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Writing: Re/ Memory


I.

Some painters, including myself do not care what chair they are sitting on. It does not even have to be a comfortable one. They are too nervous to find out where they ought to sit. They do not want to "sit in style." Rather, they have found that painting -- any kind of painting, any style of painting -- to be painting at all, in fact -- is a way of living today, a style of living so to speak. That is where the form of it lies.
             -- Willem de Kooning, "What Abstract Art Means To Me"

What takes place between a writer and reader when language -- a shared, referential, essentially public medium -- informs subjective, essentially private experience? How can you know what I am thinking, feeling and/or sensing when you live in another skin in a house far from here? By what dynamics does that most distant and abstract of relationships, the one between writer and reader, become not only possible but potentially intimate? How can words convey the world? From its opening line -- Can one take captives by writing -- and in each sentence thereafter clear to the end, Lyn Hejinian's The Guard challenges us to ask questions such as these, questions variously aimed at discovering how any work of art mediates between artist and audience. Its premises are (1) that each of us experiences the world from a singularly unique point of view -- a private eye, so to speak, whose frame of reference is shaped by the mixture of circumstance and psychological pressure that determines who and what we are; and (2) that language, though its conventions operate whenever language is used, requires what George Lakoff calls "the active participation of readers in the creation of meaning."1 That is to say, the private world embodied in a writer's work becomes realized only when it is taken over -- repossessed -- by the co-operative, fully engaged reader. As Stevens put it, "The house was quiet and the world was calm. The reader became the book.2

Hejinian's work forces us to re-examine what it means to read a text. It invites us to step forward as participants, as necessary to the completion of the work as Hejinian herself was in writing it, by means of constant and disarmingly sudden shifts in syntax and substance, shifts of focus and ideas and direction that take place from sentence to sentence and within sentences, resulting in a multiplicity of separate parts whose interconnections (insistent but insistently not spelled out) will become articulate only to the reader who engages the text -- the reader who in effect writes the poem each time he or she reads it.

As demanding as it is rewarding, this sort of engagement of an audience by the work of art is something like the one that came about in response to certain Abstract Expressionist paintings in the late 1940s and early 1950s In the ambiguity of surface and depth in de Kooning's black and white Painting (1948), the astonishing network of poured lines and spatters in Pollock's One (Number 31,1950), and the counterpoint of rough black grids on a white ground in Kline's Painting Number 2 (1954), the three-dimensional world was not 'represented' as in various ways it had been, from the cave paintings of Lascaux to Vermeer's domestic interiors to Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Rather, these works make the viewer stop, literally stop, just at the edge of the canvas, simply because there is no recognizable person or scene depicted there, no illusion of the world upon which to focus. Denied the comfort of narrative content, the viewer is forced to direct full attention toward the lines and shades and tones of color that make up the canvas plane. At the same time, because a work like de Kooning's Painting is informed by an almost frenetic activity of shapes and lines and textures, we are moved to ask, What is the relation of this line to that, that shape to this, this area to that. We are invited to 'figure out' the work by becoming intimately and actively involved with its raw material -- paint.

The Guard makes similar demands on a reader's attention, the terms of which may be described in some detail. Take the opening verse paragraph of part 1:

Can one take captives by writing --
" Humans repeat themselves."
The full moon falls on the first. I
" whatever interrupts." Weather and air
drawn to us. The open mouths of people
are yellow & red -- of pupils.
Cannot be taught and therefore cannot be.
As a political leading article would offer
to its illustrator. But they don't invent
they trace. You match your chair.

Though its syntax indicates line 1 is a question, the lack of appropriate punctuation at the end of the line ("--" instead of "?") together with the indicative statement that follows immediately upsets our expectations: not only do we not get an answer to the question, we don't get the question. And yet, Can one take captives by writing -- does make sense as a question, albeit one whose terms themselves demand clarification: how "take captives" (by possession of the ear? mind?), which "captives" (readers?), how "by writing" (words in print? in the air?)? The question posed in line 1 is thus perceived as being at once syntactically complete and semantically wide open. Having committed herself to words in print, the poet's ideas are at this point out in the world, available like a loose ball at center court to be taken up and carried forward by any reader capable of an equal commitment.

The most obvious way of understanding line 2, "Humans repeat themselves." is as an answer to the posed yet open-ended question that precedes it. But does the indicative statement, whose echoes reach back at least to Herodotus' warning that those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it, constitute a 'yes' or 'no' answer to that question? One assumes the truth of "Humans repeat themselves" to be incontrovertible, but in what sense exactly does Hejinian mean for us to take the pronouncement: why is line 2 in quotations? Are these "Humans" the same "captives" that "writing" can (or cannot) "take" by virtue of the fact that they are characteristically given to "repeat themselves?" In fact, though their proximity suggests a close logical relation between lines 1 and 2, there is a rather huge disjunction that informs the poem's opening sentence. The reader who would activate this text finds him or herself as if on an iceflow, where to negotiate the crevasses that abruptly divide one statement from the next requires as much agility and courage, the willingness to leap as Hejinian must have had when she crossed here.

Line 3, The full moon falls on the first, seems in some ways to stand in distinct opposition to line 2. Where that line focused our attention upon mankind, we are now asked to consider 'nature,' represented by means of a synecdoche as the full moon which, instead of rising, as one might expect in the rhetoric of description, here "falls on the first" -- day of the month? -- if so, a location not so much in the physical heavens as a particular box on the calendar, that human invention made to keep track of time. And like those humans who do certain things again and again, the full moon here falls on the first just as it has periodically for thousands of years. We see then that 'nature' repeats itself just as we do, an inference suggested by other means in the phonetic linkage between lines 2 and 3: the long u-vowel-n sounds in Humans and moon, the s-vowel-l-f/v sounds in themselves scrambled to f/v-vowel-ls sounds in falls.

Unlike the two preceding lines, line 3 is not complete at the end of its completed and completely unified (by sound as well as sense) syntactic unit: The full moon falls on the first. I. The first person pronoun -- or is it roman numeral "I," a movement from "first" to "one" to "eye"? -- stands here at once in contrast to the preceding subject (moon) and as a specific instance of the generalized subject of line 2 (Humans). And the straightforward, indeed commonplace indicative statements of those two lines leads us to expect a similar, easy-to-assimilate predicate following the subject: I/ "whatever interrupts." Instead, "whatever interrupts" simultaneously interrupts the statement being made and defines it, precisely yet tautologically, in terms of itself. The quotation marks here echo those around line 2, but the sense of "interrupts" seems oddly out of joint with the suggestion of things being done over and over again contained in the word "repeat" and the regular recurrence of both full moon and first of month. And again, the reader is asked to supply connections that seem to be missing -- for example, the absent but syntactically suggested verb that supplies transitive sense to whatever "interrupts" (I/ [tolerate/expect/respond to/write down] "whatever interrupts") -- to fill the space left open by a shift even more startling than the ones we have encountered up to now. If we hadn't known before that this writing, The Guard, would demand our full and energetic attention, I/ "whatever interrupts" serves us notice: en gard.

What follows in line 4, "whatever interrupts." Weather and air, also doesn't follow, at least in substance, though the vowel-plus-r sounds in whatever, interrupts, Weather and air provides clear phonetic linkage between the two statements. The near phonetic identity of whatever and Weather indeed helps to make accessible their logical interconnection: weather is, after all, something that interrupts (the game was called in the bottom of the fourth because of rain, Yankees leading 5 to 4), and weather is carried in the air. As the sentence unfolds, however, the verb again appears to be missing: Weather and air/ drawn to us. Thus the reader is again urged to participate, in this instance to supply the link between subject and complement (can we miss hearing "are" in air?). But again, despite the relatively easy syntax here, there is again an abrupt substantive shift, in that the sense of something being "drawn to" (pulled toward) is nearly opposite that of "interrupts" (forcing things apart). This opposition seems to parallel another shift in sense, in that the syntax of Hejinian's apparent but never-quite-made assertion that Weather and air [are] drawn to us reverses the normal relation of agent-reagent in a world in which humans are attracted to and dependent upon the life-giving forces embodied in weather and air. In presenting an alternative point of view (nature is attracted to us), this statement invites the reader to rethink the whole tradition of anthropomorphism -- man at the center of his cosmos, the stars and planets wheeling harmoniously about him -- not as scientific fact but syntactic possibility. As such, it makes a major claim for language itself, for the power of words to shape our understanding of our experience in the world: "Ideas cross the landscape and become horizon and the weather."3

I want to talk for a moment about what happens in line 5 between the end of one sentence and the beginning of the next: air/ drawn to us. The open mouths of people. Surely there is a more than tenuous logical thread joining these two statements together, since people, the object of the preposition of, is a third person restatement of the first person indirect object, us; and people do in fact breathe (draw in) air through open mouths. At the same time, however, there is just as surely a tremendous gap between the partially complete semantic units in this line, a shift forced by the change in grammatical point of view (first person to third) and an apparent abandoning of one subject (weather and air -- forces in nature) for the next (open mouths -- a part of the body). The fact that the poem's syntactic/logical units are radically discontinuous, its train of thought apparently derailed, makes powerful demands upon a reader used to narrative and/or ideational continuity, the sort of continuity that allows one to sit back and be led by the writer through a series of statements whose linkages are essentially straightforward. Because the connective tissue holding the pieces of The Guard together is most often oblique, literally transparent, the reader must work to bridge the gaps between one verse unit and the next: reader as much as writer composes the text. Hejinian's comments upon her aims and practice in a later work, The Green, are instructive:

One of the results of this compositional technique, building a work out of discrete intact units (in fact, I would like each sentence itself to be as nearly a complete poem as possible), is the creation of sizeable gaps between the units. The reader (and I can say also the writer) must overleap the end stop, the period, and cover the distance to the next sentence. "Do not lovers of poetry," asks Keats, "like to have a little Region to wander in where they may pick and choose, and in which the images are so numerous that many are forgotten and found new in a second reading.... Do not they like this better than what they can read before Mrs. Williams comes down the stairs?" [John Keats to Benjamin Bailey, October 8, 1817.] Meanwhile, what stays in the gaps, so to speak, remains crucial and informative. Part of the reading occurs as the recovery of information (looking behind) and the discovery of newly structured ideas (stepping forward).4

The predicate that follows The open mouths of people/ are yellow and red -- of pupils at once provides us with the comfort of semantic closure (yes, open mouths can look yellow and red), and immediately upsets that sense by introducing a prepositional phrase, of pupils, which, because it rhymes phonetically and logically with the phrase of people, seems to qualify, or disqualify, our initial reading of line 5. Are we in fact talking about the mouths of pupils -- a particular sub-class of people -- rather than about people in general? Or are these the eyes' pupils, therefore related not so much to people above as to mouths? The suggestion of a school in what follows offers one rationale for the shift from people to pupils, but the absence of an explicit subject in the sentence Cannot be taught and therefore cannot be (a perfectly regular line of iambic pentameter, and also the first line in which syntactic and verse-line closure coincide), coupled with the oddly askew reworking of the Cartesian proposition, make for a distinctly private hermeneutics, yet one that is presented in language whose matter of fact tone is not only accessible but literally public: students in schools cannot be taught.

As in one sense at least the period at the end of line 7 seems to bring a sentence without a subject to premature closure (Cannot be taught and therefore cannot be ... what? -- trusted? graduated? counted upon to become useful members of society?),5 the sentence that follows in lines 8-9 is joined to what precedes it by certain frames of reference, though it too remains syntactically incomplete. That is, As a political leading article would offer/ to its illustrator acts like a dependent clause whose sponsor forgot to show up, and who therefore moves to attach itself to whatever is nearest, in this instance whatever Cannot be taught and therefore cannot be. Because that line established a context in which the classroom and what goes on in it is an immediate possibility, one makes a relatively easy leap to the following reference to a political leading article and its illustrator, both of which fit that context in several ways at once: political, therefore public; a leading article, as in a newspaper, which can be illustrated as in a political cartoon; or is this leading article grammatical, as in The full moon or The open mouths, which might not offer its illustrator much if any referentiality to draw upon.

While the meaning of the incomplete syntactic unit in lines 8-9 reaches back for fulfillment toward the similarly incomplete unit in line 7, it also reaches forward into the syntactically and semantically complete sentence that follows it in lines 9-10: But they don't invent/ they trace. The signal of a logical turn inherent in the conjunction But is comforting (at last, syntactic direction to tell us where we're going) but also tantalizingly oblique -- what fact is about to be contradicted? which turn is being made? The pronoun references are equally demanding of the reader's active engagement: does they refer to illustrator(s), article(s), pupils, people, Humans? One means of illustration, of course, is to lay a transparent sheet of paper over the page and "trace" what shows through, as in the root sense of the Latin, trahare, to draw (compare drawn in line 5). But, as the stanzaic unit moves toward completion, the dynamics in But they don't invent/ they trace are far more complicated than this. For trace can also suggest "to follow," as in tracing footprints, which causes it to stand both in opposition to the idea introduced in leading and at the same time in conjunction with the ideas clustered variously in repeat (line 2), drawn to us (5), Cannot be taught (7 -- compare the root meaning of "educate," to draw out), and, though we haven't yet come to it, match (11). These multiple senses of trace as drawing and following all stand in contrast to the sense of the preceding verb, invent, also from a Latin root meaning to come in or to, that is, to discover (I/ "whatever interrupts"). Incidentally, it may be worth noting that the highly energized, disparate effects by which the sentence But they don't invent/ they trace is attracted to and opposed by other elements within the stanza are casually down played -- de-emphasized, as it were, to become 'mere' unnoticed effects calling little or no attention to themselves, and by that token all the more powerful -- by the concentrated phonetic patterning in long a and nt sounds, which work to unify the sentence itself and so to isolate it, at least phonetically, from the sentences that precede and follow it, sentences in which the long a and nt sounds do not occur.

I have already mentioned that the idea suggested by "match" in You match your chair echoes ideas that have been running throughout the stanza. The shift in pronouns from third to second person in this line (they/You) is contradicted by the ideational similarity of trace and match, both of which have to do with something fitting or copying something else. One literally matches one's chair in that the shaped contours of the wooden or plastic seat mold one's posterior when one sits (an over-stuffed living room chair is likewise molded by the shape that sits in it): the form of one object "matches" -- fits, corresponds to, informs -- that of the other. The first object here, however, is not merely a thing but You, the reader, and by extension the writer who finds words to shape her experience in the world. The writer matches her "chair" (does one hear the Latin root cathedra, from which cathedral, and/or echoes of the French chère, flesh?) in that her words attempt to inform -- literally to remember -- a world that is too large and various, too shifting, ever to be fixed in words on a page. And yet the possibility that words may be made into world continues to take hold and possess us, for as Hejinian puts it, "the incapacity of language to match the world permits us to distinguish our ideas and ourselves from the world and things in it from each other."6 In writing the world, the writer delineates herself in relation to it:

The landscape is a moment of time
that has gotten in position.
* * *
My familiar home is thickset.

Passages in italics are from The Guard (Tuumba, 1984; reprinted in The Cold of Poetry (Sun & Moon, 1994).


* * *


II.

How then can words 'write' the world, construct the writer's experience of it, her perception of the moment whose moment passes even before she knows it? Not simply by describing, as Stein discovered ("the words or words that made what I looked at be itself [my italics] . . . had as I say nothing whatever to do with what any words would do that described that thing"7), but by creating in words an articulation of the world that words themselves sound ('echo') and shape.

The target of such writing is literally to 'remember' the world, to construct in language what Hejinian has called the disquieting runs of life.8 Its premise is that writing, if it can bear intently enough upon the data perceived in the passing moment, can grasp/make present that moment as an equivalence, a created 'remembered' form in language, writing as the physical embodiment, in words, of world. As Stein discovered, the objective of such writing has nothing whatever to do with description. But whereas Stein in Tender Buttons focused on things -- objects, food, rooms -- which she found more possible to get hold of in words than people (because umbrellas, feathers, teacups and red hats don't move, whereas people do), Hejinian in WRITING IS AN AID TO MEMORY aims to catch hold of whatever disquieting runs of life arrive, slip by. The point isn't to 'record' what happened last Sunday -- lunch with good friends in a field full of spring wildflowers -- because to reconstitute that scene and that experience as 'description' mixed with narrative will interpose language and its structures between Hejinian (and thence her readers) and her life. Rather, the point is to make language itself 'be' the writer's experience in and of the world.

Writing is an aid to memory because it articulates ('sounds' and 'shapes') memory -- not only gripping hold of the past in words ("What memory is not a gripping thought," as Hejinian writes in My Life) but making present ('spelling') experience in words -- other experience, analogue to, 'echo' of the experience out of which writing itself grows. Memory takes place as an articulation in, by and of writing because "[Memory] -- I am misquoting Wittgenstein here -- "is not translated into words when it is expressed. The words are not a translation of something else when it is expressed. The words are not a translation of [memory] that was there before they were."9 Words are the material form of memory, rather, the sound and also shape of its physical embodiment, which doesn't so much represent what takes place in memory as it literally 'remembers' those remembered events, as words. Inseparable from events in words, events in thought/memory are thus 'spelled' in -- by means of -- writing itself. Language, the phenomenon as such, is in this sense the 'element' of memory/thought: "What memory is not a gripping [word]?" which suggests the actual physics by which events in words 'grasp' events in the world. "The obvious analogy is with with music," as Hejinian writes elsewhere in My Life, which calls to mind Zukofsky's sense of connection between the structures in music (and, I would add, words) and the world: "Materialist philosophers of history may do well to think about Bach's remark: The order which rules music is the same order that controls the placing of stars and the feathers in a bird's wing."10

Consider the opening section of WRITING IS AN AID TO MEMORY:

apple is shot nod
            ness seen know it around saying
                  think for a hundred years
but and perhaps utter errors direct the point to a meadow
               rank fissure up on the pit
arts are several branches of life
          little more science is brought where great
            need is required
              out becomes a bridge of that name
       in the painting is a great improvement
   bit ink up on the human race
and return if the foot goes back
   in the trunks of trees behoove a living thing
               wedge war common saw
     hard by that length of time the great demand is
               very dear
ashes in water
            that might be a slip of architecture
            think was reduced to an improper size
blocks to interest who can visit
                variations on ideas are now full
           problems
   from a point of increasing
at only as to four or we who nine
a little grace familiar with simple limbs and the sudden
               reverse

apple is shot nod opens as if in the middle of a sentence whose beginning we have not been witness to: which apple? where? why? how? Then a sudden gleam of sense: apple is shot may suggest a context we do know, can remember: William Tell and his son; or does shot mean what it means on the street, "finished," "done for." In other words, our experience of the poem's first three words enacts in a fraction of an instant something quite like what it is to be faced with the incremental detail of our experience in the world: at any given moment we simultaneously take in new information, connect it to what we already know, anticipate where it's going. What comes next here, nod, produces immediate vertigo. Whatever frame of reference apple is shot may have started to fit into suddenly begins to slip away. nod is related to shot by sound, of course, and by suggesting a motion of the head may also continue to suggest William Tell's son's head -- as the arrow flies toward it? immediately as the apple is struck? just after, as sign of, yes, a good shot?

That my attempted reading of this line may, though it makes sense, have nothing whatever to do with what Hejinian had in mind suggests something important about her writing practice throughout WRITING IS AN AID TO MEMORY. Putting words together into contiguous relationships that, like the disquieting runs of life she speaks of in the book's "Preface," keep slipping by, she makes the raw material of life literally present: as language, the data of the world translated say into words that, as we read them, we try to make coherent sense of, find the message in. But as in one's experience of everyday reality, that message is oblique, 'opposed' to us, open to revaluation as one's point in time or position in the landscape changes. So that every answer, conclusion, observation, judgement, insight is at best provisional, subject to change at a moment's notice, indeed without notice -- emotional response also thus provisional, ranging from possible delight to deep disquiet to indifference, depending on one's mood.

The precipitous shift from nod/ ness seen know it around saying upsets whatever temporary equilibrium a reader may have determined for herself to this point. Whereas the passage opened with a recognizable, albeit incomplete, syntax (apple is shot = subject-verb-complement), the string of monosyllables beginning to sound (shot nod/ ness seen know) seems to take part in no familiar grammatical structure or pattern of meaning. ness by itself at the start of the line appears to be attached as a suffix to a word now missing from the end of the previous line ("holi-," "blind-," etc.). The physical spacing of lines on the page, where each line starts at the position of the letter in the alphabet stretched across the page (hence the "a" of "apple" at left margin) --suggests to the eye the possibility that the entire poem is itself a fragment, a ruin, part of what had been in some prior, more perfect state a completed thing, the whole poem. So that the poem is always itself potentially missing, left out, its text fragmentary by procedural definition. So that as readers we find ourselves faced with what amounts to a portion of the whole, which now no longer exists, this being only what can be at this time remembered of it. In a sense, then, our experience of Hejinian's poem is not unlike our experience of the Parthenon, the Venus de Milo or the tapestries that hang in the Cloisters in New York, works the absence of whose former state -- which we can only imagine, and which in our imagination must be more nearly perfect, more ideal, than the fraction that remains -- challenges us to recreate the whole from its part, invites us to become artists as audience.

In any case, given that what we see on the page is all there is, nod/ ness seen makes no clear sense. At the same time, hints of possible lines of connection ([Loch] ness [monster] seen? seen nodding? ness an orthographic near-scrambling of seen?) persuades us that there is a sense to be found here, a message to be determined, meaning to be created in the mind of the reader who engages this text fully as far as Hejinian herself did in writing it. And quite apart from serpents swimming in Scottish lakes, the verbal sequence mapped out in seen know it around saying puts before us, as if compressed in a small hard shell, just that series of operations Hejinian as poet, and all of us as humans, undertake as we take in and attempt to articulate any given aspect of our experience. Words here engage present tense immediately, without syntactic cement; the effect is one of wonderfully bright, clear, sudden freedom -- of all Hejinian's works, this book particularly possessed of youthful intellectual delight, the full range of mind's potential grasped and held an instant, or more, all that can be known around saying.

think for a hundred years goes both forward and backward in at least two ways at once. It moves the poem forward literally, as the verse line proceeds, and ideationally, as one person's saying becomes another's (a listener's) thinking about what has been said, now and perhaps into the future, for a hundred years to come. (think for a hundred years may also stand grammatically as the object of saying, i.e., as if in quotation marks, what is to be said.) But it also moves the poem back, the idea of think[ing] an echo of know in the line before, and the time span a hundred years as equally past as yet to come, in any event a far larger frame than the see/know/say which precedes it.

If one takes think for a hundred years as the object of that all but instantaneous cluster, but and perhaps utter errors direct the point to a meadow starts at least to continue that direction of thought: think for a hundred years/ but . . . . What follows at once interrupts the about-to-be-made contrary statement suggested by but (notice, though, that and is linked grammatically to but: both are conjunctions) and, with a telling shift in perspective introduced -- almost as if an afterthought -- by the suggestion of pure uncertainty in perhaps, carries forward a number of verbal threads: utter and direct as imperative verbs aligned with think; utter an echo of saying; the point perhaps the one that shot the apple, which grows on a tree in a meadow. Nor in this poem is this reading exhaustive, for it makes equally good sense to take utter as an adjective modifying those errors that themselves direct some point (intellectual rather than physical, as the point of that story) to a place in the landscape, or, from another perspective, to take point as a verb ideationally akin to saying, utter, and direct, which in effect cuts off the object about to be named in the statement direct the/ point.

The potential vertigo induced in a reader by the simultaneity of literal 'events' I am describing here -- and failing to describe, since they take place in only the time it takes to print these words on the brain's screen -- is the kind of feeling one might have every day, faced with the even greater multiplicity of detail one takes in from moment to moment, were it not for the mind's ability to focus and select. Life's data, what Hejinian calls in her Preface raw confusions, being incessant, continuous in at least four dimensions until (one's) life ends, this writer's challenge is to demonstrate, by reenactment, the simple truth that truth cannot end.

Continuous quantities, like continuous qualities, are endless like the truth, for it is impossible to carry them. It is impossible to carry light and darkness, proximity, chance, movement, restlessness, and thought. From all of these, something spills.

What spills out of the meadow, rank fissure up on the pit, condenses the oppositions inherent in paradox into several nodes. To being with rank, whose sense as noun (a row, line, an orderly arrangement) absolutely contradicts its sense as adjective (overly luxuriant, grown to excess), and whose sense as transitive verb (to place in a rank or ranks) collapses as soon as it is coupled to the idea contained in fissure (a division along a line). The linearity suggested in fissure is itself collapsed, or rather, as perspective shifts, closes down from line to the single, round, open hollow placed suddenly before us in pit, which just as suddenly reverses the literal climb begun in the line's prepositional construction, up on. (Notice the echo of an identical construction seven lines later, in bit ink up on the human race, which despite an array of grammatical possibilities -- bit as noun or verb, ink as noun or verb -- similar to the ones outlined here, has nothing else whatever to do with fissure up on the pit. But that is, as they say, another story.)

Not to make molehills out of prepositions, but the idea of height suggested in up on (and simultaneously, and more insistently, contradicted in fissure and pit) is carried over into arts are several branches of life, where the word branches invites us to think not only of branches high up in a tree -- the tree of life, other of whose features appear later (trunks of trees, limbs) -- but of lines, divisions in a system of classification, therefore of rank and, from another point of view, fissure. And while it is indeed true that the arts are several branches of life -- along with other human endeavors such as, say, the sciences or economics -- the verbal information we pick up as the line unfolds demonstrates in little, by coincidental echoes of and allusions to information from before, that this art, poetry, can be made to be life. arts are, for example, a thought complete with intransitive verb, repeats with variation the sound pattern heard in shot nod and, in a different way, utter errors, and the also momentarily complete statement arts are several (verb now transitive, message changed into tautology) echoes the syntax, sound, and sense of apple is shot. The root of several (to separate) in front of branches, contains the seed running through a whole series of words, from rank to fissure to branches, and itself counteracts the root meaning of arts (to join, fit together).

What Hejinian has articulated in WRITING IS AN AID TO MEMORY -- fragments of perception, insight, sudden awareness of (literal) events operating in several systems of logic simultaneously -- invites her reader in effect to 'write' her text. The minute mental explosions her writing sets off (in us) take place to the extent that reader becomes writer: enters the text, sees what Hejinian in her Preface calls the sinews and bones of a language she is given the power to say different things at one time with or without different parts, of view, exploring what has been a mind, unknown. What goes on as the poem goes forward is more of the same, each point alive with multiple possibilities, each charged particle set to go off soon as the reader releases it:

arts are several branches of life
            little more science is brought where great
              need is required
                out becomes a bridge of that name
        in the painting is a great improvement
   bit ink up on the human race
and return if the foot goes back
      in the trunks of trees behoove a living thing
                  wedge war common saw
  hard by that length of time the great demand is
                  very dear
ashes in water
            that might be a slip of architecture
            think was reduced to an improper size
blocks to interest who can visit
               variations on ideas are now full
         problems
    from a point of increasing
at only as to four or we who nine
a little grace familiar with simple limbs and the sudden
            reverse

And so on, and on, through 42 such sections -- like riding three or four horses at once ('impossible' on horseback but possible here), writing is an aid to memory. Hejinian's memory, for one thing, of her life as it takes place, a little grace familiar with simple limbs and the sudden/ reverse. Her reader's memory as well, whose thought wakes to the alarm clock the words sound, calling us forward to the incessant knowledge --certain, uncertain, but wholly generous in its endeavor to make present all that might be found out of this time and place -- we give to the poem the poet gives to us:

The trees of the street are laid down. A bedroom is cut where I went. Where I mean to will have to come to me. Though we keep company with cats and dogs, all thoughtful people are impatient, with a restlessness made inevitable by language.

Passages in italics are from WRITING IS AN AID TO MEMORY (The Figures, 1978).


* * *


III. (My Life)

Within the fabric of the text of Lyn Hejinian's My Life the bits and pieces of past and present in lapidary imbrication, one upon the other in what order the words themselves would find, interweave. Only fragments are accurate, we read, followed by Break it up into single words, charge them to combination. Which points up another thread concurrent in My Life with the autobiography: namely, that set of proposals directed toward mapping an aesthetics of perception. For just as Hejinian questions the 'accuracy' of writing the past as if the present didn't count -- yesterday disembodied so to speak from today, history as if it could exist without someone to remember it -- she feeds us passim an assortment of speculations focused upon both how a writing such as hers might be practiced and what its effects might be:

Such displacements alter illusion, which is all to the good
Thinking about time in the book, it is really the time of your life
What memory is not a "gripping" thought
The obvious analogy is with music.

Take this reading of section 21, simply proposed as demonstration of how the work works, both itself and upon us.

The epigraph to this section,

We are not
forgetting the
patience of the
mad, their love of
detail.

acts as a kind of floating voice part, which strikes us from some as yet unidentified region outside the frame of present discourse, here as elsewhere a retelling or foretelling of the text, one aim of whose patience and love of detail is not to forget (a practice of writing hardly mad, it would seem, even if they too be included).

The summer countryside with the round hills patchy and dry, reminding one of a yellow mongrel dog, was what one could call a dirty landscape, the hills colored by the dusty bare ground rather than by grass, and yet this is what seemed like real country to me.

Straightforward, conventional in its prose rhythms, at least, the reference sharply focused as the dog ('love of detail') perceived as dusty ground seems unqualified, direct as the arrow about to hit the target affixed in section 20 to the just baled hay. It is summer in a landscape one finds familiar whether or not one 'knows' it in fact -- "writing as an aid to [hypnosis]"? readers "take[n] captive" by text?

I had idealized the pioneer's life, sinking roots.

Familiar then as the idea of landscape those preceding us in time and space had crossed, recalling as well by echo the closing line of section 20: Could the prairie be this sea -- for love. The reader knows it, the landscape that is, in the mind the words conjure -- My Life so appealing because its words so convincing (again, text as hypnosis, seduction even) -- the poet's life into which the lives of those before her sinking roots arrive, in that place

Known for its fleas.

-- known at most now from books or from the movies.

One could touch the flesh of their secrets, the roses of their behavior.

Perhaps, if one had way sufficient enough to bring the fact of flesh to bear here, or touch the flower the young wife would nurture in the yard. It will bloom this spring, and the grass will turn green, and she will grow big with child.

One didn't know what to give a young woman.

As usual, there in Kansas or here in Oakland, what to give to whom in this case a reader's guess, the woman suddenly as much Hejinian at some point in her own life as any other one she might imagine. But not only is the question posed by this syntax Who receives the unsaid gift but Who gives it, which "one"? Likely as not a man, hers perhaps, what follows leading us to such a fact:

Watermen are such as row in boats.

Whereupon we leave the prairie for the sea or river -- Lewis and Clark on the Missouri? poling up and rowing back? -- rose buds for row boats bound for we don't know which port. Who's in charge here, one asks legitimately across the space between "woman" period "Watermen" whose hands and backs to the oars propels us, the reader, as if backward. But

They don't hear a word of all this, floating like plump birds
along the shore.

-- out of earshot over the water, these words able nonetheless to picture them, or remember -- "a 'gripped' thought."

In extending, then entangling their concerns, they are given a thousand new names.

Each one as if a net cast out over the landscape (also the reader's 'sensibility') language gains access to, opening territory the pioneers first thought best was theirs, enables the other to be named. From which social ills, small mind crowded, bent upon history repeats itself,

The lace curtain Irish hate neighborhood Blacks.

Called to by name on the street between buildings, one turned around a split second.

The coffee drinkers answered ecstatically.

-- caffeine intensive or not at once the issue the words spell, stepping literally out of station. Given their reply, content of which unknown to us rejoins the as yet unposed question, or question posed in the movie next door, which runs concurrently to this one, wherein one might see, had one access, an alternate text of My Life:

We looked at the apartment and took it.

The phonetic alignment of verbs, each of which establishes fixed relation between perceiver and object perceived (as "SEE" in Chinese is represented by an eye above legs, running through space), here places us squarely at home. Like the ones before us we move in, unpack, hang pictures, walk streets to find how

Space has small neighborhoods.

Everything is new here, in this place and this book, around each corner the new sentence disclosing its complete surprise.

As for we who "love to be astonished," each new bit of knowledge is merely indicative of a wider ignorance.

So what we think we know and/or remember may lead, does and will always take us, just to the edge of a circle of perceptions whose center I am, you are, converging. What we do with that fact of moments juxtaposed one to another in place of time, 'the concept,' is almost to be able to know where we are just as it passes into the forthcoming present. To write her life truly Hejinian believes, indeed proves, will be done. Other means considered but no.

One might cultivate a charming defect, say a romantic limp
or a little squint.

As indeed one does, once in a while, or did, whatever the terms of endearment. (Think of Byron and the nearsighted ones whose "charms" have persuaded us, rightly enough, these many years.) Now the terms though have changed, girl grown older, moved in with a man to a place below one window of which the printed sign reads "Apartment For Rent."

I made curtains out of colored burlap from Sears, hung them
at the four windows of the green apartment.

As simply as the event it remembers, language encoding for the reader who would take it up, SEE that room, eyes running on legs to be there, the words say what she saw, sewing, moving on.

Down manholes, through pipes, to the mysterious sea.

The water then flowing from kitchen tap to where watermen, once again, could row through it. Confined spaces here, however, inside pipes layed under the street, where plumbing goes from all the houses on it; and in one of those she finds herself, the story goes, inhaling:

Though the pantry smelled more strongly of spices than of herbs and was dominated by nutmeg, the kitchen itself tended to smell of everything that had ever been cooked, but only because it was dark.

Here then another "sinking roots," the person herself for one thing moving in, thinking plants from a field dried and stored in jars or plucked fresh from the garden.

If you cut your nails they will grow back thick, blunt, like
a man's.

So what then to be done with so much time on her hands, so little space, to say it say in 37 sentences, but to recall contentment (born of all the time in the world to recall) -- like Stein in Lucy Church Amiably.

In a little while, he said, we should be thumbing home.

His thumb, no doubt, blunt as a man's, apartment now become the word we name the place we live in we hope by choice, arriving there by whatever means accessible. Hitch in this case hiking, thumb asking a ride the twentieth sentence,

There were five little kittens under the car.

suggests was forthcoming, though this one could like as not be any Ford or Chevrolet beneath whose chassis she once glimpsed them. Perhaps the time one drove for hours, far out into the country, the night one learned

They had put curves in the highway to keep drivers awake.

At other times the levels mix, surface charged as if to retain for itself the shifting of language into a realm we do and don't both keep up with:

The obvious analogy is with music, which extends beyond the
space the figure occupies.

Which figure, though, one asks, wondering is it the theme or phrase returning to the root or the person who plays same:

She was pumping her violin over the piano.

And where then is that, living room? concert hall? -- and when -- last night? years ago or more? And does the next sentence, following as if in a context we know we follow as well, offer answer?

Each evening before dinner my parents sat for a while in the
" study," to talk, while my mother knit decoratively designed
French sweaters called Jacquard.

Domestic, then, tranquility, a life at home full of what one hears, indeed dreams, of being all that any of us might in a certain life want -- in a sense at least, connections to follow, order at home reflecting order in the world beyond "study" walls:

The house sparrow is a weaver finch.

Therefore, thus as it were, that nature 'herself' does what one's mother does, first in fact and second here, in words aligned to bring about perception of combined shifting planes the person beholds. Inside this house, outside the sparrow,

The front door key is hidden under the aloe.

So standing, as if on a porch, one picks up the plant and prepares to enter through this door, into that room, where those people talk and knit, the writer tells us, moving us in and out of the picture:

How did the artist think to put that on the outside.

-- she asks, becoming herself both that one and the questioner, moving us about by making attention, click, then shift.

Such displacements alter illusions, which is all-to-the-good.

Which we have heard before in different context, chapter and verse; insistence, reiteration, the point then to draw out -- educate -- by example and demonstration how this mixing of past with continuous present writing the life writes My Life.

Now I too could find a perfect cantaloupe, not by poking at the flesh around the stem of the melon but by sniffing at it.

Something one's mother, perhaps, teaches that one learns (for my mother & my father), an almost mystic coordination of senses in which one hands back along the line the information each perceives. This one is ripe, let me cut it, you see what I mean.... Until,

At some point hunger becomes sensuous, then lascivious.

-- then so to eat will it quench thirst, satisfy desire, or shall we continue in this mode, call it foreplay,

Not a fuck but a hug.

-- which precedes, and will prolong, intimate pleasure. This being not the sense one talks of in the "study," this being performed in other rooms of her house, or other house across the land at later time; or before -- before, or after love had cooled.

My mother threw away all those little objects of sentiment,
billed foolishness.

Think of the walls of pictures, mementoes, the scrap- & yearbook junior year, the girl then full of feeling. In that memory -- "a 'gripping' thought" -- she does an instant reside. But

The reference is a distraction, a name trimmed with colored
ribbons.

Pretty, perhaps, indeed pretty, but one is here now and that is in the mind, they being elsewhere far away and long ago.

It was Father's Day, a holiday that no one could take seriously, yet someone admitted that he was planning to telephone his parents that evening and another said she might do the same.

Long distance as a bridge I cross, calling your name in a room of people each of whom would on such occasion honor sentiment, elders, Father, as offspring having at this point flown so to speak the nest, remembered -- "a 'gripping' thought." So we too are there, and dial, and those in the room continue their present talk, which in altered form goes on as well outside the room's walls.

What can those birds be saying.

-- out and over there, cooing I love you, father/mate, this one asks, fully present,

That day there was wind but no air, because we were inland.

Displaced, yet again, in time as well, when and because we move the world moves with us. And what I think at present depends on what I think, thought, will think hinged upon this, too. So Hejinian in this writing can go back --

Is pretty pink.

-- to such time as memory will carry her far, her life as much a sum of parts as this part, this sentence, and that one.

Passages in italics are from My Life (Burning Deck, 1980; revised edition, Sun & Moon, 1987).