A review of Lyn Hejinian's 'The Unfollowing'
Part 1: To close the streaming eye
All is black shadow, but the lucid line
Marked by the light surf on the level sand,
Or where afar the ship-lights faintly shine
Like wandering fairy fires, that oft on land
Mislead the pilgrim — such the dubious ray
That wavering reason lends, in life’s long darkling way.
— Charlotte Smith, “Written Near a Port on a Dark Evening”
The poems in Lyn Hejinian’s The Unfollowing are to the sonnet what the prose poem is to verse. They are fourteen lines long and, more importantly, poems of love and loss. In the book’s press materials, Omnidawn publisher Rusty Morrison tells us that the poems are “a sequence of elegies” and that “they are not sonnets but antisonnets.” By disclaiming the sonnet, Morrison reaffirms Hejinian’s own sense of the poems. As Hejinian states in her preface to The Unfollowing: “The sonnet proper develops argumentatively, unfolding under the pressure of reasons appropriate to whatever problem or situation it is exploring. The ‘Unfollowing’ poems do not” (9). Hejinian admonishes the “merely line-counting” reader that in “a proper sonnet … something like resolution is achieved.” Sonnets remain “the summit of logicality”; in contrast, the poems in The Unfollowing “are intended to be illogical.” Morrison’s insistence and Hejinian’s demurrals compel us to view these poems as “against” or opposed to the very form that serves as ballast for Hejinian’s extraordinary poetic leaps.
I don’t really want to argue against the volume’s author and publisher, but I do want to argue for the idea that these poems are best understood as sonnets. The poems in this volume are profoundly engaged with the sonnet’s essential properties, one of those being its intricate logicality. Hejinian’s linguistic innovations and revelations, emotional protests and rebellions, formal insurgencies and mutinies, are best gleaned when read in terms of their radical instantiation of the sonnet form. As a sequence of sonnets, The Unfollowing enacts an artistic process that coincides with “a revolutionary practice of everyday life” (9). The Unfollowing extends the sonnet tradition, bringing it in contact with new ways of imagining self and culture, and providing other ways for the sonnet, not to mention lyric poetry more generally, to address both personal grief and cultural despair.
Hejinian’s remark that she “most certainly [had] the sonnet in mind when [she] decided to adhere to a fourteen-line constraint” is not purely incidental. These poems are not sonnets only because “an attentive, or perhaps merely line-counting, reader will come fairly quickly to the conclusion” (9). The sonnet has also always been an elegiac form, commemorating loss and trying to conjure from absence something that becomes the poem. So Morrison’s assertion that Hejinian has written “a sequence of elegies” is as symptomatic of their form as is their distinctive length. More than that, Phillis Levin, who might also determine that these are not in fact “proper sonnets,” nevertheless writes in The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: “As with most traditions, once the pattern became stable and recognizable” — for the sonnet, this happens in the Renaissance — “writers began experimenting with it anew, usually respecting its overall shape but continually pushing its boundaries” (xxlvi–xlvii).
In her estimation of what constitutes the sonnet, Levin goes even further: “A number of poems … defy or redefine the sonnet tradition, invoking the form they have broken” (xlvii). Where Shakespeare, a paragon of the form, is “clearing the stage for a new way of thinking and speaking about love and time, death and the power of rhyme” (lv), Robert Lowell later adopts “a graphic, antilyrical puritan realism, as if rhyme were a temptation to be resisted” (lxviii). In discussing Robert Lowell, Levin makes this astute observation about why sonnets matter: “The sonnet attracts ambition, an impulse toward emulation, and a desire to subvert both the form itself and perhaps [the writer’s] own ambition” (lxviii). As for Lowell, “The gravitational pull of the sonnet and its tradition was too strong for Lowell to resist, and he wanted to enter its force field. On some level, he knew what he was doing, that he was getting into something big, though he tried to diminish his expectations of himself and poetry” (lxviii). Similarly, Hejinian concludes her preface with this declaration: “Poems can’t achieve all this, of course — perhaps not even any of it” (10). By the time Hejinian says this, though, she has already plunged headlong into writing a sequence of poems that, on their face, seem untenable. The sonnet pits the poet against its intricate form and, in doing so, against herself and her own poetic praxis.
What results in The Unfollowing are sonnets that plumb the deep time relation between life and death. The poems use the sonnet to redress “death’s unacceptability” by utilizing non sequiturs to abjure the volta, the sonnet’s fundamental turn from experience to reflection, which typically appears after the eighth line. Harrowing the volta with a wayward illogicality, Hejinian refuses to respond to senseless loss with logic. As Levin notes, “The sonnet trains us to ‘to anticipate an irreversible turn’” (xxxvii); Hejinian deploys the sonnet in order to eradicate this irreversibility. Instead of using reason to raise experience up to the level of consciousness, the poems immerse consciousness in the world, replacing the “irreversible turn” with a wandering. There is no path, no crossroads, no hard left that leads us toward closure in these poems. Instead, Hejinian responds to grief by getting lost in the errancies of the imagination.
But if, as Levin suggests, “the volta, the sonnet’s turn, promotes innovative approaches because whatever has occurred thus far, a poet is compelled, by inhabiting the form, to make a sudden leap at a particular point, to move into another part of the terrain” (xxxix), then Hejinian’s poems don’t merely reject the volta; rather, they are all volta, every line another leap from the precipice, vaulting the reader into another context with a disjunctive force that uses the power of the volta paradoxically to stave off the sonnet’s “irreversible turn.” There is never a sober choice between “two roads diverged in a yellow wood” but only a hilarious blindfold spinning that leaves one too dizzy to walk straight ahead toward some fatally predetermined place.
The strategy, at least by way of analogy, recalls the fairytale about the man who caught a leprechaun and forced him to reveal the tree under which the leprechaun hid his gold. The man marked the tree by tying a ribbon around it while he went off to fetch a shovel to dig up the treasure. He made the leprechaun promise not to remove the ribbon. As leprechauns must keep their promises, the man returned to discover that a ribbon had been tied around every tree in the forest:
Along comes a wave casting spray as it bears — down on a man half-asleep on a
towel and half-awake in a rowboat adrift on a violent sea
The cold in this luminous season stings
Let us go then, you and I, in pajamas through the sky, in which we’ll dine on
rice and pie, we’ll drink from apples made of lace, we’ll topple statues,
invent space (18)
Like Emily Dickinson’s use of dashes at the end of her poems, Hejinian’s constant turning and leaping forestalls closure, swapping resolution for continuation by holding the irreversible turn in suspension. After all, such turns are usually fatal: everything disintegrates into salt or fades back to Hades. Just because we turn does not mean we can retrieve. Nor can we simply turn away and ignore what’s behind us. So let’s turn — and why not? — to veer off course and see where our ramblings might take us.
The non sequitur turns the volta against itself in a deliberate, productive reversal of hamartia. Reading The Unfollowing, we come to recognize that it is not the non sequitur “missing the mark” but instead the volta’s overzealous attempt to hit the X that leads to tragic downfall. Perhaps such a breach of the sonnet form, along with Hejinian’s absolute refusal to let anything follow from anything else, makes these poems into something other than sonnets. But this impulse to violate the volta is not without precedent in the sonnet tradition. As Levin writes, “Milton treats the voltaas if it were a physical barrier between this world and the next”; his volta seems to embody “the inexplicable reality of a dream” (lxii). Even more to the point, the Elegiac Sonnets (1784) of Charlotte Smith do not exactly trust “wavering reason” as they “delight to stray” and “wander”:
Smith’s sonnets reflect on the experience of being lost, without a goal, in a receptive state that Keats would call “negative capability,” and thus seem to shed some light on the dilemma facing the eighteenth-century poet. The writer of a sonnet must take the chance of not arriving anywhere significant at all. (lxii)
Sonnets need not fulfill the form’s expectations nor do what we expect them to. The sonnet, like other poetic forms, must change in response to the time in which it is written. When Smith took up the form “that leads from image to insight, from inquiry to understanding … this type of progression [was] antithetical to the modus operandi of the eighteenth-century tradition, where one begins with one’s conclusion, thinking deductively, not inductively” (lxii). Such thinking did not result in the destruction of the sonnet but rather “rekindled an interest in the form” (lxii). And what of the sonnet in the twenty-first century? What does the form mean for the poet of postmodernity and late capitalism — the poet who writes sonnets after Levin’s anthology, published in 2001, has already gathered its quires? The dilemma facing the twenty-first-century poet is that the writer of a sonnet must take the chance of not arriving anywhere at all.
Hejinian anticipates the possibilities and necessary alterations for her sonnets in her 1998 essay “La Faustienne,” published in The Language of Inquiry:
Changes are occurring … to notions of the author — the writing self — and therefore the genres that attempt to represent the intentions of the author are changing. It is precisely because definitions of the self have changed that the traditional genres that speak for the self (lyric poetry, for example) or of the self and its development (the novel) are either being consigned to an increasingly “old-fashioned,” conservative, or nostalgic position or are being subverted and reinvented to accommodate contemporary experience of being a person — a zone. (235)
The sonnet, the most trenchant form of poetry written in English and so in many ways the most traditional, is no exception to this rule. Levin asserts that “the history of the sonnet is partly a history of increasing realism … and a parallel increasing realism in the poet’s attitude to the sources of literary creation as being the substance of daily life — the singularity of lived experience — instead of a system of ideal, abstract concepts” (xlvi). And so following this continuum, we arrive at The Unfollowing and its “revolutionary practice of everyday life” (10). It is not enough to simply provide another record of conscious experience by “mak[ing] space for the self to hold audience with the ‘inmost’ self we may take for granted but often have trouble naming — a psychological or metaphysical entity called soul, mind, the cogito, consciousness” (xliv). Although this may have offered “a new way of thinking and being” a century or two ago, to write sonnets that “make space for the self to hold audience with the ‘inmost’ self” in the twenty-first century simply makes the sonnet feel “increasingly ‘old-fashioned,’ conservative, or nostalgic.” As Hejinian suggests, the form needs to be “subverted or reinvented to accommodate contemporary experience of being a person — a zone”; so Hejinian infuses the form that most foregrounds a desire for resolution with happenstance, accident, and freak incidental leaps in order to avoid the sonnet’s most essential compulsion. And rather than resolve, her sonnets spring open: “It did it did it did it / Turning everywhere in unkempt directions we must make now a new beginning” (22). Still, we feel the tension, the weight of the entire sonnet tradition pushing back against the writing, waiting for our minds to step into the form’s trap and make the poems slam shut again.
What is unprecedented in The Unfollowing is also something very familiar to the sonnet: these poems are attempts to cheat death and to cheat it by demonstrably living. Living is not logical; to avoid logic is to resist the thing that makes it so. These poems counter death’s alienating conclusiveness with a continuous absorption in surprise. The poems are not set against the form or the tradition of which they are apart, but they are an undoing, an unfollowing in the sense that they cut the thread that leads back out of the sonnet’s formal labyrinth, choosing instead to forge headlong into the maze. Because to do otherwise, to turn back and to follow the thread of tradition toward a logical exit, does not finally address “the illogical status of death in the context of life” (9). Using the sonnet to arrive at a logical resolution simply repeats death’s logical fallacy. Death, therefore, is not illogical because it doesn’t make sense but rather because death is the only logical outcome of life. As Hejinian writes in The Language of Inquiry, “the postmodern critique of binarism suggests that there may be no opposites, that Being (or the actual being of each and any entity) exists not because it is the opposite of non-Being but because it is ‘true of its own accord’” (249–50). That is to say, Hejinian’s intention to be illogical aligns not with the fatal logicality of death but with the irrational context of living.
Levin sums up her extensive introduction to the sonnet tradition in English by concluding that the sonnet “thrives because it offers a haven for complex emotions and memories, an innate holding pattern and stopping point, a guarantee that however dangerous or overwhelming the subject, the duration of the encounter will be brief” (lxxiv). But what if the whole point is to defy these very contingencies, to protract and delay, to refuse to accept the stopping point? To keep going, to extend the encounter because it is the brevity of it all that is what ultimately breaks our hearts, the closure that makes death unacceptable? There is an element of risk in navigating with the non sequitur to avoid the tangled logics that inhere to the sonnet form. It requires the author to improvise. As Hejinian puts it in a 2001 Jacket essay: “Improvisation has to do with being in time. And it has to do with taking one’s chances.” Sonnets made of non sequiturs avoid the sense of inevitability built into the form and even perhaps into language itself — the controlling calcifications of grammar and syntax that can strangely limit our means of communicating and thereby our connectivity. Instead, Hejinian’s poems insist on contingency, continuance, and openendedness by entertaining a series of imaginative alternatives that no one, not even its author, saw coming.
Part 2: “And if logic can’t prevail, perhaps hilarity can …”
… one inevitably discovers that language in a poem does not lay down paths that are always simple to follow. — Lyn Hejinian, “The Quest for Knowledge in the Western Poem”
We had been discussing plumbing, so her remark about astrology was a real non- sequitur. It is said that Petrarch reinvented the sonnet in response to Laura, an already inaccessible lover, whose untimely death at thirty-eight transformed his longing into despair. The Greek poet Theognis of Megara (sixth century BCE) wrote more than half of the extant elegiac poetry of Greece before the Alexandrian period, including the following: “Best of all for mortal beings is never to have been born at all / Nor ever to have set eyes on the bright light of the sun / But, since he is born, a man should make utmost haste through the gates of Death / And then repose, the earth piled into a mound round himself.” The poems in this book are attempts at keeping time, since “Time has no respect for things done without it” (28). Created c. 1493 by the medieval artist Bernt Notke, the Lübecker Totentanzwas destroyed in a bombing raid in 1942. Willie Nelson is the only honky-tonk musician to amplify a classical guitar more suited to playing Vivaldi than honky-tonk. The point of living is to point and keep pointing and yet again (Stein 9, 11): “The fog has rolled in, visibility is null, I wouldn’t know if someone were following me” (13). Avoid chronology at all costs — do not read by turning consecutive pages, as there are other ways around and through the text, even though all approaches, no matter how discursive, seem to arrive at the same place. The questions are implied and there are definitely no periods. The prison house of language burns as we fiddle, wonder, and dine. Delight hath a joy in it, either permanent or present. Laughter hath only a scornful tickling (Sidney 78). Hope opens pens, snaps naps, opines an opinion. Pray, let us live without being drawn by dogs, Esquimaux-fashion, tearing over hill and dale, and biting each other’s ears.
If only palindrome was actually a palindrome, it might be different, but, as it is, for things to happen, they must occur once and for all. This simile’s vehicle stops at both crossroads and railroad crossings. What sense is there in an ending when life continues without much continuity: “A landscape has endless false endings” (29). “The artifice of eternity” is a striking periphrasis for “form,” for the shapes which console the dying generations (Kermode 3). We cannot reach the intercessors of Silicon Valley at this time but we can name them: Agathius, Barbara, Blaise, Catherine of Alexandria, Christopher, Cyriacus, Denis, Erasmus, Eustace, George, Giles, Margaret of Antioch, Pantaleon, Vitus. Rats laugh when they are tickled: “A missionary pointed to the rat and one cannot say a terrible thing in a better way than that” (34). We want to go on together even when that is not possible: “She lowers owlets into your arms as if they weren’t complete without them” (26). Just in case you didn’t know, a “quirt” is a riding whip consisting of a short, stout stock and a lash of braided leather (19). How can we repeat something over and over without losing the sense of it and then getting nostalgic about it afterward: “The dog’s name is Reprisal, the cat is called Ball” (26). These poems are short — each one is eight lines long with an additional six lines — and the other formal requirements seem pretty straightforward: no rhyme scheme but rhymes throughout; the first line is repeated in the fourth and seventh lines; the second line is repeated in the final line; and only the first two end-words are used to complete a tight rhyme scheme which doesn’t exist, meaning that the poet writes only five original lines, where capital letters indicate repeated lines, thereby making the initial and final couplets identical as well, all while including tiles, snowballs, camels, and California (21, 33). When he first saw the prison that secured his defeat, Napoleon apparently said, “Able was I ere I saw Elba,” although it is unlikely he said this, since, when he was not speaking Corsican, he generally spoke in French (17). But language does not simply write and think for me, it also increasingly dictates my feelings and governs my entire spiritual being the more unquestioningly and unconsciously I abandon myself to it (Klemperer 15). One might feel the same lamentation by watching heliophiles file into their seats under the fluorescent lights for a lecture on poetry: “Some — the sung — the sun” (88–89). What a poem can achieve beyond its direct, active response to loss is hard to say, so instead we say, “bam bam … dam dam … ram ram” or “dap dat-a-dong, dat-a-dang, dap-a-dong”(15, 26).
Part 3: Is that all there is, Peggy Lee?
Behind Me — dips Eternity —
Before Me — Immortality —
Myself — the Term between —
Death but the Drift of Eastern Gray,
Dissolving into Dawn away,
Before the West begin —
— Emily Dickinson, “721”
So the sun itself goes west, but never to restore a lost relationship. — Lyn Hejinian, “The Quest for Knowledge in the Western Poem”
We might call the term between the metaphysical and the historical “the imagination,” when we are not calling it by other names like rose or Eros or sore loser. The imagination does not confine itself to content and its discontents. Insofar as poetry is “a dynamic process through which poetics, itself a dynamic process, is carried out,” as Hejinian writes in The Language of Inquiry (1), the text gives an inalienable context for our roving reconnaissance. But if “the act of writing is a process of improvisation within a framework (form) of intention” (3), then the non sequitur can serve as a mode of extreme self-improvisation while the sonnet may remain the “framework of intention,” even if what is intended is the formal undoing of the framework by the improvisational process, a process that seeks to free itself from the contingencies of form. Even so, “Form is not a fixture but an activity” (47). The form, too, is a dynamic process, so the form, too, is in flux. For example, if you listen to Guy Clark’s Desperado Waiting for a Train, followed by Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, and then by John Coltrane’s Ascension, all while reading The Unfollowing, the conceptual, the allusive, and the improvisational play off one another and raise questions of aesthetic value.
Such value is not based so much on what any poem “achieves” — a verb suspiciously full of evaluative expectation — but how a poem exists in historical and literary contexts that are ever changing. Levin writes that the sonnet lives a “double life” as “private confession and public memorial” (xxxix). And as Hejinian applies it: “The initial occasion for mourning was a personal one. … But in the time since … there has been much to mourn in the public sphere, too” (9). The fact that “there is ample cause in the world for real political anguish and justifiable cosmic despair” (9) makes the questions of aesthetic value not only personal — ways of being in the world — but also political — ways of being in the world with others.
The sonnet tradition in English has always been tied to forms of transnational capitalism: Levin reminds us that “Petrarch was the most eminent intellectual in Europe by the time Geoffrey Chaucer [who imported the sonnet to England] made his first journey to Italy … to begin negotiations with the Genoese concerning an English port for their commerce and with the Florentines concerning loans for King Edward III” (lii). The English sonnet then flourished at the height of European colonialism. Its conventional collocations of observation and rationalization neatly reflected Enlightenment ideals that resulted from an imperialist system of determining and exchanging value, or what Hejinian identifies as the Enlightenment’s “fundamental redefinition and reevaluation of the rules of knowing.” In its logical structure, the sonnet represents an exquisite encapsulation of “this scientific model for the acquisition of knowledge that produced something of what now seems definitively Western in our culture” (214).
Although leavened with improvisational play, enthusiastic leaps, and indeed, a vivacious hilarity, the poems in The Unfollowing nevertheless rage and indict and grieve by unsettling the staid properties of a form that has long instantiated “a scientific model for the acquisition of knowledge (along with the very idea of acquisition in relation to knowing and its value) … one that ever since has seemed nearly irrevocable” (214). By vandalizing the walls of its rooms, jamming what Levin calls its “basic structural possibilities” (lxxi), and denying it the power of its logic, Hejinian wrecks the sonnet in order to revoke Western culture’s “nearly irrevocable” structure of thinking and knowing. Historically and aesthetically, the sonnet is the right place for a poet to take such a stand: Hejinian holds that the sonnet replicates in miniature the way “Western knowledge itself has been a set of inventions, framed by perception but linked to anticipation” (212). Hejinian’s alchemy of the sonnet is an attempt to separate it from “capitalism’s rapacity” (9) and distill its elixir — love, a rarefaction within the tradition’s base metal that continues to be the sonnet’s essence — as a means of “dismantling control and reforming connectivity” (10).
To thwart the sense of closure in the sonnet, then, is to challenge the ethical underpinnings of Western thought. In the same year that Levin’s anthology of the sonnet came out, Hejinian had occasion to write this (in “Continuing Against Closure”):
And, though there is little evidence of completion and closure to be found in the actual state of things, and though the notion may seem a fiction to an empiricist, still, these fictions can exert cosmic fascination; as theology, even as ideology, they can be compelling. And, though I have termed closure a fiction, the desire for closure can exert real (though in my opinion often disastrous) influence.
The effort and impulse to write sonnets that are discursive rather than encyclopedic, sporadic rather than categorical, is finally to make us conscious of the way the sonnet form seduces us. Hejinian’s sonnets may even get us to reflect on the consequences of our urge to be seduced by the form’s epiphanic resolutions. Not only are we trained to expect an irreversible turn, but we might also be addicted to the sense of closure the sonnet promises. As Hejinian adds, “If closure is problematic ethically it is untenable semantically, since nothing can restrain meaning, nothing can contain all the implications, ramifications, nuances, and connotations that cascade and proliferate from any and every point in any and every instance of what is or is thought to be. And nothing can arrest the ever-changing terrain of ubiquitous contexts perpetually affecting these.” The reward for accepting the sonnet’s irreversible turn is that we can dismiss the ironies, contradictions, and paradoxes as an inexorable resolution “by definition, establishes the condition of ‘no consequence.’” And so we abdicate responsibility to the sense of inevitability reaffirmed by the form.
Of course, I am talking here about the sonnet in the abstract. Many particular sonnets ironize the form’s sense of closure and oblige us to keep reading for new “implications, ramifications, nuances, and connotations.” As Levin reminds us, the sonnet’s sense of resolution has always been an illusion. The very reason for the sonnet’s apparent reasonableness is that it grapples with the incommensurable and attempts to use its metrical and musical logic to tolerate the intolerable. A basic existential paradox of life always undergirds the exigent contradiction of the form: that is, if living could explain death, it would cease being living, and if the sonnet could compensate for loss, the poem would make itself obsolete. Morrison rightly says, “there is no simple logic to life in its aftermath.” Aftermath is the right word: its first meaning is what occurs after a catastrophe or disaster, but its archaic, original meaning was a second mowing, the crop yielded from the grass that has already yielded a crop. The sonnets in The Unfollowing are that second crop, yielding from a form that has already yielded a fundamental mode of poetic thought yet another way of lyric imagining.
What this means, though, is that while many sonnets expose the ironies and contradictions inherent in the form, few if any sonnets have evoked “the ever-changing terrain of ubiquitous contexts” as Hejinian has in The Unfollowing. These poems not only put the sonnet to other tasks but also ask us to read sonnets as a form, even the “traditional” ones, in new ways. We need not follow the logic of the sonnet to discover its meaning. Nor must we anatomize it into its constituent parts to realize its structure. And if we do, we must now reckon with the consequences of those structures of thought. As Hejinian writes, “We witness sequiturs without transition and non sequiturs with them. Logic inserts itself everywhere and narrative follows as fast as it can though often it can’t keep up with events since they advance in leaps that leave logicians behind.” So it is. We must give up the aspiration to conclude.
Hejinian, Lyn. The Language of Inquiry. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction. London: Oxford University Press, 1966.
Klemperer, Victor. The Language of the Third Reich. Translated by Martin Brady. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.
Levin, Phillis, ed. The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English. New York: Penguin, 2001.
Sidney, Sir Philip. An Apology for Poetry. Edited by Forrest G. Robinson. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1970.
Stein, Gertrude. Tender Buttons. Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 1991.
Possibility is neither forever nor instant.
It is not easy to sustain belief in its efficacy. — Audre Lorde
What is the relationship between serial and elegy? What poetic form might accommodate the dailiness of grief without erasing or domesticating what has been lost? How might a poem lament the dead and honor the differences made by loss without foreclosing the possibilities that loss has made available? What potential does loss hold? Might poetry hold space for such potential? In
P R A C T I C E, Laynie Browne documents, enacts, repeats, and embodies these questions in a series of sixty-six short, often prosy poems. The book is an intimate account of the daily and each poem is rigorously ephemeral — studies of affective, cognitive, and physical situations that never quite qualify as event or as meaningful activity. The meaning one might hope to glean from these minutiae seems almost withheld; their shared inconsequence is striking. And because the book attends so closely to the quotidian, it’s difficult to know what to do with the grief that frequently surfaces to arrest these poems’ barely perceptible movements. Loss threads through and holds the whole together, but the obstinately ordinary seems to absorb the full affective force of that grief.
Of course, such attention to the everyday is a hallmark of the poetic series. In the tradition that follows Oppen’s Discrete Series, the form is a collection of poems that center the minute and the minor, which themselves become meaningful as such in the poet’s hands. Its numeric order also allows the serial to elide sequential modes that have been burdened by teleological ideas like narrative, progress, or causality. In contrast to the givenness or inevitability that such concepts often advance, numeric order seems to make room for different modes of connection and disjunction among poems and their contents. The series is thus a form with a special investment in the ordinary and, by extension, the distinctions we make between the ordinary and everything else. But
P R A C T I C E does not set out to redeem a sphere of the ordinary by including it into preexisting schemas of value — schemas that dismiss the ordinary as lacking in complexity, surprise, or meaning. Instead, Browne is interested in how loss actually informs such schemas, especially the evaluation of the consequential and the inconsequential. Rather than thinking about loss as the end of what has been lost, and the end of measurable consequence attributable to what has been lost, Browne finds in loss itself a well of immeasurable inconsequence; and in loss’s persistence, the potential of inconsequence.
One of the lesser-cited theses from Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” envisions “[a] chronicler who recites events without distinguishing between major and minor acts in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history.” Browne is a version of Benjamin’s chronicler — the difference being that she recites nonevents rather than events. In doing so, she acts in accordance with a truth that corresponds to Benjamin’s: if no event should be regarded as lost for history, nor should any loss be regarded as past. Judith Butler argues that Benjamin’s account of history accommodates a particular form of thought: the thought that may “emerge from the ruins, as the ruins” of loss. While the ruins of history give Benjamin’s angel a vantage from which to observe the logic of progress, in
P R A C T I C E the ruins of loss give Browne a vantage from which to observe the logic of consequence. From this perspective, loss persists physically, as absence; cognitively, as thought; affectively, as grief. Browne’s contemplative lyric is a document of this persistence and its inconsequence.
Thought emerges as staring, as noticing; as nonproductive contemplation. It is a nonevent: “Practice replacing one thought with another.” Ruin-born, loss-generated thought works with, rather than against, its own ephemerality — its contingency — and it has an equalizing or flattening effect:
1. […] Rough heel replaces soft consciousness. 10:35 am replaces 9:35 am. Where our bodies reside in space is not probable. Replace this emptiness with a quotation: “Temptations thronging through my hours are strong.” Replace sugar with sweetness. I said, I don’t know how to be helpful to you now, and he said, replace bitterness with turnstiles, complacency with walking.
What exactly is happening here, in the poem that opens the series? I don’t think we can say exactly — and I think that’s Browne’s point. Whether we read “replace” as an imperative or as a descriptor, the lack of subordination between objects and between clauses depicts a change in circumstance but specifically not a change in value (sweetness might take sugar’s place, but their relation is horizontal, not hierarchical). Time moves, things trade places and are replaced — but nothing progresses. Further, the poem lacks an agent doing the replacing. Without any markers of value, time’s passage does not amount to progress, and the agency behind near-stasis is not only unclear — it actually recedes. In other words, even as something seems to happen, we are unsure whether it even qualifies as “happening,” or who it might be happening for or to. In such uneventful chaos, nonlinear connections arise among the ordinary. In a nonprogressive, nonteleological temporality, an agency that makes nothing happen appears and dissipates and allows other forms of movement to come into view.
The sense of suspension we get from this poem extends throughout the series. Progressive time is perhaps our most ready-to-hand measure of loss — we know what is by its difference from what was. Suspending that temporality allows us to think, observe, and embody other forms of difference and more intimate modes of knowing loss:
29. Courting an absence — to what end I cannot say
Liminal space is soon to be replaced
Do not forget oblivion
The lost apparatus, holding nothing in one’s hands
As the serial form avoids subordination among poems, Browne avoids subordination within them. With such bare clauses, everything seems to take place at the same time. Browne disarticulates loss, the difference between is and was, from conceptual containers like the past: it remains as the “nothing” one yet holds in their hands.
As we have seen, loss as a mark of difference — a persistent redefinition of what was and what is — has a strangely equalizing effect on the circumstances in which it appears. Browne creates a temporality in which different things occupy similar positions at different moments; the agency or volition behind movement seems to evaporate, itself replaced by the type of thought and movement that emerges from loss. Judith Butler calls this “melancholic agency,” insofar as this form of agency “cannot know its history as the past, cannot capture its history through chronology.” Browne here renders melancholic agency as recessive in its rejection of certain ideological distinctions and its correspondent refusal to offer something else in their stead. It refuses “the past” as inertial, loss as an end. It also refuses to make anything happen:
1. […] When that voice appears that claims we must all be dead, replace non-wakeful living with the milk of a dark blue star you keep with the pudding string. Do not replace childhood, but when it replaces itself in your children practice going to the well. If you lay down on the ground, rise up again.
Here the poem eludes progress by virtue of repetition and replacement in much the same way that the book moves as a whole: barely. One page replaces another, different numbers in the series trade places and occupy each other’s previous positions. What remains of and after loss gives rise to a form of agency that does not accord with agency’s typical frames of reference. Rather than asserting itself in action, it is felt through contemplation, engaged with attention. This attention is something like Audre Lorde’s erotic, “that power which rises from our deepest and nonrational knowledge.”
P R A C T I C E’s persistent recognition of loss, refusal of progressive time, and repetitive approach to the past as potential all might seem like nothing so much as deeply rooted irrational behavior. But from this attention emerges a different sense of selfhood; or better, a different sense of selves. If the erotic is “a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings,” focusing it through irrational grief (the chaos of melancholia) gives rise to a self that is more of a node among others and not a single, static individual. In P R A C T I C E, selves proliferate as connections and disjunctions. Browne’s melancholic erotic attends to sensation in a way that blurs boundaries between self and other and between present and past: “Hold out your arms to practice sight beyond skin.” Absence remains present in tactile, sensory, and imaginative terms, while her senses of self are continually disorienting:
33. […] Who you were once in a photograph cannot be relied upon.
39. Practice the version of yourself you must pardon, the one with fragile lips, drifting into late. Where loneliness is as vast as unbecoming I could not find the balm. I went out in several frocks, coats, and dresses only to realize that I had left my fingers at home. And all of my necessary sources of red.
49. This is the mind seeing for the first time that you do not resemble your portrait […]
54. […] When thoughts tire of pleading they will walk urgently in a direction away from your body […] When you arrive inside your inhabited self your movements are more intricate and thus invisible to petitioners.
55. […] If you are unable to represent yourself even in imaginary terms, you may watch a palette of sylvan days removed from your body […]
In refusing to take self for granted, Browne approaches her own body as uncertainty, a fragile point of departure: “9. Practice noting yourself within a body, a location as real or unreal as violin cliffs, stark overhangings of doubt, the barren cavity of a hunting animal.” Her nonself-identity makes self-knowledge provisional, a matter of circumstance rather than a narrative of progress. Further, this situated selfhood foregrounds one’s obligation to others, and the different sorts of potential enmeshed in that obligation; in Browne’s words: “I practiced this sentence repeatedly after her passing: Why am I still in a body?”
In this way, P R A C T I C E treats loss as absence, a form of presence:
29. Courting an absence — to what end I cannot say
32. Don’t practice loss, though when it arises chant through the sauntering chasms […] And how did I make it past the first year of absence?
41. […] Practice not standing in your own presence.
Serial as practice, practice as elegy, then — elegy as the attention emerging from melancholy, and alternative to domesticating vision; a practice of boundless dis- and reorientation. Browne’s documented practice embodies loss, allows us to follow her as she traces her new contours. Of mourning, Judith Butler says,
What grief displays […] is the thrall in which our relations with others hold us, in ways that we cannot always recount or explain, in ways that often interrupt the self-conscious account of ourselves we might try to provide, in ways that challenge the very notion of ourselves as autonomous and in control.
Butler here is underscoring the question of a grievable life — or, how do we live with others in ways that affirm mutual humanity and, in so doing, enable forms of grief that affirm both mutuality and differently distributed precarity? I think Browne’s questions follow from Butler’s — it is the question of how language might be disarticulated from the frames of reference that demand that we let go of loss, of what is and may be lost. Laynie Browne’s P R A C T I C E moves into the interruption made by loss, relinquishing a self-conscious account of herself by accommodating loss as persistence, as presence. In P R A C T I C E, we can understand relation as contingency and loss as a force with the potential to reorganize our existence, if only we attend to it.
On Susan Landers's 'Franklinstein'
Franklinstein began as a mash-up of two classic US texts: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans. It was an inspired move, to juxtapose the plainspoken, aphoristic words of a founding father with the modernist novel written by a Jewish, lesbian expat who sought to dismantle and redefine concepts of “the new world” and literature itself.
But as Landers herself writes, Franklinstein was a project that lacked life — until she breathed her own into it. In 2012, Landers’s childhood church closed, and she went back to her old neighborhood to see it. “I thought: if I could write the story of this place and its beginnings, this writing would be the right thing, a kind of living.”
Thus Franklinstein came to life, a multigenre documentary work that both explores and deepens the connective tissue between Landers and this community, a neighborhood of Philadelphia called Germantown. I read this book in its various iterations as it developed and witnessed Landers live the writing — pour her soul into it — for four years. She embarked on an extensive research and documentary project that involved dozens of visits to Germantown to engage with people, conduct interviews, visit historic sites, and create the photographs that appear in the book. The acknowledgements page thanks some seventy people who shared insights with Landers about Germantown. She also did extensive research outside of Germantown, visiting the National Park Service, the Pennsylvania Historic Society, and the Temple Urban Archives, to name a few.
Landers also was deliberate about sharing the process of writing the book, both on Tumblr and by doing readings from the work in progress, to test the work, learn from people’s responses, and make new connections. Landers told me, “There wasn’t a single reading I did anywhere, including outside of Philadelphia, where someone wouldn’t come up to me afterwards either to tell me about their personal connection to Germantown, or to a community like it. So, talking about the work and performing it enabled the work to get bigger, and go deeper.”
The result is a beautifully layered book, steeped in complexity, relationship, and connection. The cover image is a collage of the house where Landers grew up, made by one of Landers’s seven older siblings, Ann Beatus, an artist. The book itself operates as a sort of assemblage, bringing personal and family history together with colonial and US history. Landers layers in photographs and archival documents, and employs a range of formal strategies, including dialogue, essay, lyric poetry, interview, appropriated language, and lists. She documents her process of composition as it evolves. The result is a work that feels alive, that resists static or pat conclusions, and instead presents a record of one individual’s struggle to grasp both the intimate and the vast historical forces that shape a life.
The challenge of this book for Landers was writing about a neighborhood that both belonged to her and didn’t. She was born and raised in Germantown, but she hasn’t lived there in decades — the neighborhood has changed, and so has she. And even as Germantown shaped Landers, it was in turn shaped over centuries by colonialism, racism, and capitalism. In the years before and during Landers’s childhood, Germantown experienced white flight — white people left the increasingly diverse urban neighborhood for more homogenous suburbs. Landers’s family stayed, so her experience growing up was as a white person inside a predominantly black neighborhood. Her experience as an adult is that few people who know Philadelphia seem able, or willing, to believe she comes from Germantown. As Landers puts it, “my impossible origins” (131).
In an essay in the Chicago Review called “Poetry in light of documentary,” the poet and critic Jill Magi writes of the difficulties inherent in this kind of documentary writing: “how ethically fraught it is to represent the realities of others and to engage in content that points to the world outside an individual poet’s life.” Landers confronts these challenges head on. The opening essay includes a warning, delivered by a historian, about the dangers of idealizing a past that never actually existed. Landers quickly turns that accusation on herself: “At the beginning of this writing, I was participating in behavior long practiced in Germantown — that of white people mourning what was” (18). She notes that her connection to the place had been patronizing, and her method had been to explore it from afar, through the Internet. She realizes she needs to come closer, to make contact with the actual place of her birth and upbringing. She has to be open to the place in all its complexities and let it penetrate and change her; she has to “meander” (25).
Meandering as a poetics is what makes this book so profound. It enables Landers to range widely, from the great road made by the Lenni-Lenape that became Germantown Avenue, to the fog of the Revolutionary War, to a cross burning on a lawn two hundred years later. It allows her to combine scholarly research with personal history and records of casual conversations. It creates space for the multiplicity of forms Landers employs, and also opens the book to surprises, to the spontaneous life of the place. The project is not to preserve a static history or memory, but to pay tribute to the life of a neighborhood, both past and present:
What to guard against: the rendering of artifacts apart from the living, the living who give a site meaning. Meaning the skin that holds us together. Making a place for us together as living. (50)
In the Chicago Review, Magi writes that the documentary mode requires “attention to representation as a nonneutral practice … [asking] ‘what kind’ of reality, and whose reality, is being represented” (248). She suggests that documentary poetry may be particularly well suited to these questions:
At its base, poetry enacts the beautiful resistances generated by language and foregrounds interpretation; it pivots on the desire to know as well as the methodological intricacies, challenges of knowing. (275)
In Franklinstein,Landers emphasizes the subjective practice of representation in part through the wide variety of formal strategies she employs — she approaches the same subject matter using different lenses. She also taps an impressive range of intellectual disciplines: the extensive bibliography at the end encompasses history, sociology, urban studies, diverse poetries, drama, and memoir. In other words, Landers did her homework. But the work itself always points back to the gaps, the difficulties — in some cases the ultimate impossibility — of knowing.
Benjamin Franklin’s “ghost house” becomes an emblem for these gaps. Few records exist documenting what Franklin’s house in Philadelphia actually looked like, so when people wanted to memorialize the site, they built instead just the outline of a house, a skeleton “intended to remind visitors / of the limits of historical knowledge” (40). These facts are explained in a lyric poem that uses line breaks and white space to physically enact the gaps, and it evokes an inaccurate memory of the museum there as a “first” memory, even though it likely wasn’t: “Let’s call this my earliest memory” (40).
In an earlier prose poem, “Moving through a country is never done quickly” (36), the gaps in knowledge are deeply personal. Landers describes her longing to know about her own past and her family, and the impossibility of ever understanding what was “not discussed or explained.” In part, this gap comes from the fact that her parents and many people involved in that history have died. In part it is because, even when they were alive, Landers’s family remained silent about issues of race and their own poverty. Grief over that silence, that irrecoverable loss, becomes a part of the work itself — profound in its humility, in its acceptance and admission of limits and inadequacy, its gentleness with people and with knowledge — a beautifully human book.
Landers’s work has always had a sonic lusciousness, and here it is the songlike quality that helps to bring the work alive with emotion — at times a song of mourning and trauma, at times a kind of love song for the past of her family and for the neighborhood today.
So many stories I have come to be hearing. About this place where I lived so much of my living. A kind of living unlike many others. Like Nzadi’s father who set pins in the bowling alley. A job my uncle had once, too. The bowling alley next to the dining hall where Nzadi’s father wasn’t allowed to sit down. Or the department store where her mother bought shoes. The store where my father bought me the mauve dress I’d wear to his funeral. How the clerk made Nzadi’s mother put a piece of paper inside the shoes she wanted to try on.
How I came to see
how much more I needed to always be listening
to you, the place of this writing,
and you, the people of this place
and all the history
we are a part of that is a part of us (133–34)
But the beauty of this book is not only inside it: there is beauty in what has happened and is happening around it. The writing of Franklinstein reconnected Landers to the community of her birth. She navigated both her own nostalgia and her own trauma to arrive face to face, to embrace, the Germantown of the present in all its irreducible human complexity. Landers formed friendships with people in the community; she collaborated with the Germantown photographer Tieshka Smith, whose photos appear in the book; she launched the book with a celebration in Germantown and appeared on the community’s G-Town Radio. As Landers explained to me: “It’s just that these connections go beyond research. People are connected through generosity and curiosity and art.”
The socially engaged mode that Landers pursues here offers a model for documentary poetry, one that seeks not only to record the world, but to work toward change, and healing.
The ordering myth of Sophie Cabot Black’s The Exchange is that of Abraham and Isaac, from Genesis 22. The Lord asks of Abraham a sacrifice, in return for the promise of chosenness, a future. God demands Abraham kill his son Isaac as an offering to be burnt; Abraham is prepared to obey. At the last moment, an angel stays Abraham’s hand. Having passed the Lord’s test, Abraham is permitted to offer a lamb, instead of Isaac, as blood sacrifice. The story is traditionally read as a model of righteous submission through substitution: exchanging the animal for the child, one body for another body, a richer abstract future for a painful particular sacrifice, the symbol for the instantiation, the word for the deed. An honorable stock of exchanges; and yet each substitution exacts its cost. The damage has been done by the time the father and son have climbed up the mountain: the father has chosen the sacrifice. One wonders what the unbound Isaac felt, as the two returned down the hill, knowing that his father had meant to offer him to the invisible, unnamable Lord.
It’s the human element, the Isaac element, which endures the grief of annihilation, in the knowledge that grace is accessible by means of an inscrutable justice of exchange, through suffering that is comprehensible only from a perspective beyond ours. That is the promise, the symbolic exchange, by which the human particular is offered to time, to the absolute, in return for a compensatory future — and for words, for the Word, to explain loss. Separation-and-substitution is the nature of the symbolic and therefore of poetry, the art of metaphorical transport, as words replace persons and things. The cost of love is also the reward of love, in time. Abraham’s story is one of promise, of (willed) sacrifice rewarded; Isaac’s is a story of harsh continuity, of betrayal and emptiness and promised words as the necessary condition of survival.
At issue in Sophie Cabot Black’s new poems is the nature of such substitutions, in mourning and in allegory. Loss, in Black’s poems, is the enabling condition of survival, just as the possibility of loss is always a premise of joy on earth. The Abraham-Isaac myth is a complex paradigm, which Black holds up to the light of associative consciousness and turns in her attention like a jewel or a manifold grief. Black’s poems are structured around these difficult narrative truths, meditating on the nature of displacement and — finally — on a searing, wounded joy, through survival and endurance and memory and verbalization. Through Black’s poems, the myth functions as the vehicle of an extended metaphor — as, for instance, the drama of the Garden of Eden informs Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris, or the story of Helen of Troy informs several of HD’s long poems, or the fable of a shining city informs Ezra Pound’s early Cantos (“To build the city of Dioce whose terraces are the color of stars”). That is, the poetic myth is a story that recurs and ramifies — not so much a point of departure as a field of potential. The narrative of persons in essentialized actions turns an experience into an embodied abstraction. So, by the dynamic of the dramatization, the myth opens the possibility of meditation enacted from several perspectives. In The Exchange, as in the Genesis story, God is silent, except as a promise; humans think and speak, and thinking-speech is the vehicle of the transformation.
By emphasizing the element of myth I don’t mean that the paradigm precedes its occasion in these poems, but rather that Black submerges the sequence of perceptions in the poem until she finds the experiential, primal truth of the story, without compromising the occasion or the truth of the particular. In this book, as in her eloquent long poem “The Arguments” from her 1994 collection The Misunderstanding of Nature (grounded in the story of the landing of the Mayflower, told from the perspective of Dorothy Bradford), Black explores the structural myth by discovering it as it is experienced — in the associative, mediating consciousness of its human agents. She is, it seems to me, the great contemporary poet of the psychology of myth.
The Exchange divides into two sections — call them “up the mountain” and “back down” (though climbing up toward the sacrifice also has a psychologically downward motion of dread — anticipating grief is also a form of grief): or call them “before” a great loss (there is an implied narrative of the illness and death of a loved one) and “after” (in the stunned experience of consequence). With elegant symmetry, the sequence details first the foreknowledge or anticipation of sacrifice, then the recuperation (through the paralyzing stillness after the event). Section 1 moves through a series of poems that use economic metaphors. Poems like “Real Estate” and “Private Equity” and “To Market” consider the give-and-take of relationship: what is given to us in trust, what we must return or repay as part of the contract of affection, how much one can “take” as a measure of hope, or character, or endurance. What is the “price” one pays for unconditional affection? Those opening poems are balanced in Section 2 by poems like “Preservation of Capital” and “Statue of Victory Halfway Up the Stair,” which represent the speaker empty-handed, continuing to offer to give when the debt of affection falls due, accepting the fact of loss.
Statue of Victory Halfway Up the Stair
Whatever is missing draws us in. To move
Toward the absent with an idea
Of Otherwise: if only we had been there
Before all the damage. How we cannot
Help looking, an argument of too much
Beauty, imagining the hands; did it begin
In the face, the unknown head. And then the body
After, the breaking down. We walk around
In order to see what is no longer there
Prepared to answer anything
But instead the child who is with us believes
It was meant to end just so: without arm, foot or brow
And already wants to know where we go next.
Each particular as intended. What could have been?
Black is speaking back, here, to Rilke’s famous “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” but where the Rilke sonnet had honored the residual power of the artifact — the sense of presence and reciprocity despite the Greek statue’s incompletions — Black’s poem feels the absences as absences. Statues lose their heads and limbs, and human loss makes us incomplete, emptying the present except as wish or compulsion. Such emptiness is the point at which faith, or hope in the promise of compensation, may fill the void. Without faith, there is no hope — but also, without emptiness there is no compensatory filling. Rilke knew this truth, too. In the famous last half-line of his sonnet, “Du mußt dein Leben ändern”/“You must change your life,” he puns on the German idiom to kill oneself, “dein Leben enden”/to “end your life.” The act of spiritual kenosis, of emptying-out, is the prerequisite for compensatory completion: the promise, the future-oriented childish word, the difficult “exchange.” If the Rilke poem had sensed a reciprocal power coming through the incomplete statue despite its missing parts, Black’s speaker problematizes that acceptance of loss, accepting that the power here derives not from the glowing residual power of the fragment, but exactly from the diminishments the statue endures and embodies. The question recurs often though the final sequence of The Exchange, concluding in the poem “Pay Attention,” in which — in these final lines — grief is the price of dailiness, of attentive consciousness:
I took care
Of myself, thinking much too often
I took care of someone else.
Everything feels like pavement. In fact
We come into this paying. And you who are
Nowhere to be found, who make
No noise, who cannot be smelled or tasted,
Wander through with all of us wanting you
At the same time. Oh to be wanted
Like that, for you to pull up a chair
And let your knees touch mine.
For one moment not to answer
The other call, not to look
Past my shoulder when something else moves.
A wiry syntax binds together these lines, justifying their leaps and twists of insight through an urgent vertical rhythm. The poems of The Exchange behave like sonnets (they’re often fourteen lines long), but they “turn” between clauses in a continuous, self-conscious way — not, that is, as a traditional sonnet “turns” at the end of the octet, but as a mode of revelation, as the speaking mind thinks through its problems in reversals, surprises, unexpected continuations. Sometimes the surprise is the way that the new sonnet resists its turn, as the speaker refuses to seek or to cultivate consolation — and yet encounters it all the same. Black uses these sonnet-like forms brilliantly, in-formatively. She knows that grief twists syntax (few poets these days use line-breaks better than Black does): the unexpected spiritual modulations of mourning and of healing generate the emergent form as they occur to the meditating mind. These quasisonnets are a contemporary mode of association, but they do not feel willed or clever. Black makes that contemporary “ladder-of-surprises” effect serve a cunning, wise purpose. The poems work like the sections of Tennyson’s In Memoriam: grief evolves, changing also the survivor. Black’s speaker seems, herself, surprised by the emergent truth — including the truth of her own emptiness after the loss, then her own healing. These are essential poems, and essentially wise as they enact their meditative discoveries.
This being beyond the expected, this
Still here. First the almost, then the animal
Which was to save or at least provide
Another chance, but now will not allow
Any near, even an unfettered. My father, finished
With sacrifice, left. Many have come to this field
To wait. The more they wait the more
They also leave, only to return again with others
Until the field is filled with waiting. And here I am
Who withheld nothing. And there the white
Always in the tree. You go
Where you need to go until it does not
Matter. You do not matter. There is
The window. Open. Now go through.
The “you” here is the loved one, leaving, about to go through; it is also the speaker. The window is “open”; so is the speaker, going through. “Open” is an adjective, a quality of emptiness describing the window; it is also a command directed to the speaker and by the speaker, both to the departing soul and to herself. “Open. Now go through”: the last half-line is a request; a release; an order; a new law; an emergent mode of exchange; a form of promise.
'Meaning to Go to the Origin in Some Way' and 'Participant'
Think in stitches. Think in settlements. Think in willows. — Gertrude Stein
How do poets make sense of landscape? Sense as in meaning, but also as in sensation, the lived experience of engaging with a particular tract of land at a particular time (day, season/weather, human dateline)? The two books here, based on living around and walking through 46.7325ºN, 117.1717º: The Confluence, South Fork Palouse River and Paradise Creek, Pullman, WA, USA, are exemplary, in freshness, thoughtfulness, and depth of engagement.
Russo’s method, partly a recuperation of “the local,” is to foreground place, combined with a hyperawareness of the many ways in which spatiality is constructed. Familiar debates about all-too-familiar binaries — words versus things, humans versus nonhuman beings, Euclidean zoning (favoring car-users over pedestrians) versus high-density inhabitation, abstracted mapping versus perceptual space — are here rehearsed within a specific landscape, part of its complex dynamics, neither dominating it nor dictating terms. The preposition is significant here, included in the title of a key essay by Russo on ecopoetics, proposing that:
An ecopoetical writing within … by grappling with material and linguistic conditions, creates cultures not only of the mind or heart, but of places; it strives to resituate possession, the “our,” within a matrix of human and nonhuman needs and lifeways. Nature can not have a voice in poems — but a poet can write environed, within, in a place of multiple listenings and differing inscriptions.
Such “environed” writing, stirred by breezes and seeded by birdsong, is a practice where, to quote Russo on Joanne Kyger in the same essay, “the poem is on-the-page and in-the-world at once through a comingling of experience, thought, perception, and fact.”
Whereas Participant (discussed below) is primarily a collage of “experience, thought, [and] perception,” Meaning to Go to the Origin in Some Way is also highly factual — is in part a work of documentary poetry. Sequences of poems are punctuated with maps and illustrations, with an email about weeding from the board of the community garden where Russo is “self-appointed poet-in-residence,” along with “silhouettes of typical vegetation” (29) and instructions for those wanting to attempt to replant native prairie.
Particularly powerful is the sequence, “Always Underfoot” (the phrase is taken from Mary Austin on the importance of regional environment in terms of daily lived experience), where various cartographic acts find themselves mapped onto each other. Here “feet … / write collaborative geographies” (52), are “set down in the ruminant patterns of cows” (62), while in “[s]ettlement we revise the already-being-written, a rolling hillside, a spot of prairie, a patch of woods” (53). “[A]lready-being-written” not only through inscriptive and reinscriptive processes by all kinds of beings, but because physical geography itself is dynamic:
We write ourselves in an imagined Euclidean blank, a stable canvas / until houses slide down hillsides, houses that always inch closer to some sea. Inland sinkholes open and swallow people, houses, cows. The little fictions geologic instability transects. (53)
Russo is good at showing how the “little fictions” engage both with the sensed landscape and with much larger-scale geographical imaginings. “Always Underfoot” — here as elsewhere the titling is partly ironic — includes a screenshot of a satellite photo-map (I’m resisting using the omnipresent brand name here) of 46.7325ºN, 117.1717º, followed by a numbered list of observations, keyed in with white numerals on the grey half-tone of the map. On-the-ground and just-above-the-ground (human and plant scale) talk back to the sky, making the satellite observations porous — to “unattributed informational (folk) signage,” as Russo describes it in an essay on the production of this piece — as well as to touch and sound, the experience of being in the landscape: birdsong, sun-glints, breezes, etc., all dispersed across the space defined by the map and providing alternative “experiential … ‘coordinates.’” Another way of describing this process might be “[w]alking the mapped omissions” (52), the first line of the first poem in this sequence. The river whose name doesn’t appear on the map, for instance, and how “someone puts out the plank footbridge removed / late fall (its omission from street maps marks it as natural)” are indicative of a “map dialectic of depicting / and effacing” (55).
A similar dialectic operates formally in this collection — put basically, of gathering as against scattering. Given Russo’s interest in field poetics (not to mention the subject matter!) the reader might expect Olsonian composition by field: words and phrases isolated across the page/the double-page spread, strategic use of white space. But scattering and gathering, omission and marking are thematic here rather than formal. Many of the poems are left-justified, and many are in couplets. “[T]he pattern is a kind of necessity,” Russo writes, “clustered instructions” (55). The mappings, lists, instructions, exhortations (the community gardens email, for example) are in clusters, yes, but they’re also held together by sequential devices. One such is seasonal (seasonally titled poems that provide markers for winter through autumn), others more unexpected. A set of poems scattered through the book, all opening with “she said” or “then she said,” alert the reader that this is a learned landscape, and that included in the writing here is a narrative of that learning. As in all good stories, there are helpers: the author’s mother (who is the “she” mentioned above) and — a more ambivalent figure, a focus for sorrow and anger — the Columbia River Basin pygmy rabbit, on the verge of extinction, and, significantly, saved through hybridization in a captive breeding program.
We’re not talking about pushing for the authentic here — and it’s worth noting that the title of the book, Meaning to Go to the Origin in Some Way, isn’t a celebration of autochthony but rather an alert to the ongoing presence, within larger spaces, of notions of origins and rootedness, now shrunk down, conflated with the smallness of seeds:
simply an essential radish (from “radical” / having roots,
meaning to go to the origin in some way —
on the Pacific Flyway
the seed you planted, the Least Tern took wing
meaning to go to the origin in some way
acting animal-like toward boundaries, breathing (14)
The “origin in some way” when “go[ne] to”/pushed at isn’t a single point, but a dispersal across a wide field, a field of investigation.
Another set of poems placed throughout the book, all with the same capitalized title, “GOING TO SURVEY WALMART CONSTRUCTION FROM THE CREST OF PIONEER HILL,” would also appear to promise a sequence — but the development, such as it is, has nothing to do with the progressive stages of erection of big-box projects, but instead opens up into showing how “we in our many vectors crisscross this space” (26) by, for example, recording “the sentient world in the only human way it knows, through animals” (9). Moreover, whereas the first two poems under the self-consciously self-aggrandizing rubric build serious arguments — for an ecopoetics of “interspecies inhabitance” (9), for example, and “the analytic capacity of sentient poetry” (17) — the last two in the set trail off into bathos: “disappointment when ‘thunder’ is the rolling /of a garbage bin” (35) while the final word on the matter, the last line in the last poem of this set, settles for pointing out that “some of us animals out here do live in the / (prairie, ocean, desert) besides” (45). Witnessing is sometimes just trudging up the same hill over and over again.
Strategic understatement and studied quietness also feature in Participant, an airy collage of observations, sensations, and comments with quotes and near-quotes from Emily Dickinson. Unlike the poems in Meaning to Go to the Origin in Some Way, the writing here mostly uses composition by field, and the words and phrases read across and up and down two-page spreads as well as page by page, a delicate, almost musical crossweave of repeated words and phrases.
An “Environment & acknowledgements” section at the end of the book lists the relevant Dickinson poems, and to explore the resonance of the deeper notes underlying the bright, high-toned sounds in the foreground, it’s helpful to spend time with these. For example, to go from the top of pages 10–11, where “the birds sketching a geography” reads across to “hover in an erratic remoter green” then back down to “three bees swoop across my face” and across again to “it’s like a private wood / in which I comprehend” not only creates a skimming horizontal movement across the plane of the page — with a jump beyond, into greater depths of field (in this case, grove/orchard/woodland) — but gives access to Dickinson at her most visionary:
There is a morn by men unseen —
Whose maids upon remoter green
Keep their Seraphic May — 
It’s like the Light —
A fashionless Delight —
— It’s like the Woods —
Private — Like the Breeze —
Phraseless — yet it stirs
The proudest Trees — 
Along the way, Zen attention to the natural world (“dumb plants / with their little deaths / dumbly testify” ) faces on the opposite page “(Little Wealths) / [where] I summarize my greatest treasures / counting very real distances / on fingers like a school girl,” echoing Dickinson’s extravagant spiritual reckoning:
Your Riches — taught me — Poverty.
Myself — a Millionaire
In little Wealths, as Girls could boast
— and its ending:
At least it solaces to know
That there exists — a Gold —
Altho’ I prove it, just in time
Its distance — to behold —
Its far — far Treasure to surmise —
And estimate the Pearl —
That slipped my simple fingers through —
While just a Girl at School.
The highly developed sense of distance, proximity, and depth of field apparent both in Russo’s text and in many of the Dickinson poems to which she alludes is brought into focus by another key reference for both Participant and Meaning to Go to the Origin in Some Way, the anthropologist Edward T. Hall’s 1966 classic, The Hidden Dimension. A poem with a Dickinsonian title, “Participant as birds,” in Meaning to Go to the Origin in Some Way encapsulates Russo’s interest in Hall’s theories on the interplay of scales of distance in human and nonhuman worlds:
her small body (there)
practiced on bird-scales
returns public space
to public use
till syllables unlink
till traffics return
brought back to the familiar, the creaturely
(existence plus alphabets) (19)
Here too are echoes of Hall’s concerns that the built environments of mid-twentieth-century North America take too little account of humans’ needs for kinesthetic perceptions to mesh with visual ones (as happens when walking through a landscape, for example) and his call for visual perception to be understood as a collaborative construction (rather than, as evoked in Russo’s “Always Underfoot,” the literally top-down projection produced by satellite mapping).
While issues of proximity and scale play into Meaning to Go to the Origin in Some Way’s weave of documentary and observation — showing how “now distance binds us” (11) — Hall’s ideas of space as communication, the “hidden dimension” of his title, play out directly on the pages of Participant, with the hover between foreground, midground, and background on the white spaces of the page enacting the dynamics and proxemics (Hall’s word) of perception, while chiming with leaps between dimensions in the Dickinson works they reference. “Leaflets,” the poems in the final section of Participant, however, use a different spatial strategy. Here, observations, perceptions, and quotations are run together in one stream down a very narrow center column. The constraints of the typographical measure force numerous word-breaks, marked by hyphens — a quiet echo of Dickinson’s dashes, perhaps — while individual letters of the alphabet and meaningless clusters are exposed down the left-hand edge. In contrast to the visual mappings of most of the rest of the book, these demand to be read aloud, for sound to make sense across the broken phonemes. The effect is like opening up to the narrow spaces between trees, a flow of sounds and sights interrupted by twigs, cross-branches, leaves, and shaken by the wind:
because she c-
alls she ma-
ps terrain “hi-
dden away” &
be a bir-
s of short fligh-
ts into sun “li-
ke between” (60–61)
2. Linda Russo, “Writing Within: Notes on Ecopoetics as Spatial Practice,” HOW2 3, no. 2 (2008).
4. Linda Russo, “Scottish Poetry Library podcast: Linda Russo,” Scottish Poetry Library.
6. Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1955), 24. See also the Emily Dickinson Archive.