Tuesday, August 1, 2017

there are different versions

"Plenitude" is a word that I came across in a 1995 interview between Craig Dworkin and Lyn Hejinian, who was (at that point) talking about Gertrude Stein:

… the Making of Americans, in which she categorizes different kinds of people and then realizes that oppositions don't work; she abandons the Making of Americans when she sees that there are co-existing ontological possibilities, that they're always vibrating next to each other, and that there are vast numbers of them. That's something that contemporary physicists can deal with, but contemporary literary critics are driven crazy by that degree of plenitude and then they blame Stein.

Hejinian's 2001 book, A Border Comedy, is 218 pages long, divided into chapters, and through the length of the text she often tells very short stories - sometimes realistic anecdotes, sometimes fairytaleish ones – not trying to present them as if they are components in some larger fictional story (as Schmidt does in Atheists) - though they are always contributing to a larger body of thought.

They never seem to be inevitable.

The driving suggestion of the larger poem-thought is really in that one line: "there are co-existing ontological possibilities, that they're always vibrating next to each other, and that there are vast numbers of them."

At times the stories are set in their own paragraphs, with headings or titles, e.g., The Tale of the Raven on p. 32, and The Plot Unfolds, on p. 76. "The experience of activity must entail episodes," she writes at the start of Book Eleven. Hejinian is a poet who tells you the rules she is operating by as they are being demonstrated by the medium that includes them. Within the poem she is never wrong. Elsewhere she tells a fictional story about rapists who sneak into a dormitory at a girls' school and fall asleep on the spot without committing their crimes. No reason is given. This is where the anecdote ends. One of the "co-existing ontological possibilities" has made itself known by breaking through in the least likely place. "To measure something | One must hunt its intersections," she writes. (Is an ending the place where a story intersects most decisively, cleanly, and obviously with everything that is not itself?)

She hunts but what does she find? The slipperiness of intersections seems to haunt her. What is the connection between the story of the flying woman and the transparent tree in The Plot Unfolds? The plot unfolds to a point where it seems about to develop and then it stops. Is that the joke? It doesn't do anything but perform an unfolding action. Two or three things are described and joined together. If this is what it takes to "measure something" then what is measurability? Someone ("a teller") relates the story of a bird, "Who once shared her many anxieties […] she cut off his head | Then she plucked him and turned him into soup | Soup or soot – there are different versions | Some mild, some vicious, some lewd." The intersection of the bird with the violence done to it keeps shifting. Then there is not one bird but many? Then where -

(Hejinian's language is typically formal rather than colloquial – "lewd" not "rude" – she maintains a distance, and you note that these things in her language "vibrate" separately or toy with "borders" – they do not merge, mesh, mix, or become indistinguishable from one another – so borders and separations exist, she feels, but how …)

Sunday, July 30, 2017

when it is snowing, the valley is black, p. 42

Plenitude, now, to start with; Schmidt using plenitude of stories in Atheists as a means of expansion, and then Frisch's Geiser using a multiplication of stories as a form of displacement. Old and forgetful, Geiser tries to get his meaning outside himself. He pins these pieces of paper to the walls and looks at them. (Could you suggest that the situation in reverse would characterise youth for Frisch: a man without accoutrements, independently explaining himself in a well-connected series of words?) Clear thoughts and memories have been replaced by physical gestures. Geiser cuts books apart and goes for walks. That's how he tries to discern himself. He keeps trying to put himself outside. These are his calculations or proofs. But the spaces between the gestures are still unarticulated. And the paragraphs the reader sees in Holocene are set apart with white space between them: the effort you make to cross those spaces and fix the book together is made visible by the gap on the page. Frisch's way of apportioning things might remind you that running paragraphs together mentally is an effort, even if it normally seems natural and effortless because you are such a good reader. We're all heading for Geiser-land, when the pause will be a real danger. You forget in pauses. Even now you say, "I walked into this room to fetch something and now I don't remember what it was." Geiser notices the varieties of rain, then the book reflects that at least it is not snowing. A gap passes and it is snowing. The white space is a passage of time with nothing in it but struggle and drowning. Geiser turns the stove on in one paragraph, the white space comes, and ping, the danger of forgetfulness tries to overwhelm him. His stroke at the end of the book attracts an abundance of words from other sources. He has chosen them but they are not his own. They're followed by that landscape description but for the first time he is not in the landscape. Even the body of text that usually contains him does not have him in it any more. He is gone in more than one way. It is an extra-final wiping-out.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

a distinction be made

Reading Man in the Holocene, 1979, by Max Frisch, tr. Geoffrey Skelton, after Arno Schmidt's The School for Atheists, 1972, I thought about the additional pieces of text that had been made part of each book, the side-columns and footnotes crowding to and fro in Schmidt, and then the boxed horizontal inserts that came evenly and plainly between the paragraphs in Frisch.

In Schmidt the swarming appearance of the inserts makes the 'main' text a combative partner with the side text; they are two equal things muscling one another around. It is all aware that it is in a book, and it also knows that outside this book there are others.

In Holocene the inserts have been chosen by the character Geiser, who is cutting up his library with scissors. Now the main text seems closer to the kind of writing that is 'like real life' because these snippets about dinosaurs, animals, historical episodes, and topographical features are things existing in an implied world, as cuttings exit in life; they are not the same material as that world, in the way the Atheists columns are. There is a kind of strictness in Holocene: one thing is in one place and the other is separated from it, and you notice that the theme of the book is disintegration, age, and collapse, but the form goes steadily on. Geiser has probably suffered a stroke by the end. He can't tell us about it but one of the cuttings lets us know. "Apoplexy," it reads, "commonly known as a stroke, is a sudden loss of brain function …" After the apoplexy cutting there is a passage about the world continuing as usual. "The village stands unharmed. Above the mountains, high up in the blue sky, the white trails of passenger planes. The scent of lavender …" The world and the cuttings are both commenting on him obliquely in different ways.

But they don't attack him directly; I notice that, nobody attacks him. Though over in Schmidt, people are slapping and kissing their flesh. Geiser is losing his ability to make necessary changes in the world. The moment when he almost leaves the hot plate on is worth a mention. He is losing his memory. Going for a walk in the woods, he exults when he tells himself that no one knows where he is, alone like this, independently, proving that he is still a capable body controlled by a knowing mind; the words, "The ascent is laborious," are followed by the phrase, "just as he expected," as he confirms his good judgment to himself. "Geiser knows that it is four hundred meters up to the pass."

"I can only begin a posteriori, by perceiving the world as vast and over¬whelming; each moment stands under an enormous vertical and horizontal pressure of information," wrote Lyn Hejinian in her introduction to The Rejection of Closure, "potent with ambiguity, meaning-full, unfixed, and certainly incomplete. What saves this from becoming a vast undifferentiated mass of data and situation is one’s ability to make distinctions. The open text is one which both acknowledges the vastness of the world and is formally differentiating. It is form that provides an opening."

In the essay itself she wrote:

"The writer experiences a conflict between a desire to satisfy a demand for boundedness, for containment and coherence, and a simultaneous desire for free, unhampered access to the world prompting a correspondingly open response to it. Curiously, the term inclusivity is applicable to both, though the connotative emphasis is different for each. The impulse to boundedness demands circumscription and that in turn requires that a distinction be made between inside and outside, between the relevant and the (for the particular writing at hand) confusing and irrelevant—the meaningless. The desire for unhampered access and response to the world (an encyclopedic impulse), on the other hand, hates to leave anything out.

Schmidt responds to this impulse by constraining his encylopaedic impulse to literature and stories: his Kolderup is another Prospero. But his "response to the world" within this constraint is enormous and playful – if Kolderup is Prospero then his daughter is a Shamela rewriting of Miranda. Frisch quotes other books (which Holocene credits in a bibliography) but there is no sign that he expects you to have read them, or that he thinks you might be interested in consulting them afterwards. Holocene uses them to refer to itself and it leaves them as they were; there is no subversion in its attitude towards them – they are discrete ...

The dinosaurs in Geiser's excerpts are being regarded with a sort of judgmental efficiency by the writer of the scientific text, who in this context might as well be immortal. The human being who walks into the woods is happy when he thinks that no one knows where he is, as if there is a danger that he too might be glanced down upon by someone listing facts about him, or calling him "terrible" and his survival "amazing," as the science-writer does.

If the dinosaurs knew that they were being talked about like this then they also might try to assert themselves by escaping down a forest path so that none of their neighbours, family members, or anyone else would know where they were - thwarting the writer who wanted to make these books out of their memories.

Possibly the dinosaurs and the man would roam together through the Swiss woodland trying to navigate the bridges.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

like every autobiography

I don't trust my essayist; they're too selective, they're bouncing across too many years and too few books, they had their hypothesis worked out too tightly before they began, and they're too much in love with it. They're completing an assignment, that's the trouble. The essay would have to be called Music in the Work of Lyn Hejinian to narrow it down but even then, what value does that have? I was aware of myself picking out selective quotes; I didn't care; it took nothing at all.

They continue their essay by pointing to a line the poet riffs on several times in My Life, 1987, "The obvious analogy is with music as with words." See p. 128 in the 2002 Green Integer edition I have here, for instance. Pointing to the autobiographical nature of My Life, they write, "The connection between 'music' and 'words' was a recurring theme in Hejinian's inner life, both as a child and as an adult. The 'words' being described in the lines adjacent to 'analogy to music' in Life are often uttered aloud" - and – then they back themselves up by quoting the one in which young women are taught to "murmur" clearly when they speak, but I can't find the page. The line on 128 has, "little dialogue, heard on the street. Baby! baby! baby!" just before it but that's not as good. They go on: "- though of course 'words' can also mean the written word. We may observe that she often tries to find a descriptive word to accompany the invocation of sound, 'murmur' (Life), 'percussion' (Aide), and so on." This "often" is a handwave but they hope you buy it.

"Noticing that she repeats the line in several different, dissimilar contexts, we may suggest a further twist: that Hejinian is critical of her own habits, that she believes this connection between words and music is mechanical, reflexive, and perhaps unexamined and unworthy.

'Repetition may function as a medium of sneering.

'Music for her always has a form. It is constrained or defined by some quality: loudness, suddenness, gentleness, etc. 'How long is that ball – of sound,' she asks in Life (p. 164). Looking at the explanatory statements she has made in reference to her own poetry, we see that form, in her mind, has a possibility of meaning that goes beyond arrangement. Yet arrangement, definition, is essential. To disconnect one line from another recreates the form of death. (Unfollowing.) Music 'speaks' by shape and form. Both means of utterance, music and words, are essentially communicative, pointing to vital meanings beyond their surface existences as print on a page or noises. There are times when we can see her test the ability of words to suggest meaning through their rhythmic qualities. 'Repercussion' coming four lines after 'percussion' in section 16 of Aide, for example, is a sign for the text to abandon strict dictionary meaning for something closer to scat singing: 'bit scrap of that roll broom.'"

I'm hesitating here because the essayist has actually written, "Playing with words" next to their red underline at this point in Aide although they also identify "roll broom" as an "instrument;" and "keys of nicety" in the previous line has "of music" written in the margin next to it. If the broom is an instrument then they're not drawing conclusions about scat singing, though. Go back and get rid of the Aide reference. Instead the essayist finds "and though the parrot speaks but says nothing this has the impact of an aphorism" on p. 7 of Happily, 2000. That seems useful. Then they look for the page in Life where the poet says that different countries have to find their own words for the sounds that cats make, but this is not necessarily a prelude to music-making … I don't know where that is, myself, and I'm not even completely sure that it appears in Life and not some other book, but the essayist discovers it successfully. I congratulate them.

They tell you something about the notion of form being complicated by this inclusion of animal-noises. "In these two excerpts we can see the poet grappling with the integration of animal-noise into the comprehensible lexicon of human-noise. The integration takes place when the animal sounds are recreated in human-oriented descriptions," they write, and then they look for more nonhuman creatures to back up their point.

Eventually they come across birds again on p. 52 of Happily: "words, birds, words birds blurred, birds in words […] The birds' words | might have been love laugh loss toss long – isn't | every explanation like every autobiography […] sentimental?" Now they can say that Hejinian is expressing an awareness of the effort she makes, as a human, to integrate the animal sounds into human form-understandings, etc, etc, the absence of animal-meaning in her "sentimental" human-meaning, the devouring nature of autobiography, swallowing everything into itself, etc, etc (should they write something about the falcons, eagles, goose, etc three years after Happily in The Fatalist, 2003?), but I am distracted by the list after "birds' words | might have been" because it has made me think of Miss Flite in Bleak House and her list of bird names, Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach. On the Happily page above "birds' words" there is a line fragment that reads, "He personifies the literature of the West;" on p. 54 there are the words, "Christmas tree." They take on a new meaning.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

for we who are alive

Looking in this library copy of Lyn Hejinian's Writing is an Aide to Memory, 1978, I see that someone has marked various lines with red pen throughout the entire book. The aim of this person appears to have been cohesion, since they picked out those words that add up to the impression of a thought taking place somewhere, about, e.g, water, or language use, or music ("in music" and "percussion" marked on different lines in section 16); or else they have discovered phrases that are something like aphorisms such as "indifference is the language of ennui" in section 13.

But there are so many other words and phrases in the book that I wonder how they made those underlinings add up to a point or an essay, unless they were working backwards from some larger overviewing perspective. "As a founding member of the Language movement, Hejinian has always been interested in the independence of aphorisms," I imagine they wrote. They have decided it already so they are looking for evidence. "This is clear even in her earlier works, such as Writing is an Aide to Memory (1978), which contains numerous aphoristic statements. She invokes "percussion," or the element of surprise. The sudden sound of a drum interrupting a double bass" – since they have underlined the word "jazz" in section 35 they are thinking of a double bass – "startles us with its detachment from the preceding sound. So, too, Hejinian uses surprising lines to jolt us out of our expectations. And yet she remains aware that her percussion is part of the same genre as the trumpet, ie, music, or, in the case of poetry, language. We see statements of disruption elsewhere in the poem. "In rhythm with that muddle | nor rock is sure in the air was once … most unities last too long," she writes in section 36.

'Please note," they write, "that her interest in music was indicated even earlier than Aide to Memory, when she spoke about "a new piece of mine, NUMBER PRESENT" during an interview with Vicki Hudspith in 1970. "And there was an analogy with music, too, in the 12 notes of the chromatic scale," she said."

Then they go on to list other parts of her oeuvre in which she explains sets of ideas behind the uncoupling of units of her text from dependence on the units immediately before and after, and they quote her 1983 talk, The Rejection of Closure (pub. 1985), and some other things; maybe her recent introduction to The Unfollowing, 2016. This will show consistency taking place over a period of decades.

The fourteen-line constraint was not the only one I imposed on the making of the poems. I also required myself to build them with non-sequiturs. Nothing was to follow – or nothing follow logically. I wanted each line to be as difficult to accept on the basis of the previous and subsequent lines as death is for we who are alive – a comparison that I make intentionally, since my intention in writing the series of poems I'm calling "The Unfollowing" was to compose a set of elegies.

They connect this to a line in Happily, 2000, "Tightly the hands of the clock turn but other elements also must conduct logic", through Rejection's discussion of the potential openness of a text. They compare this to Elizabeth Jennings in Timely Issues, 2001, whose rhyming lines are structured all towards promoting the ineffable aim of being glad through modesty and Catholicism.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

a bower about a dozen yards off

Wondering if this dependable house phenomenon in British literature, after thriving quietly for many years in the service of other things, was seized, expanded, and decorated by Dickens, for Mr Wemmick in particular, but for others as well, e.g., Marley becoming a doorknob, Krook characterising the front of his shop with bottles, Dick Swiveller referring to "his single chamber" in the plural "as his rooms, his lodgings, or his chambers, conveying to his hearers a notion of indefinite space, and leaving their imaginations to wander through long suites of lofty halls, at pleasure."

Jaggers is so secure in his personal cunning and viability that he never locks his house; he never needs to, for no one will rob him. “You know where I live; now, no bolt is ever drawn there; why don’t you do a stroke of business with me? Come; can’t I tempt you?” he says to the best burglars, according to Mr Wemmick. Wemmick, meanwhile, has his moat, his drawbridge, his happy pantomime of security and wealth. Jaggers, as mentioned, is his own security. His protection does not need a look. They both derive pleasure from their different securities. Each one is integral to the state of his own house. The house is about well-being. Wemmick talks about himself being fantastically "besieged" in the future and holding out with his cucumber frame.

Then, he conducted me to a bower about a dozen yards off, but which was approached by such ingenious twists of path that it took quite a long time to get at.

The device of the secure house might lead (if you could trace it) to the hidden house, Badger's den in Willows, 1908 - this personal ownership of the mysterious grotto, hideaway, or prison cell, of a Gothic novel, the ruins of a Roman settlement holding up his ceilings, too, ruins domesticated – and it also might lead to the sight of the Twins on their tree, spotted but invulnerable in Titus Groan, 1946. And did the commercial wealth of the Victorians contribute to it; the Great House, the Secret Garden?

(Is the dependable fictional house more particular to this nationality than to others? I am not going to hazard a guess, though now there's Beowulf, their ancient chronicle, the story of a double home invasion, or one home invasion answered with another – the action taking place in Denmark, although the manuscript we have was made elsewhere, English, indoors; and Beowulf himself was no doubt a direct inspiration for Aunty Jack centuries later threatening to Come Round To Your House And Rip Your Bloody Arms Off if you didn't tune in to the show again next week. Observe, if you will, this merging of the hero Beowulf and the villain, Grendel's Mother, standing, in the persona of Aunty Jack, upon a rock, her hand in a boxing glove, grunting at you; how well you can imagine her seizing a foe and wrestling in the dark hall of Hrothgar, or living in a swamp, being of massive nature as she evidently is. That old hall, maybe, developing, coming within the reach of more people, not strictly kings and thanes; Wemmick inhabiting his Heorot.)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

he did you

As I was about three-quarters of the way through the end of Anna Moschovakis' 2011 book of poetry, You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake, I thought of Charlotte Dacre again, remembering that the sources for various bits of her story would only occur to me after I had read a little way into them; so that I might go a whole page into the episode between Victoria's brother and the wife of his friend before I realised I was reading the tale of Joseph and the Potiphar household. Her contemporaries must have felt that pair of stories existing at the same time too; this sense of seeing two things at once, one of them familiar, the other one new but somehow already visible to the end. And the comparisons between Milton's Satan and Dacre's Zofloya were not made immediately. Eventually they were strong and you were convinced. These inspirations were abducted into the book and now they served its purposes even though they stayed unsubmerged. According to the plot, this Joseph-brother needs to be traumatised and thrown out by the friend so that he can flee to the Alps and become the banditti leader whose face is forever masked. Then his sister will not recognise him when Zofloya flies her there magically to escape the servants who have found her husband's poisoned body inside a trunk and the husband's friend Henriquez's sword-transfixed corpse on the floor of his bedroom in a welter of blood while the scandalously young orphan fiancé is first chained up in a cave with a leopard skin and then thrown into an abyss ("because he loved me more than he did you!" she points out to Victoria). And there is the story that will do the work for you, Joseph and Potiphar. It is Biblical but your book is good, fine, it has a moral, it fits.

Then here was Moschovakis, forthrightly telling you that she was about to refer to a chatbot named Anna, and then referring to it, discussing it, describing its conversations with lists, writing letters to it, putting its words into her poems, borrowing its identity, playing with it, etc, without any pretense of unconsciousness toward the source; also without the assumption that you would know that source automatically, as Dacre might have assumed that everyone knew Milton well enough to make the illustration of explicit directive arrows drawn in his direction seem unnecessary or redundant. When Proust writes about the milk boiling over during a metaphorical passage in The Guermantes Way then the description is so long and detailed (I am checking this in the Moncrieff/Kilmartin version, which is all I have on me at the moment) that I think he is writing about something that happened to him recently, possibly even on the day when the passage was written. It is like a diary entry, though he abstracts it away from himself by framing it as if it is a situation that happens to us all, and can be therefore used as a fruitful example of a common problem. It is only his description that makes it familiar, though. It was unfamiliar before he began. To return to Zofloya, the book's modern editor Kim Ian Michiasiw ends his introduction by pointing out that the name itself – "Zofloya" - has no precedent that his research could discover, that it had never existed before, no possible inspiration had been uncovered, and nobody knows why Dacre thought of it.