Lyn Hejinian (born 1941 and technically too old now to be the enfant terrible she still is) was in on the ground floor—back in the 1970s—of what is usually called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry. This mode of ecriture would normally mean that you’d be in for a rough readerly ride, struggling upstream—like a spawning salmon with high expectations of narrativity and closure—against the sparkling, downrushing river of the “resistant” writing of the Language poets (Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, Susan Howe, Leslie Scalapino et al), the anti-writers, the fabricators of what Silliman once termed “the new sentence.”
The “new sentence” usually has to be pried open with a crowbar. Here is Charles Bernstein, in his stimulating if maddening Artifice of Absorption (1987), merely trying to be open and helpful: “In thinking about how to respond / to a request to do a reading of one of my poems, / I’ve found myself / thinking about ‘absorption’ & its obverses--/ impermeability, ejection, / repellence / both as a compositional question / & as / a reading value. The terms begin to consume / my imagination, a pataphysical extravaganza /of accumulating works & fields absorbed
into this tropic zone of perspective. There seemed no / limit to what / the absorption / antiabsorption nexus could absorb….” (p.14)
Here is the first line of the poem titled “hmmmm” in Leslie Scalapino’s Considering how exaggerated music is (1982):
“Consider certain emotions such as falling asleep, I said….”
Most of us wouldn’t think of falling asleep as an “emotion.” Maybe Scalapino didn’t either. You’re always on slippery ground with these writers. There’s no omniscient overseer / producer / narrator / household god to take charge. Words slip and crack. Reading is fighting back—or, in less pugnacious terms, engaging the author, grappling with the author, making the writing your own while leaving it theirs. This constant pushme/pullyou engagement is hectic and arousing and exhausting. It sometimes makes you long for somebody to be at the helm.
Lyn Hejinian—and it may not be quite fair to hurl her into the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet hopper with the others—usually gives you enough to cling on to and follow with. It’s like handing someone a walking stick
Here’s part of Chapter Seven from her novel, Oxota: A Short Russian Novel from 1991 (270 “free” sonnets inspired by Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin):
There is room in Pushkin’s small house at Pasvlovsk and it’s the same yellow
Somewhat sentimental or really so after the palace
The locking of asides
Snow was falling in the yard around a hard currency hospital of the same colour
The rubles too as thick as snowflakes….
I like her quasi-autobiographical My Life because of the way it slides in and out of your grasp, because of the way it flickers and dims and comes back again with a rush. You have to ride it rather than read it.
What follows is from a brief chapter (the chapters are unnumbered) in My Life titled “It’s hard to turn away from moving water”: “…What memory is not a ‘gripping’ thought. The mind was stocked. It was only in the summers that we were allowed to buy comic books, and then only once a week and with our own money. Queasy innards….”
“Queasy innards”? I love “queasy innards.” Especially placed just where it is.
I like this too—on p.141, quite near the end: “But the cat was asleep on my notebook, so I couldn’t have a thought.”