Li Zhimin’s 'Zhongalish'
Best known in China for his translations of J. H. Prynne into Chinese, poet and scholar Li Zhimin is known in the US primarily as a fixture at Chinese American Association of Poetry and Poetics conferences and as an editor of the poetics journal Espians. In his English-language book of poems, Zhongalish: Think and Feel Globally, Li continues his cross-cultural work by exploring the lyric subject as a linguistic construct, as well as examining the mutual influence of Chinese and American “avant” poetry practices generally. Even the neologism “Zhongalish” is a combination of Zhongguo — the Mandarin term for China — and “English.”
Among the American academics who know Li’s work are a number of poets and scholars affiliated with Language writing who have made numerous trips to China and engaged with scholars there — this is immediately evident from blurbs by Marjorie Perloff and Charles Bernstein on the back cover of the book. In fact, Zhongalish can be read as the work of a poet in dialogue with Language methods at the same time that it investigates larger questions of mutual Chinese and US poetic influences.
What Li borrows from the Language writers is a playfulness with language that’s more disarming than confrontational or self-righteous — attitudes rightly or wrongly most often associated with the Language writers. Whether writing of having dinner with critic Marjorie Perloff (“Feel Words: One Way to Approach Language”) or listing his various friends named Charles (“Charles, my friend of lollypops”), Li is primarily concerned with China and the US as competing cultures literally speaking different languages.
For example, in the poem “Non-Presence,” which “is produced by the method of deletion,” Li uses Language-style methods (the details of which Li leaves ambiguous) in order to write a conversational poem that takes a comparative approach to poetics. In it, Wordsworth and the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi are anchored by the speaker’s departure from his mother tongue.
‘I will come back’
I tell my parents
A beautiful cloud is wandering
Lonely in the sky.
A leaf falls to its root.
Zhuangzi wakes up without knowing
Whether he is a butterfly
Dreaming to be a man
Or a man having dreamed to be a butterfly (43–44)
Compared to much Language writing, “Non-Presence” puts issues of the narrator’s identity, and relationships, front and center. A frequent strategy for Language writers in the ’70s and ’80s, developed from the modernist literary theories of Viktor Shklovsky and others, was formal experimentation in which linguistic and cultural critique was implicit. Li, however, lets his poems’ straightforward — and at times naïve — form carry semantic content, as though the poems were a conversation with themselves.
As such, a reading of “Non-Presence” could go like this: the speaker claims his intention to return to his parents, who are the recipients of his verbal expression. He also implicitly identifies as the isolated poet of Wordsworth’s famous poem, who, like a cloud, floats high above quotidian life.
Because of the inclusion in the second stanza of “a leaf falls to its root,” the Wordsworthian poet is forced into a thematic relationship with a leaf that falls to the ground, where the tree’s root is located, when it dies. Similar to the leaf, the poet will also return to its roots when he “dies” — when he fails to achieve the transcendence of the cloud.
But, like Zhuangzi, the poet is now unable to distinguish from whence he came. Did he go forth from his parents to independence, only to fall back to them? Or was his fall from transcendence a temporary failure, from which he will recover? Similarly, the poet, in departing from his parents, departs from his mother tongue to the language of the isolated Wordsworthian poet: English, the language of the speaker. Which is his “real” language? In this manner the text mirrors how Zhuangzi cannot distinguish between the waking and dreaming state.
Where the indeterminate or aleatory aspects of much Language Poetry are located in forms of “deletion,” or in devices like hypotactic sentences — in which the meaning of each discrete sentence is contingent upon surrounding sentences — the indecision of Li’s poem is perceptual. This sets him apart from the materialist poetics of much Language writing, for example in works like Ron Silliman’s Tjanting or Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, both of which use numerical devices to delimit what text is permissible according to their schema. In those works, the emphasis is on the internal structure of the work.
In contrast to the Language writers of the 1980s, who were fine-tuning theories of ideological critique and methodology, a generation of poets in China was shocking people with impassioned and unheard-of language that rejected the ideological discourse used to attack supposed enemies of the state. The anthemic poem by Chinese poet Bei Dao, “The Answer,” well known in its time, embodies this mode:
Let me tell you, world,
I — do — not — believe!
If a thousand challengers lie beneath your feet,
Count me as number thousand and one.
I don’t believe the sky is blue;
I don’t believe in thunder’s echoes;
I don’t believe that dreams are false;
I don’t believe that death has no revenge.
As in “Non-Presence,” “The Answer” stands against certainty. Where “Non-Presence” reduces or “deletes” the subject as a source of knowledge and control, “The Answer” locates the subject as a negation of positive qualities. The way it’s written doesn’t express ideological critique through complex methodology — it simply uses the language of renunciation in order to demonstrate defiance.
In his “Epilogue” to Zhongalish Li inverts the renunciatory language of Bei Dao’s poem. Instead of disbelief in common facts, he chooses belief in a more complex reality than what’s commonly offered by either political or religious discourse.
I believe all books were written by human beings
I believe there is an angel and a devil in any human
I believe human beings see only what their eyes could reach
and know only what their age lets them know
I believe there is no book that is divine (78)
Newcomers to Li’s poetry (which will be most of us in English-language poetry circles) will be struck by how reasonable Li’s language is — he almost sounds like an Enlightenment writer, foreclosing against irrational statements like “death has revenge.” There is no heroic language, methodology, or notion of poetic rigor or purity. If anything, the tone is collegial.
That said, Li’s concept of “Zhongalish” connotes learned states of speaking, and as such he seems unconcerned with definitive, abstract statements about poetry. For Li, the speaking subject appears to take on cultural habits from whatever language they use, the result being an impure language and culture. Thus he can write that “When Ezra Pound wrote some “ungrammatical” English … he was writing Zhongalishly” (5). For Pound, if what Li says is correct, the loosening of English grammar was also the beginning of a non-American cultural identity.
But this also presents a problem. Li discusses learning a second language over and over throughout the book — it could pass as his main trope. Accompanying second language acquisition are of course linguistic and social foibles, as well as racist terminology that is disarmed by the fact that it’s yanked out of its social context. In such a case, Li tries to normalize language by culturally “translating” it — in which case cultures remain in place, even if they are rendered unexceptional.
Once we came across the word “Chink” at college
We did not know it and checked it up
in an English-Chinese dictionary
We got the meaning there
And a naughty boy told our English teacher:
we have something equal in Chinese for you too
it is Yangguizi / jaŋguizi / 洋鬼子
Our English teacher laughed and practiced his Chinese
woshi yige Yangguizi
We all burst into laughter (13–14)
As someone who taught English in China, I can only sympathize with the teacher here: faced with linguistic racism in English, it’s only appropriate to laugh it off when the Chinese near-equivalent is shown to be the translation of one culture’s concept into another’s, in which sender and receiver switch roles. Really, what else can you say but wo shi yige yangguizi (“I am a foreign devil”)?
This episode of course reads as one of a number of humorous and embarrassing moments in language study and pedagogy, but also suggests the simultaneous irreconcilability and universality of semantic concepts. As such, this may be where Pound is most relevant for Li, as well as for contemporary American readers: caught in between cultural concepts, Pound’s poetry both reveals his own cultural prejudices as well as thwarts them. Li, like Pound, is now neither a pure Chinese speaker nor a pure English speaker: “I am proud of being a Zhongalish … I live and die / A Zhongalish” (9). His lines are remarkable for correlating the notion of speaking a language with culture as well as nationality.
In Chinese, the term Zhongguo does not necessarily connote an ethnic group or dialectal language, but is more often a political designation. On the other hand, Zhongwen, a general term for the Chinese language, implies a tie to the nation by virtue of location in zhong, “the center.” Li’s Zhongalish-ness, or compromised Chinese-ness, appears to rest in the ability to slip out of speaking Chinese.
But perhaps a look at foundational concepts will help clarify this somewhat. In “Meeting Emily Dickinson,” Li writes of the God who dominated Emily Dickinson’s world, and of the difficulty he had overcoming his lack of belief in order to embrace the poet. In answer to that difficulty, in his “Epilogue” he dislocates the concept of “God” by translating it into a Chinese term, tian. Historically, tian sometimes connoted fate, sometimes the heavens, sometimes a panoply of deities, and sometimes just the sky — and the latter is how the term is most often used today. As “God,” tian sounds more like the Dao that Zhuangzi, Laozi, and other ancient thinkers speak of: apparent yet mysterious, full of potential yet empty.
I believe in God
I believe God would never speak to any human being
I believe human beings could never truly understand God
In fact, I prefer the term Tian to the name of God
Tian has the most beauty
Yet Tian never speaks
Tian has all the truth
Yet Tian never reveals it to anybody (79)
Here Li negotiates semantically between languages, but more importantly negotiates ontological meaning. Whereas “God” is the name for a concept, that name is subject to change and interpretation since “God would never speak to any human being” and tell its name. And since “human beings could never truly understand God,” there is no identity which warrants so precise a name in any case — if anything, a name that “has all the truth” but “never reveals it” could be said to be better described as tian, the historical concept: fate, heavens, gods, empty sky.
However, when describing this foundational reasoning — what is tantamount to a creation myth — both geography and the national constraints of language fall short of describing either personal belief in God/tian, or what happens in translation between languages. Furthermore, if one cannot be Christian without God, then, following Li’s thinking, one cannot be Chinese without tian. When Li does evoke tian, it is only a tenuous placeholder accommodating an ahistorical God — hence the hybrid identity Zhongalish. The Zhongalish is neither here nor there, and the origin of the Zhongalish is rendered indeterminate.
And so here is where it is important to note that Zhongalish: Think and Feel Globally is indeed a global and historical book of poetry. It’s about negotiating meaning as it is relayed from time to time and place to place. It’s only ironic that a poet like Li Zhimin is able to emerge as such a unique and strong voice by noting all of the compromises he must make in his language and his nationality — in short, his identity.
The speaker of “Survey,” a long poem among the “New and Uncollected” of Elizabeth Willis’s Alive: New and Selected Poems, illustrates public interest and personal exposure combining to make an American lyric. As the title suggests, the poem responds to an easily imagined questionnaire ranking priorities and concerns with a list of wishes and worries, two of perhaps the most private and maligned categories of our Just Do It culture in which both wishes and worries are judged as failures of will. While the typical survey asks participants to weigh the importance of a preselected menu of opinions and values, Willis’s goes off-road. Answers range from the civic concern of the opening lines, “No one uses the running path anymore / There’s nowhere to run to”; to embarrassing private fears, “I worry that I will faint / where no one can hear me fall” (147); to the suspicion that “class / will follow us everywhere” (147). This worry that we will never shake socioeconomic hierarchies implicates democracy itself as a fragile myth sustained only by the hope that we all matter or can be made to matter. But just as “I/me” turns to and on the unimperious third party “us/we,” the fretful vision of civic decline changes to a reassertion of good fellow-feeling:
I think we all
need a vacation
I wish that I were an ocean-
ographer like my father
or the one he could have been
I wish that time could be
turned off like a machine
I hope eventually
we can speak freely
of everything (148)
Anticipating the poem’s conclusion, the empathetic recognition that we could all use a break recalls Ishmael’s philosophy of the “universal thump […] passed round.” Human authority hurts everybody at some point, physically or metaphysically, so we “should rub each other’s shoulder-blades, and be content.” The speaker of “Survey” isn’t content, but the discontent impelling the wishes for what is not, and what could have been but wasn’t, swells the hope for what might still be, may very well be. If we can’t hit the snooze button on time itself, we can rethink time’s machinery and confront the now it’s always running in. In that extended now, we might relax enough to speak freely (not just protect freedom of speech) of everything, with our consciences and with each other.
The closing stanza of “Survey” turns again on its personal pronouns, from the “I/we” to the sweet intimacy of the “I/you,” the second-person designation so wonderfully the same for pluribus or unum:
I’d like to graduate
from the united states of plastic
I’d like to face the future
as if it were a person
I’d like to touch it
and still come home for dinner
I want to introduce you to my boat
I think that everything
can’t wait till tomorrow
I hope you’re awake
when I get there, that you’ll be
with me at the end (148)
As someone who has often bemoaned the lack of a tu/vous, du/sie distinction in American English, I’ve had a change of heart thanks to Willis’s exploitation of the second person’s elasticity, which seems now essential both to her lyric and the lyric’s characteristic properties of multiple address and intellectual-emotional complication. The continuum of the collective and individual, familiar and formal possibilities implicit in the “you” posited in these lines emphasizes Willis’s pervasive faith that personal connections and the quality of attention we give our everyday lives are the means to surviving (if not fixing) what’s wrong with “the united states of plastic.”
But this optimism isn’t passive; we can’t just wait out the problems. Arguably, it isn’t even optimism, but a leap of faith to envision a more humane, sane future for which there is little evidence. America’s vicious legacies, acknowledged most pointedly in “The Witch,” bequeath ample discouragement; however, Willis’s lyrics emphasize (and enact) compassionate relationships among strangers and the estranged made from enduring that universal thump. As the carefully broken lines hint, the end is sure while life and loyalty are not: “I hope […] / […] that you’ll be.” The gently reproving reminder that “everything / can’t wait till tomorrow” cautions that deliberate action, for the sake of our future, must be faced “as if it were a person,” with respect and kindness but also with efficiency and commitment. The future, like the present, is inevitably a common experience, as well as a common production. In the poem’s future, the speaker’s “hope [that] you’re awake / when I get [home]” extends the wish for an affectionate personal homecoming to the populace. In this move, the caretaking of private intimacy and domesticity seems symbiotic with the desire for a vital, plastic-free, nondisposable nation and homeland, something like the kinship of Whitman’s amative and adhesive love, and very like his ideal of democratic reciprocity and interdependency.
Willis, a scholar of the Romantics, calls Whitman’s unfulfilled prophecy that the United States is the greatest unfinished poem a “provocation” and “a dare” for readers to transform themselves completely into that collective poem. Willis’s most recent poetry carries forth that burdensome expectation with the conviction that literature, especially poetry, has the power to bind a crowd of nonconformists into a creatively inspirited body politic.
Most pronounced in her poetry since the 2003 Turneresque, this faith in the lyric’s ability to forge and confirm associations has been a force, as Alive shows, throughout her poetry’s years of development. Marked by fragmentation and compression in earlier works like The Human Abstract, lineation becomes ambitiously varied, and form increasingly unpredictable: tight prose blocks give way to spare couplets, lines stretch to overtake the page in one poem, then gather tightly into the center in the next, as if retreating from the margins. Vacillation between sequencing and seriality accompany these variations, and lyric subjectivities unfold more visibly their intricate dimensions. Much longer poems distinguishing the “New and Uncollected Poems” shed the atmosphere of solitude pervading the poetry prior to Address. These new works sound more domestic yet explicitly oratorical, less protected and more coherently responsive to the meditative registers of everyday living. The imperative of a Selected Poems to gather together what’s been put asunder in monographs, which are typically partitioned into three to five sections, lets emerging readers see Willis’s range and established fans see that the lyric operations once accomplished across a collection are now effected in a single poem.
The final hope for a warm reunion in “Survey” highlights the prevalence of homes and homecomings, awaited and imagined, throughout Willis’s work. Her poetry connects physical dwellings with the homespun forms free speech has taken in the American idiom’s evolution: “let this house be Endeavor and build it” (3) from Second Law begins the collection, at once prophecy and command. “‘We build this house’ / and then we live in it” (43), from The Human Abstract, summons Thoreau’s handmade home at Walden and the imaginary mortgages taken out on his neighbors’ property. Like Thoreau’s supplementary fantasies, Willis’s lyrics urge reconsideration of the drive to own and fence in, endeavors that trap the owner and inhibit wandering, yet these poems also confront the material realities both necessary and unavoidable in actual living. The poem concluding the same sequence from The Human Abstract begins, “Against this house I always hammering” (44), to stress the violent aspects of self-making — the noise and impact — while also suggesting the individual labor contributing to a nationally shared home: we are still constructing, audibly, a place of belonging.
Willis’s poems hear this construction, this hammering out of deals and documents, in the unlikeliest yet most familiar interactions. The time-honored playground selection method rock paper scissors, which blends personal choice and chance, appears in two poems from Address. “Alabama,” a poem dedicated to shooting victim Maria Ragland Davis, indicates the selection game’s subtle violence by omitting “breaks” and “cuts” from its three zero-sum rules: “Paper covers anger / Rock covers flesh” (151). Under the surface of these innocent variations lies the obverse of fairness and its win-or-lose justice decided by metaphorical might. An equal chance at winning overtakes the democratic ideal of equal opportunity to participate, as the dangers attending freedom become its greatest expression. As the poem concludes, both paper and its coverage morph into a comment on the untrustworthiness of evidence and documentation, whether insurance policies or the protections journalism might provide:
In the end, as the ending
of a given or a proof
what you are or carried
can’t be covered, will be found (151)
Thus, even the benign conquest of “paper covers rock” insinuates that types of bureaucracy intended to confer protection and relief are merely whimsical barriers between help and no help, preserving another kind of quiet violence. In “Oil and Water,” the basic elements of the trio are revised in the line “Paper. Scissors. Water.” (153), which connects these less obvious dangers to the euphemistic metaphors so often in collusion with them, like “daisy cutters,” “oil spill,” or the personifications of hurricanes distracting from the people’s role in their destruction.
Importantly, no poem in Alive reduces the paradoxes of American discourses or ideals to one judgment or value. Instead, Willis’s lyrics settle into those paradoxes to illuminate their tensions and vitality. Her poems ripple with riddles and parables, astonishing combinations, both tender and confrontational. Particularly in poetry written for and after Turneresque, Willis advances the Thoreauvian precept “to reawaken and keep ourselves awake” (65). The sources and situations of active alertness in this poetry, however, are far more egalitarian than Thoreau’s, depending less on moments of quiet isolation than receptivity to and of language and those who use it. Willis has said, “Composition is a form of intimate congress with the phenomenal world, with other writers, and with everyday language acts.” The participants in the “intimate congress” composing her poetry have multiplied with every collection, and count among them William Blake, Samson, Erasmus Darwin, B-movie characters, J. M. W. and Ted Turner, Emily Dickinson, and Lorine Niedecker; and language acts appear from everywhere, ranging from scriptural directives to driving directions, like those from the title poem of Address:
Turn left toward the mountain
Go straight until you see
the boat in the driveway
A little warmer, a little stickier
a little more like spring (121)
Blended in this tribute to this nearly lost art (thanks to the GPS) are the trust in another to guide you to a destination, the world made of landmarks and signs as it is experienced by the driver journeying for the first time, and the equation of that “intimate congress” of reunion and hospitality with natural cycles of renewal. Sticky matters, all, but generative commitments to put ourselves in another’s place — to see what he will see — and to put ourselves in another’s hands to guide us home.
Thoreau distinguished authentic, moral wakefulness from the unnatural excitement of artificial stimulants like tea, trashy novels, locomotive speed, and the stress created by the media. His solution to modern ills, in part, was to read in solitude the classics — not in English and certainly not in American English, but untranslated, in Greek or Latin, “for there is a memorable interval between the spoken and the written language, the language heard and the language read.” The culmination of work represented in Alive remains awake to the channels among the high and classical and the low and populist; Willis’s lyrics live in that “memorable interval between” the ease and immediacy of speech and gesture and the concentration of unspoken textual contacts. They pleasure in the vocabulary of routine encounters that accompany deep wondering and wide wandering among the written and the spoken.
“Classified,” from 2011’s Address, speaks to the unsung forms of American currency and reads like a tribute to the innovative writing and thinking flourishing as the American idiom:
Will trade fountain pen for outboard motor
a trembling nightfall for government bonds
Will trade this grievance for a moment of silence
that wooded tavern for my aimless youth
Will trade potable water for loyal army
Fabergé egg for interpretation of dreams
Will trade heirloom lilacs for three cords of wood
Will trade this meadow for a person-sized piece of shade
Will trade fluttering leaf for a career in baseball (138)
Written in the lexicon of the local bulletin or circular, “Classified” registers one of those “intervals between” the written and spoken, contract and oratory, that makes a poetics from the American idiom and shows that it’s more than only slang or regional speech gone viral. Arranged so that “Will” stacks up against the left margin, “Classified” appeals to the eye as an invocation of community determination and foundational national givens (like Thomas Paine’s in Common Sense) that a generation is morally bound to bequeath a healthy nation to future generations, not waste time waiting out trouble. The internal near-signature (Will-is) further suggests the individual’s (and the poet’s) obligation, despite the I-lessness of the poem and most political agreements. To the ear, the anaphoric structure loudens the poetic claims of ordinary writing by ordinary people, whose familiar Trading Post shorthand conveys enduring mutual trust among citizens to deal fairly with one another; to believe, even a little bit, another’s word is good and we have something to offer, all in the interest of old-fashioned, anticapitalist commerce. The poem’s mixture of actual objects that might show up in the weekly classifieds, like fountain pens and outboard motors, with pastoral abstractions, luxury items, and personal situations celebrates the interesting accidents of trade as well as its triumph over newly manufactured needs and desires. “Connections between unconnected things are the unreal reality of poetry,” writes Susan Howe. This poem demonstrates this “unreal reality” and Willis’s knack for coaxing beauty from bluntness among these intervals.
The classifieds and the grassroots circulation they perpetuate are antidotes to a culture encouraged to waste (the united states of plastic), but they are also an illustration of how provisional and varied value really is, despite the morbid reduction of almost everything to dollars in the loudest national language. In the middle of August, “a person-sized piece of shade” is worth far more than a sun-filled meadow, and what does anyone do with a Fabergé egg other than worry about breaking it? While anticapitalist in character, though, the poem isn’t antimaterialist: there is great satisfaction in material things, like fluttering leaves and wooded taverns, even (and perhaps especially) when they don’t belong to us or can’t be owned. A common fascination with baseball, whether for the outrageous salaries or sly pitchers, or with the annual surprises of falling leaves, helps people talk to each other and replenishes good will. To swap a pen for a motor, you’d probably have to meet the person who no longer wants the motor but has lots of fishing stories; those willing to exchange lilacs for wood quite possibly will share common appreciations, like warmth and flowers. Decisions to recycle, too, reveal changing interests and needs; sometimes we want to know what our dreams mean, and other times, we want something pretty to look at. Such changes of taste and heart needn’t become more trash, but new treasures, resolutions, or friendships. As much as he prized reading Homer in isolation, Thoreau’s love of imaginative bartering (also anticapitalist) included many happy chats with unliberated neighbors, and we see in Willis’s poem that there is still plenty of American intercourse that isn’t volatile or divisive. The poem’s final offer, “a wheelbarrow for an end to all that,” suggests our sense of abundant privilege doesn’t necessarily depend on excesses.
The wheelbarrow carries the poem beyond its ending, into the lyric interval between Thoreau’s imaginary wheelbarrow annually carrying off imaginary harvests and Williams’s rain-glazed red one upon which so much depends. The ebb and flow from rebellious independence to uniting dependency moves through our most recognizable literary allusions and among political and literary documents; the circulation itself is crucial to national self-imagining. In this expansive interval of interactive materials, Willis’s poetry emphasizes the ongoing interplay of literacies composing the American idiom. “Vernacular Architecture” articulates this mediation:
A governed love for the people
The government of love
is to believe itself unwritten
Love’s office is devotion
to the ungoverned, like justice
somewhere else, in a while
A school beside its architect
A child next to a picture
The family in its tunnels
Pure products feel their power
to feed the engine
Their movement a document
that totters into being (131)
Filled with understandings and expressions of who we are and where we live — a child’s drawing, the architect’s school, Hayden’s winter Sundays, Williams’s truth-telling Elsie — this poem, like so many of Willis’s, reminds us of our nation’s youthfulness and its constitution of unalike things and people still in progress. Families exiled and oppressed by the Old World and those born in but still tunneling toward liberty in the New join the “pure products” whose only power is their claim to purity. In this early interval, a government founded on love and the ungoverned in need of it (as in “radicals” and “the voiceless”) is still tottering into being. In other poems, the governed and government components of the body politic also advance like children crawling, uttering “nonsense syllable[s]” (55), but, as here, they are learning the movement of a living document.
In Turnersque, “Sonnet” echoes the Pledge of Allegiance to consider the centrality of public education to that movement fueled by desire for liberty and “justice,” still “somewhere else, in a while”:
a desperate wedge
of indivisible ink
we fall in filaments
an uncontrolled breeze (54)
The familiar recitation first learned along with reading and writing in school, the Pledge has frequently been a “desperate wedge” between church and state, a point of contest between personal liberty and public good. It is also, the poem suggests, the invisible ink of the social contract to pursue its ultimate goals of “liberty and justice for all” and to think through desperate times as “one nation, indivisible.” As a series, “Sonnet” turns attention to the dimensions of the schoolroom lost in the unanimous contempt for No Child Left Behind:
The teacher’s love
of someone’s children
a flash of light
in white air
So loving love
we lack science
and in ourselves
touch up the little
teacher’s picture (53)
In elementary school, we learn to speak together and to take turns speaking, as many and as one. The teacher who governs other people’s children with love is Willis’s metonymy for a calling: the vocation is as unscientific and unreasonable as they come, but the pursuit of happiness was always meant to be the pursuit of meaningful labor, the freedom to answer any call. The teacher sees “the green, braided thing […] / inside you” (52) and spends a lifetime emboldening pupils to picture its unfurling. “Alive,” the penultimate poem of the book (followed, necessarily, by the elegant “About the Author”), concludes by imagining America’s most potent symbol as a student waiting to be called on:
See that woman in the harbor, her sandals full of sea-
weed? She knows she’s going under.
She has a question. She’s raising her hand. (180)
Sinking under her symbolic weight and the encroachment of climate change, Lady Liberty becomes a powerful emblem of dissent — a sign and a dare to question, with love and with courage, those who govern, the ungoverned, and the governed, even and especially when we, the people, know we’re losing.
3. Elizabeth Willis, “Bright Ellipses: The Botanic Garden, Meteoric Flowers, and Leaves of Grass,” in Active Romanticism, ed. Julie Carr and Jeffrey C. Robinson (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015), 30.
Elizabeth Willis's 'Alive: New and Selected Poems'
First of all, what would it mean to be fully alive? One thinks of the archetypal unicorn, the ever-present poet that can’t quite get enough of something, but what? In Lacanian terms, we might think joy, jouissance. In terms of Romantic literature, we might think love, or romance, or the spark of God that is, indeed, the last romantic that our world could know, now that we are moderns.
According to Elizabeth Willis, this “aliveness” is found “affection / only to be seen // when the mind’s a heart.” One thinks of what it would mean to remain ever-pure, ever-condensed, and full of beauty, and it is a difficult thing to imagine, at least at certain times of year. However, Willis’s poems make this state of fierce purity seem more prescient, and even possible. Is this poetry itself, enacted in lines that are fully alive? It would seem so.
In the following lines, Willis writes this purity:
What rules a body’s buried factions
when laundered by morning
When called by our names
although we are invisible
Sleeping I forget my animal
When the animal comes
I’m forgotten because of it
How was it called
in its own country
crossing a street
in order to come inside (20)
These lines are from “The Human Abstract,” which is an expression, in part, of abstract thought that one might find in the world of metaphysics, long since annulled by Heidegger — a death poets often lament. Willis seems to do this, and her poems attest to a human waking that is (as in this poem) assuaged by “the animal” — to be forgotten because of the preoccupation with the body rather than the mind, suddenly, as if lost. One wonders who exactly is doing this forgetting, and if it’s the poet’s peculiar role to think of things that would be unseen by others. As she forgets her “animal” in sleep, maybe she wakes to remember that there was someone who found his or hers and forgot her because of it. It’s ambiguous.
The other poems in this selection stay in the tradition of this purity, saying that “When if is so // that’s a kind of valentine nowhere” (30), as if using the if to create a sense of utopia, a valentine given in the hopes that someone will read it or hear it spoken. This valentine is connected to “the tree I carry” (40), all part of the appeal of “The Human Abstract.” In Turneresque, which is a very different kind of book, poems like “Sonnet” actually carry the reader through multiple worlds, not all of which are pure, some of which are stormy:
To live in someone
else’s music (the musician
not the composer is free)
a divine contention
like the damp carpet
of liquored olivia trees
(something my favorite you
finding in a hollow day
a winter keeper
a paper woman
caught in the torrent
not quite falling (50)
However, despite this being “inside” of someone else, there is a sense of purity at the edge, purity almost overcome by the filmesque version of this poem, as if caught up in something and falling because of it. There is not the same height required to write this more recent poem as with the earlier excerpts, and it finds its place in Turnersque.
As we move throughout Turneresque, we find a partner in the poems, whereas the earlier poems speak more to a single purity. Poems in this text are lovely and romantic, in all the best senses of these terms, and Willis writes well of “[l]ovely missions / in early green / [a] dream of love” (60). However it is unclear whether the speaker is dreaming of someone far away, or whether the lover is present: “dearest curtain / painted just / beyond the face” (60). Whose face is this, and what can we make of it?
The poems in Turneresque sometimes appear in prose, too. In “On Dangerous Ground,” we get the sense that there is a scene from Macbeth close at hand: “Jim’s a bad one whining down a concrete river slick with night […] Her brother’s heart is an inward tree, but he’s got blood on his hands […] There’s no turning back for a cop with snow in his shoes […] He sinks against her ivy wall” (70). Here we have a scene that could read of something ominous, and clearly represents a poetry of lovers who are torn apart, who are not really in love but are something different.
Meteoric Flowers, my favorite of Willis’s books, is something different, and a girl takes center stage. In “The Oldest Part of Earth,” we read about “Mary saying yes and no, he and she” in which the speaker and the interlocutor presented are “living on, anyway, immaculate lawns. Neo-forsythia” (90). This purity is presented in the figure of a human, but we get the sense that we know who Mary is, the genderless figure who always wants to be something different, a sign of the times, but not a sign of an older time unless one is reading religion into it, which could be possible. The sense in which Mary is epic is repeated in “Bright o’er the Floor,” in which the speaker and interlocutor are “rowing like Greeks before those trees turn to treason, erased of all their writing” (100).
She writes beautiful poems in New and Uncollected Poems, even taking a turn toward the sonnet in “Sonnet 63 ½.” I’ll quote it here in lieu of a closing, for I think it speaks to the position of purity and shows how Willis tends to shift into judgment of this pure day, at least eventually:
Against love’s battle lies: ungrammatical.
Inevitable meadow. A future tensed of all its past.
So time may take this beauty down
but beauty will fight itself to death.
The vampire day, top-heavy, white.
Erase, erased, erasing.
Aggrieved belief. He was my east and west.
He bound my breasts, I cut his hair.
I lay my words upon his mouth,
my mouth upon I cannot say.
All of grace is not device. Love
loves its past but not its thief.
May all its punishments remain untamed
upon this green unsentencing. (170)
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.