Monday, August 25, 2008

The Grand Piano Notes

Solitary Hollyhock


Dilute, the hammerings on, dissolute,
The musickings. The necessity of
Populating a saga with extended
Family, one wild-eyed blatherer
Thrashing scrawny legs against a
Park bench in Dupont Circle,
Black-nail’d fingers collapsed around
A brown-bagged bottle of
Something fortify’d, suggesting we ought
To hitchhike out to California.
One a black lump of
Sheets in a Vicks-smelling
Room with draperies blotting out
The flat disc of Ontario’s
Sun. Dispersal and distancing, young
Blades in credit-bought duds
Making off for foreign ports,
Mailing home photographs hinting at
Nothing so much verifiable as loss,
Something gone awry, fires combusting
Up in the prairies, sod
Walls bung’d out, tornadoes licking
Up a swath of earth.
The family sets down stakes
Nowhere and everywhere, plotting out
A tent big enough to
Hold it, a circus of
Particulars, each lowering itself down into the slot of its oneness. Or is it history that is simultaneous, a rash and not a line cut by a knife come suddenly out of nowhere, we were sipping ouzo and now there’s a long row a shiny red globules of blood blistering up along one arm. A succession of simultaneities: how make that visible? The invisible is what’s in plain sight, hidden by the rapt countenances of the visible: history says that. Roberto Calasso says Kafka sensed that “only the minimum number of elements of the surrounding world ought to be named.” Every photograph is called “Local Trees.” Just so, “history” draws its power off a barrier and sequence of dynamos, enormous black shiny turbines, blue with spilled oil, a deafening array. Every story is called “E Pluribus Unum.”
A circus of particulars, accreting
And dispersing with all the
Rampant punctuality of time itself,
The way it so ceaselessly
Courses its bland continuum, though
We inevitably rearrange its doings
To suit makeshift maps of
Longing and encumbrance, speeding off
To goals never realized, or
Nodding off into reveries of
A period of an obsession
With slot cars built to
Run endlessly around tracks at
A cost of so much
Per hour, the place used
To be a roller rink
And skating no longer drew
A crowd. One moved away
Shortly thereafter, and subsequently met
Some new friends with other
Leanings, one an amateur paleontologist,
Another a falconer, thus one’s
Youth got sopped up by
Terribly serious pursuits, though the
Porosity of self that that
Seriousness allowed eventually out’d, and
One turn’d to fiercer regimens
And alcohols and a considerable
Accumulation of something ebbed away,
To no perceivable consternation. It’d
Return at odd moments, trilobites
And brachiopods hacked out of
Shale up where Cargill Salt
Work’d its diggers, a mania
For coastal estuaries. Just the
Way the saga of everyday
Life allows one to go
Off into some other room
And nurture strange expediencies there,
Only to return invigorated, to add some paragraphs “covering the war years” to a piece of writing here, aimless and inconstant, apt to turn on itself like a dog trying to capture a flea between its incisors, biting at the fur of its haunch. Which causes a local itch to launch its trireme fleets across one’s elbow, oaring. Off one goes to put clear the table of signs of eating, knowing it’ll require new settings again shortly.

Lyn Hejinian, still “rebellious,” (a word she uses) isn’t going to be bother’d with the body. Not exactly petulantly, though precisely, with the force of clarity (it is the increasingly luminous nature of her writing, unmuss’d, utterly without pretense, nimble, and direct that I love), she stops—after several pages of thinking about the differences between epic and saga—to say:
I’ll get to the 1970s eventually. Force of will alone, however, can’t get me there. I’m caught in the encompassing present moment, demanding and obliging as we know it rationally to be, in which we age and mourn and are unfree.
And, rather like a small joke, at the end of Hejinian’s entry, she admits a kind of writing / body conjunct: “Writing itself provides a perfectly viable site for sequential (and more rarely, simultaneous) alterities. One can cross-dress at one’s desk: one can become a mule, or a goose. I know, because I do so.” “At one’s desk”: the entry begins with “John Ashbery’s Girls on the Run is on my desk” and makes mention of a maelstrom of writers and titles—Henry Darger, Erlich’s Russian Formalism, Kenneth Irby, Wilhelm Dilthey, The Classical Greek Reader, Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, Ketjak—citing and quoting out of the teeming node and collision, “desk” become site and signal of a primitive exploratory brainbox (that is the body), a kind of energy attractor. About saga and epic:
Power and time are elemental themes of both the epic and the saga, but the two modalities treat them differently. The epic is monumental; it erects power (whether or not its content deals with a quest for power); the saga is long, a testimony to powerlessness. The epic aggrandizes and culminates; the sage chronicles and continues. In its monumentality, its bulk, the epic takes time into itself and posits it as historical fate, the future perfect: that which was and always will have been. The saga, meanwhile, is caught up in the turbulence of time—swept along, sucked into an eddy, left bobbing. Girls would not be on the run in an epic, but they could be in a saga, and often have to be. If the telos of the epic involves nation building, that of the saga is something like the negative of that. The saga depicts the impossibility of empire. Or it portrays the fraying of empire and foresees its inevitable undoing. It focuses on genealogy, sequence, even seriality, and emphasizes the reversal and revolution inherent to generation. Ultimately, the saga is skeptical.
Written in an exemplary conjectural-declarative mode that seemingly allows innumerable ports of entry. A “putting into relation” of two items for epistemological ends, a testing. (A terrible anticipatory eagerness to read Hejinian’s new poem “The Distance” that is the Saga half of the forthcoming Saga/Circus (Omnidawn, 2008). Hejinian quotes some of its opening lines: I am struck and thwarted by this: “I’ve been swept / Against objects, lost habits, / Knowledge grows / But it has to be connected to things. / That connection is usually best achieved / So they say / Through perceiving similarities. No way! [. . .]” The ellipsis—is it wont to justify the rejection of the canny relation? Elsewhere, completely elsewhere, in the Jack Collom and Lyn Hejinian collaborations in Situations, Sings (Adventures in Poetry, 2008), a rocketship of a book for anybody who’d hie to exploratory, Hejinian says:
Philip Whalen told Joanne Kyger that poetry is to be practiced every day, like play. And just as the little girl playing in the shade with plastic animals would never think to ask if the play was “good” or even “the best she could do,” so the poet shouldn’t ask such questions of her poems.
And isn’t any writing inescapably, prima facie, a putting into relation of things? Word to word, word to thing? Pins jabbed into a map invariably defining a frontier?

What Hejinian says about solitude (circa 1960-1975, pre-Grand Piano, that is, roughly covering the years when she—reflecting back—admired “above all else the heroic nonconformity and rebellious eccentricity of (artistic) genius”):
I believed in progress but with an emphasis on my own progress; I believed in individualism and I thought to develop my own individualism through self-improvement. Calling myself a rebel, I considered myself antisocial; not wanting “to compromise with reality,” I valued solitude; considering “the world” a source of interruptions and distractions, I repeatedly “dedicated myself” myself to poetry.
She admits the portrayal is the result of “a fantasy life that was quite unlike what I actually did every day, but even as I was living a more worldly life than I might have admitted, it was centered in the domestic rather than in the social.” The route to the “social” is not explicitly traced, though one marker provided is the reading of Creeley’s For Love in 1962 after Kenneth Irby present’d it to her (“it is probably with my reading of that book that I date the beginning maturation [surely an odd phrase] of my own literary project,” Hejinian writes, though in the next sentence warns how she doesn’t want to “unduly exaggerate the influence.”) The other marker: the beginning of the Tuumba chapbooks. Is it the “social” one moves into in any attempt to include the world? Hejinian says she “did not stand firm” vis-à-vis that “preference, as a poet, for solitude.” “My work has not had solitude at its center—and it has not been immanently lyric—since at least 1977 . . . ; in fact, my writing seems to have grown, over the years, increasingly populous.” Which seems to correlate the solitary life (hermit scarcity and refusal) with “the lyric” and with a stripped-down de-populated writing. Isn’t that a too reductivist stance? Solitary Henry Darger’s own squads of Vivians counter it. The mark of one’s “beginning maturation” is, I’d argue, not found in the “social” so much as in one’s finding a way to integrate one’s writing with the overwhelming saga of everyday life with all its claims various and concomitant. An entirely individual task, that is: determining a right (shifting) permeability for that membrane.