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 …)


  1. Yeah, everyone clings to the artifice of well-formed and complete story arcs and defends them as more "realistic" than open-ended structures or disconnected pieces of narrative that more accurately mirror the experience of life. It's a conundrum for the living writer. My own little works are getting to be less integrated, more fractured, and I have run against the idea that these borders are all false and arbitrary, just as much as the supposed completeness of traditional narrative is false and arbitrary. Experience is both continuous and fractured. How to show that? I don't really know. Especially with words, when we don't experience life primarily through language. "there are different versions" -- ain't that the truth?

  2. A Border Comedy. I missed that title the first read-through. Ah, I say. I get it now. Comic pieces about borders.

    I stepped into the tub
    Its spider was gently removed
    My only link to it was "removed"
    But every story is an epistemological occasion
    Occupying time
    With emotion
    It comes as a paragraph
    You can see that it's an active world
    How many times have you watched someone cut into traffic and thought "I'd like to trash you?"
    Well, you cannot

    and on like that, jokes intersecting theories of time and narrative. A lot of the jokes seem to curl around ideas of danger. Thanks for pointing to this book.

    A marriage between occurrences
    So as to be seen
    With an implicit shimmer, a history
    Okay--with apologies
    And reality


    1. Right now I'm reading Sight, 1999, a book she was working on with Leslie Scalapino at the same time she was writing Border Comedy (she tells you so in Sight's preface, "A Border Comedy, the work that I was writing concurrently with Sight ..."), and this idea of borders comes up there too: "The nomads 'who aren't people' are everyone ignoring boundaries in moments of conjunction. | They would dignify sentiment | Shifting among juxtapositions" and "someone [...] lifts his legs higher than usual | stepping over the barricade of the invisible," and so on ... this idea that borders appear to be actual (you can see an ending in the form of a horizon) when really they're not (the world continues beyond the point where your eyesight can touch it) seems to have been useful and fruitful for her. She's also suggesting that you can voluntarily ignore these borders under the right conditions (being nomadic) – which, I suppose, is the essence of the comedy - the borders are nonexistent things that get treated as if they're extremely vital. The ending of a story doesn't exist but it also does. It is somehow in the nature of nonending things to be observed in the act of ending (looking at your other comment about story arcs).

      Also looking at your other comment: I've been reading a few books by Brigid Brophy, an author who tries to get around the problem of endings in a number of ways. I don't know if her "heroi-cyclic novel" In Transit, 1969, would be useful to you if you're searching for authors who've been grappling with the same trouble, but it might