|Lyn Hejinian, essay, 2 prose poems
From "The Rejection of Closure"
My title, „The Rejection of Closure," sounds judgmental, which is a little misleading˜though only a little since I am a happy reader of detective novels and an admiring, a very admiring, reader of Charles Dickens‚ novel.
Nevertheless, whatever the pleasures, in a fundamental way closure is a fiction˜one of the amenities that fantasy or falsehood provides.
What then is the fundamental necessity for openness? Or, rather, what is there in language itself that compels and implements the rejection of closure?
I perceive the world as vast and overwhelming; each moment stands under an enormous vertical and horizontal pressure of information, potent with ambiguity, meaning-full, unfixed, and certainly incomplete. What saves this from becoming a vast undifferentiated mass of date and situation is one‚s ability to make distinctions. Each written text may act as a distinction, may be a distinction. The experience of feeling overwhelmed by undifferentiated material is like claustrophobia. One feels panicky, closed in. The open text is one which both acknowledges the vastness of the world and is formally differentiating. It is the form that opens it, in that case.
* * *
Two dangers never cease threatening in the world: order and disorder.
Language discovers what one might know. Therefore, the limits of language are the limits of what we might know. We discover the limits of language early, as children. Anything with limits can be imagined (correctly or incorrectly) as an object, by analogy with other objects balls and rivers. Children objectify language when they render it their plaything, in jokes, puns, and riddles, or in glossolaliac chants and rhymes. They discover that words are not equal to the world, that a shift, analogous to parallax in photography, occur between things (events, ideas, objects) and the words for them˜a displacement that leaves a gap. Among the most prevalent and persistent category of joke is that which identifies and makes use of the fallacious comparison of words to the world and delights in the ambiguity resulting from the discrepancy:
Why did the moron eat hay?
To feed his hoarse voice.
Because we have language we find ourselves in a peculiar relationship to the objects, events, and situations which constitute what we imagine of the world. Language generates its own characteristics in the human psychological and spiritual condition. This psychology is generated by the struggle between language and that which it claims to depict or express, by our overwhelming experience of the vastness and uncertainty of the world and by what often seems to be the inadequacy of the imagination that longs to know it, and, for the poet, the even greater inadequacy of the language that appears to describe, discuss, or disclose it.
This inadequacy, however, is merely a disguise for other virtues.
„What mind worthy of the name," said Flaubert, „ever reached a conclusion?‰
Language is one of the principal forms our curiosity takes. It makes us restless. As Francis Ponge puts it, „Man is a curious body whose center of gravity is not in himself." Instead it seems to be located in language, by virtue of which we negotiate our mentalities and the world; off-balance, heavy at the mouth, we are pulled forward.
She is lying on her stomach with one eye closed, driving a toy truck along the road she has cleared with her fingers. Then the tantrum broke out, blue, without a breath of air....You could increase the height by making lateral additions and building over them a sequence of steps, leaving tunnels, or windows, between the blocks, and I did. I made signs to them to be as quiet as possible. but a word is a bottomless pit. It became magically pregnant and one day split open, giving birth to a stone egg, about as big as a football.
Language itself is never in a state of rest. And the experience of using it, which includes the experience of understanding it, either as speech or as writing, is inevitably active. I mean both intellectually and emotionally active.
The progress of a line or sentence, or a series of lines or sentences, has spatial properties as well as temporal properties. The spatial density is both vertical and horizontal. The meaning of a word in its place derives both from the word‚s lateral reach, its contacts with its neighbors in a statement, and from its reach through and out of the text into the other world, the matrix of its contemporary and historical reference. The very idea of reference is spatial: over here is word, over there is thing at which word is shooting amiable love-arrows.
* * *
If language induces a yearning for comprehension, for perfect and complete expression, it also guards against it. Hence the title of my poem „The Guard."
Windows closed on wind in rows
Night lights, unrumorlike, the reserve for events
All day our postures were the same
Next day the gentleman was very depressed and had a
headache; so much laughing had upset him he thought
The urge to tell the truth is strong
Delightful, being somewhere else so much the moment of equivalence
To be lucky a mediation
To look like life in the face
The definition quotes happiness
The egg is peafowl
The kitchen: everyone eats in different cycles yeh,
the dishes are all over the counter....yeh, food‚ left out, things are on the stove....yeh, the floor‚ filthy˜that's amazing! have you been there?
Like the wind that by its bulk inspires confidence
Red and yellow surefire reflect on the breakdown
The forest is a vehicle of tremors
When mad, aged nine, and dressed in calico
Confusion is good for signs of generosity
Each sentence replaces an hallucination
But these distractions can't safeguard my privacy
During its absence, my presence
Every hour demonstrates time‚s porosity
The ghosts that blend with daylight come out like stars
in the dark longing to have their feet fit in boots
And finish in Eden.
It is written: „In the beginning was the Word!‰
Already I have to stop! Who‚ll help me on?
It is impossible to put such trust in the
Such is a recurrent element in the argument of the lyric:
Alack, what poverty my Muse brings forth...
Those lines that I before have writ do lie...
For we / Have eyes to wonder but lack tongues to praise...
In the gap between what one wants to say (or what one perceives there is to say) and what one can say (what is sayable), words provide for a collaboration and a desertion. We delight in our sensuous involvement with the materials of language, we long to join words to the world˜to close the gap between ourselves and things, and we suffer from doubt and anxiety as to our capacity to do so because of the limits of language itself.
Yet the very incapacity of language to match the world allows it to do service as a medium of differentiation. The undifferentiated is one mass, the differentiated is multiple. The (unimaginable) complete text, the text that contains everything, would be in fact a closed text. It would be insufferable.
For me, a central activity of poetic language is formal. In being formal, in making form distinct, it opens makes variousness and multiplicity and possibility articulate and clear. While failing in the attempt to match the world, we discover structure, distinction, the integrity and separateness of things.
EXCERPT FROM MY LIFE
As for we who „love to be astonished"
You spill the sugar when you lift the spoon. My father had filled an old apothecary jar with what he called „sea glass," bit of old bottles rounded and textured by the sea, so abundant on beaches. There is no solitude. It buries itself in veracity. It is as if one splashed in the water lost by one's tears. My mother had climbed into the garbage can in order to stamp down the accumulated trash, but the can was knocked off balance, and when she fell she broke her arm. She could only give a little shrug. The family had little money but plenty of food. At the circus only the elephants were greater than anything I could have imagined. The egg of Columbus, landscape and grammar. She wanted one where the playground was dirt, with grass, shaded by a tree, from which would hang a rubber tire as a swing, and when she found it she sent me. These creatures are compound and nothing they do should surprise us. I don‚t mind, or I won‚t mind, where the verb „to care‰ might multiply. The pilot of the little airplane had forgotten to notify the airport of his approach, so that when the lights of the plane in the night were first spotted, the air raid sirens went off, and the entire city on that coast went dark. He was taking a drink of water and the light was growing dim. My mother stood at the window watching the only lights that were visible, circling over the darkened city in search of the hidden airport. Unhappily, time seems more normative than place. Whether breathing or holding the breath, it was the same thing, driving through the tunnel from one sun to the next under a hot brown hill. She sunned the baby for sixty seconds, leaving him naked except for a blue cotton sunbonnet. At night, to close off the windows from view of the street, my grandmother pulled down the window shades, never loosening the curtains, a gauze starched too stiff to hand properly down. I sat on the windowsill singing sunny lunny teena, ding-dang-dong. Out there is an aging magician who needs a try of ice in order to turn his bristling breath into steam. He broke the radio silence. Why would anyone find astrology interesting when it is possible to learn about astronomy. What one passes in the Plymouth. It is the wind slamming the doors. All that is nearly incommunicable to my friends. Velocity and throat verisimilitude. Were we seeing a pattern or merely an appearance of small white sailboats on the bay, floating at such a distance from the hill that they appeared to be making no progress. And for once to a country that did not speak another language. To follow the progress of ideas, or that particular line of reasoning, so full of surprises and unexpected correlations, was somehow to take a vacation. Still, you had to wonder where they had gone, since you could speak of reappearance. A blue room is always dark. Everything on the boardwalk was shooting toward the sky. It was not specific to any year, but very early. A German goldsmith covered a bit of metal with cloth in the 14th century and gave mankind its first button. It was hard to know this as politics, because it plays like the work of one person, but nothing is isolated in history certain humans are situations. Are your fingers in the margin. Their random procedures make monuments to fate. There is something still surprising when the green emerges. The blue fox has ducked its head. The front rhyme of harmless with harmony. Where is my honey running. You cannot linger „on the lamb." You cannot determine the nature of progress until you assemble all of the relatives.
Like plump birds along the shore
Summers were spent in a fog that rains. They were mirages, no different from those that camelback riders approach in the factual accounts of voyages in which I persistently imagined myself, and those mirages on the highway were for me both impalpable souvenirs and unstable evidence of my own adventures, now slightly less vicarious than before. The person too has flared ears, like an infant‚s reddened with batting. I had claimed the radio nights for my own. There were more storytellers than there were stories, so that everyone in the family had a version of history and it was impossible to get close to the original, or to know „what really happened." The pair of ancient, stunted apricot trees yielded ancient, stunted apricots. What was the meaning hung from that depend. The sweet aftertaste of artichokes. The lobes of autobiography. Even a minor misadventure, a bumped offender or a newsstand without newspapers, can „ruin the entire day," but a child cries and laughs without rift. The sky droops straight down. I lapse, hypnotized by the flux and reflux of the waves. They had ruined the Danish pastry by frosting it with whipped butter. It was simply a tunnel, a very short one. Now I remember worrying about lockjaw. The cattle were beginning to move across the field pulled by the sun, which proved them to be milk cows. There is so little public beauty. I found myself dependent on a pause, a rose, something on paper. It was a way of saying, I want you, too, to have this experience, so that we are more alike, so that we are closer, bound together, sharing a point of view so that we are „coming from the same place." It is possible to be homesick in one‚s neighborhood. Afraid of the bears. A string of eucalyptus pods was hung by the window to discourage flies. So much of „the way things were" was the same from one day to the next, or from one occasion (Christmas, for example, for July 4th) to the next, that I can speak now of how we „always" had dinner, all of us sitting at our usual places in front of the placemats of woven straw, eating the salad first, with cottage cheese, which my father always referred to as „cottage fromage," that being one of many little jokes with which he expressed his happiness at home. Twice he broke his baby toe, stubbing it at night. As for we who „love to be astonished," my heartbeats shook the bed. In any case, I wanted to both the farmer and his horse when I was a child, and I tossed my head and stamped with one foot as if I were pawing the ground before a long gallop. Across the school playground, an outing, a field trip, passes in ragged order over the lines which mark the hopscotch patch. It made for a sort of family mythology. The heroes kept clean, chasing dusty rustlers, tonguing the air. They spent the afternoon building a dam across the gutter. There was too much carpeting in the house, but the windows upstairs were left open except on the very coldest or wettest of days. It was there that she met the astonishing figure of herself when young. Are we likely to find ourselves later pondering such suchness amid all the bourgeois memorabilia. Wherever I might find them, however unsuitable, I made them useful by a simple shift. The obvious analogy is with music. Did you mean gutter or guitar. Like cabbage of collage. The book was a sort of protection because it had a better plot. If any can be spared from the garden. They hoped it would rain before somebody parked beside that section of the curb. The fuchsia is a plant much like a person, happy in the out-of-doors in the same sun and breeze that is more comfortable to a person sitting nearby. We had to wash the windows in order to see them. Supper was a different meal from dinner. Small fork-stemmed boats propelled by wooden spoons wound in rubber bands cruised the tough. Losing its balance on the low horizon lay the vanishing vernal day.