigrams, metaphors, and extended images. These are often serious and dubious at the same time, such as “one wants to visit a town before buying a house there or burning it down,” or, of greyhounds and, by implication, the Wal-Mart employees who allegedly own them, “they don’t run from tyrants but for them.” In an unexpectedly comic turn, “Lyn Hejinian” enters the text and is disparaged as a minor writer; a paper on her work is given a “C.” Against this metatextuality the poet cantilevers another Nabokovian tactic, the ironized but unhurried metaphor: “A heavy mottled moth flies through the open window into the middle of the river in the landscape painted on the lampshade and there it remains.”
Where “Lola” most pointedly departs from its Steinian model is the entrance of violence into this merry, convivial text. Stein had a constitutive lack of interest in political violence, as she wrote of the atomic bomb before her death in 1946, “I had not been able to take any interest in it. . . . Sure it will destroy a lot and kill a lot, but it’s the living that are interesting not the way of killing them.” In Hejinian’s text, violence enters the same way everything else does: as words, in sentences. First a young child disappears: “Little Graciela Parker is inadequately wedged into chronological time, now she’s been knocked loose.” Next, circus imagery and war imagery become increasingly intercut: “the story’s just a stunt, she thinks, a trapeze act, she lets go, flies through the air, is safely caught, he turns away while the troops pass reality along.” Soon the sentences are occupied by militaristic images: “motley generals,” “veering armies,” guards, prisoners, tents which seem to house both soldiers and circuses. “The acrobatic shadows settle in the trees like snipers,” while “the sky hovers like a nurse over a wounded man putting her mouth to his ear.” As the militaristic terms and images infect and then saturate the text, they resonate even in casual phrases, as when a character is “off guard” or “takes up a strongly defensive posture.” Finally,
People are frightened, says Bill, meaning that he is, but he says it in a sarcastic tone, disguising his meaning.
Far away but not far enough away the shouts of a battle continue, explosive cursing, an uproar.
The future is blocked, nothing can change, regret is irrevocable.
At this point the cyclicality of the text appears less marvelous and more like a trap for its characters, who are victim to whatever fusillade or battle enters the sentences and who cannot escape violence except by disappearance from the text. The prose turns tense, then gloomy: “The chapters do but are never done;” “Grief takes time, they say—it takes it all.” With the phrase “Sawdust and circular reason,” the text resignedly reboots, the act begins again. Attentive language cannot erect a cordon sanitaire, admitting some nouns and verbs but not others. Hejinian’s sentences, and her characters, cannot help but be interested in violence. It is 2009 already, and, as the truism goes, you may not be interested in violence, but violence is interested in you.
If there is one ultra-narrative (and ultraviolent) poetic genre, it is the saga, the Northern European form given to armed struggle, sea voyage, and obsessive genealogical accounting. As its title suggests, the mood of Hejinian’s saga, “The Distance,” is not one of action but of meditative stasis. Unlike a conventional saga, there is no historical or geographical GPS at work here; the speaking voice is simply at sea, shipbound, in motion but adrift.
. . . I won’t pretend
To be an historian, how could I, when I
have no idea
Of today’s date. Though I know we
embarked one morning early
In May, I have no idea how long ago that
And I don’t care. I breathe, I twist my
hair. I watch
The sea. At times it resembles an eye
But it isn’t watching me.
Lineageless, battleless, the female speaker shrugs off the patriarchal requirements of saga even while her free verse is gathered up in a rhythmic, graceful full rhyme (“me,” “sea”), which stands in for ancient, songlike sound structures. As with “Lola,” here genre itself is at once medium, material, and subject, the pliant, immersive sea in which craft sails. In “The Distance,” genre’s mutability and capacity is figured by the literal sea. As the speaker notes, “the sea absorbs our inexplicable feelings. I suppose / we are drowning in saga.” The shipboard setting is resonant to the Anglo-American reader, recalling everything from the Seafarer to Homer to The Tempest to Moby-Dick to the Ancient Mariner to Henry Martinsson’s Aniara, reversing course, at times, to The Voyage of the Beagle. Thus the ship seems to sail right through the anthology, through canonicity itself, through such conventions as medias res, as the illusion of voice in first-person narration.
The languorous pacing of Hejinian’s lines points up their philosophical fullness and contributes to the poem’s dreamy mood. Like so much of Hejinian’s oeuvre, the text is recursive, rich with images of its own writing, and makes palpable its effort after knowledge:
. . . I move to see,
Montage to understand, I pass the
To others so as to emancipate the point
of view. Trade is relevant
Everywhere. We can’t escape economy,
As far as we can see the world
Is unsparing of things to see,
Is profligate, ubiquitous, vivid, prolix,
it’s all too much, vista
Without terrain, the “too much,” the
“neither given nor giveable”
World we can neither approach nor
leave. We live
Then through . . .
Here, the impossible relationship of writing to knowledge spurs the quest, but it is a quest of betweenness, not of arrival or departure. The same theme is restated elsewhere: “I want to understand / What I have seen and understand / That nothing I have seen explains what I have seen. Like that.” In this version, that gestural “Like that” underscores language’s excess to its own project, the way it adds to and even doubles the world it would describe, thereby constantly extending its own task.
“The Distance” is so busy with ars poetica that it is implicitly a more optimistic work than “Lola.“ Like My Life, which the author is constantly reworking and (happily) extending, the possibilities within Hejinian’s ouevre are inexhaustible, Her working and reworking of writing’s generic and epistemological potentials and capabilities is unending. In this life’s work, each falling short produces a conceptual distance into which writing can move. The circus “Lola” is, unexpectedly, the sadder work, not only because, as the cliché has it, the cycle of violence is repetitive, but because violence, too, is endlessly innovative, replenishing itself and writing new cruelties into the human text.