Reviews - April 2013
A review of Lyn Hejinian’s ‘The Book of a Thousand Eyes’
Writing about Lyn Hejinian’s The Book of a Thousand Eyes is like talking about someone else’s dreams. The poems are peculiar and uncanny, full of surprising leaps and linkages that one might expect from a book written in the dark. Such is the stuff of dreams. Such is the stuff of experience transmogrified through Hejinian’s discursive narratives and formal poetic experiments. This tome of interlocutory poems shows how dream gets petrified in the world and then how writing may reverse the process, following the breadcrumbs of language back to where the dream originates, to a place where the poem reanimates a vision that has since disappeared.
The book is a meditation on sleep, which is a meditation mediated through dream:
Dreams don’t provide the thrill of sleep
Sleep only exists in memory
I can sleep my sleep but I can’t observe it
The conscious reflection on the condition of sleep underlies the interplay between the narrative logic of our days and the dream logic of our nights, between the liminal state of the apprehending self who sees the self as other, and, conversely, and perhaps more importantly, the other as the self. Sleep also accounts for the gaps in time passing. For the space between the lines. That is to say, the poems can be elegiac. By stressing the importance of being alive, they must also address death — sleep’s doppelganger — and they do so in the gaps between lines, between stanzas, and between poems. The poems temporize the space between the spoken and the unspoken “because the gap between the said and the unsayable is temporal.”
As “a night work,” the poems in The Book of a Thousand Eyes have keen night vision (even in the day), allowing us to see what is hard to discern or is even invisible in broad daylight. The book wanders the mind’s dark wood remarking and thus remaking the world by recounting and so reencountering daily events through nightly reveries. But as Hejinian insists of tales replete “with the kinds of transmutations and metamorphoses which occur in dreams,” these poems “are not private fantasies or psychological displays but public stories — embodying social norms, cultural values, and ultimately moral advice.” The poems are neither solipsistic nor confessional, but appear in the form of fables, nursery rhymes, and fairytales; they are bedtime stories, kindred spirits with the oldest forms of storytelling, and they speak to an imagined community.
She wants to abolish this whole aspect of the story, this sequence in chronology, and my heart goes out to her. She cannot do it without abolishing the sequence between the sentences. But this is not effective unless the order of the words in the sentences is also abolished, which in its turn entails the abolition of the order of the letters or sounds in the words. And now she is over the precipice. — E. M. Forster on Gertrude Stein
The Book of a Thousand Eyes is compelled by the idea of the story and explores what it means to tell one. Although it is a book of poems, Hejinian is a storyteller in the tradition Walter Benjamin describes in his classic 1936 essay, “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov.” Ostensibly a paean to Leskov, Benjamin’s essay is also his elegy for the dying art of storytelling in the twentieth century.
Less and less frequently do we encounter people with the ability to tell a tale properly. More and more often there is embarrassment all around when the wish to hear a story is expressed. It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences.
In The Book of a Thousand Eyes, the stories are in verse and very often dream mediates the exchange of experience; yet, these formal methods are what keep the poems most true to Benjamin’s conception of the story. Hejinian uses the line to break up and break into the conventions of syntax and logic that organize the pragmatic, information-laden sentences of our days; similarly, dream rearranges typical sequences of images and events, intervening in the temporal conventions that gird the stories we tell ourselves — those disposed cultural narratives — in order to disrupt preconceived habits of thought. By redeploying traditional story forms to the theater of experimental poetics, the poems press us to examine the means by which we come to understand what happens in the world and how, out of that understanding, we create what we know.
Cultural knowledge has customarily come from stories, and so to this Hejinian returns. However, if Hejinian’s methods seem unfamiliar to readers who tend to shy away from experimental poetry (but still think to like a good story), it may be because, as Benjamin suggests, language has long since been repurposed. The kinds of storytelling Hejinian conjures up in The Book of a Thousand Eyes have fallen into general disuse, relegated to hasty, sanitized renderings from the lips of a tired parent tucking a child into bed. According to Benjamin, there has been a fundamental shift away from the story to another cultural mode of communication:
With the full control of the middle class, which has the press as one of its most important instruments in fully developed capitalism, there emerges a form of communication which, no matter how far back its origin may lie, never before influenced the epic form in a decisive way. But now it does exert such an influence. And it turns out that it confronts storytelling as no less of a stranger than did the novel, but in a more menacing way, and that it also brings about a crisis in the novel. This new form of communication is information.
Throughout his reflections, Benjamin exposes how information erodes storytelling by replacing interpretation with explanation, communal truth with verifiable fact, and an ongoing polysemic open-endedness with the immediacy of a single, transparent meaning — all of which Hejinian’s work resists.
Benjamin points to the rise of the novel as the primary symptom of storytelling’s decline. Fermented in an environment where a class of people exists with the leisure to read in isolation and where the culture depends on information rather than literature for knowledge, the narratives carried by novels turn out to be antithetical to those unraveled by a storyteller:
The storyteller takes what he tells from experience — his own or that reported by others. And he in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale. The novelist has isolated himself. The birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual, who is no longer able to express himself by giving examples of his most important concerns, is himself uncounseled, and cannot counsel others. To write a novel means to carry the incommensurable to extremes in the representation of human life. In the midst of life’s fullness, and through the representation of this fullness, the novel gives evidence of the profound perplexity of living.
According to Benjamin, the novel offers an incommensurable if perplexing portrait of human life but gives up the ability to instruct; as a result, no matter how complex or realistic, a novel can never contain “the slightest scintilla of wisdom.” As a writer who likes “playing idea against idea, genre against genre” and who authored Oxota: A Short Russian Novel, Hejinian might take issue with Benjamin’s conception of the novel. In The Book of a Thousand Eyes, Hejinian expresses the opposite view of the incommensurable:
The incommensurable is that which resists or eludes assimilation by way of comparison (e.g., “that is just like Y!”). The incommensurable can’t be incorporated into the realm of exchange value, of the commodity, it resists the submergence of everything into that system of equivalence, which nullifies uniqueness and compels us to exchange, for example, this beautifully made table for that tenderly nurtured cow.
The incommensurable to which the novel accedes may reach similar ends to a story by deflecting the exchange value given to language by “fully developed capitalism.” While Benjamin makes the novel a foil for his ideas about both storytelling and a market-driven economy, Hejinian views the novel as another cultural form of expression whose potentialities can be reworked, played with, exposed, and redirected: “Poetry may be didactic; it is certain that it’s the best place to mix genres.”
The novel may not be the genre non grata for Hejinian; nevertheless, her writing practice remains consistent with the basic contrast Benjamin draws between the way the story and the novel use information. Like Benjamin, Hejinian’s work interrogates the terms by which information becomes exalted. For example, by calling The Book of a Thousand Eyes “a source work,” Hejinian critiques the encyclopedia, information’s grand exemplar. A capacious textual form, the encyclopedia represents the Enlightenment’s drive to contain and organize information in such a way that knowledge becomes decontextualized, transparent, and consumable. Hejinian’s text appears encyclopedic in length, but in contrast to encyclopedic containment, The Book of a Thousand Eyes spawns other texts, most notably her 218-page poem A Border Comedy. As a source text, The Book of a Thousand Eyes is open-ended, refuting the encyclopedic idea of a totalizing system. In this respect, the book may also be a send-up of high modernist projects like Pound’s Cantos, which, through exempla, takes up the encyclopedic ambition to construct such a system in poetry. But Pound’s lament is Hejinian’s unapologetic cris de coer: “I cannot make it cohere!”
Instead of atomizing information, The Book of a Thousand Eyes creates knowledge by comingling information with experience. Knowledge taken from experience and made into the experience of others is contextualized rather than excerpted, generative rather than acquisitive. Hejinian expands on the point in her essay “La Faustienne” when she discusses “the relationship between narrative and knowledge”:
Changes are occurring likewise 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. The sense of independence must now include, where it hasn’t been replaced by, a sense of interdependence, and, in writing, interest in free expression may be giving way to interest in free knowing.
According to Hejinian, the author’s relationship to the reader fundamentally changes when the self is understood not so much as an identity than as “a zone.” The self as a zone becomes a network of names and naming, and throughout The Book of a Thousand Eyes, the poems name names — Janet, Misha, Viletta, Ed, Joanne, Mary Ann, Josh, Franco, Maureen, Phil, Xavier, Sam, Lola, Nestor, et al. The litany of first names creates a feeling of privacy, intimacy, and friendship as well as a sense of congregation, population, and community as public as any crowded street. These people are both individuals and, because no first name is ever really unique, also allegories of a collective. Ultimately, the preponderance of names complicates the little poem “Lyn? Lyn? Come here! Is that you? Lyn?” (146). Is this the author imagining herself as a third person? Or is this another person calling her, perceiving her the way she perceives the Janets, Mishas, and Vilettas, and Eds? Or is this another Lyn altogether? Her name as a fixed identity — and identity itself as an idée fixe — is cast into doubt and erodes. This identity crisis recalls a similar moment in Whitman’s “Song of Myself” when he asks, “Who need be afraid of the merge?” In both, a stolid sense of self falls apart.
In The Book of a Thousand Eyes, the autonomous self finally gives way and ratifies the sense of a person as “a zone” when, over a hundred pages later, we get to another tiny poetic gesture: “Guys! We need a password!” This may be an updated version of Whitman’s “password primeval” which is also for Whitman “the sign of democracy.” The line is about access and interpretation, a question Hejinian’s work always raises; here, the line suggests that interpretation is a communal or “democratic” effort. The collective, informal, spoken “guys” resonates with the function of Benjamin’s storyteller who is present to both the story and the audience. Additionally, the technological associations that the line evokes expand the sense of a communal space that is both collaborative and interactive. Given this conceptual shift of “being a person,” the author can no longer be the repository and disseminator of knowledge but must account for the experience of the reader and allow for the reader’s participation in the construction of meaning. Contrasting the figures of Faust and Scheherazade to distinguish between two antithetical approaches to storytelling and authorship, Hejinian writes, “Where Faust sells his soul for knowledge, Scheherazade saves her life by offering it.” In other words, “a scientific model for the acquisition of knowledge (along with the very idea of acquisition in relation to knowing and its value)” must give way to “mediated knowing” or “embedded knowing” or “knowing something in the context in which it is meaningfully known.” So rather than extract information and present it as “news,” the story contextualizes rather than explains:
Just as the second hour meets the first I dream an explanation but the explanation
I extrapolate and that’s conditional
There is nothing unconditional — there is always room
It spreads like the shadow of knowledge over a sleeping person
Immortal before, immortal after, but mortal now
The condition of morality is conditionality, and therefore subjectivity means that “the explanation ramifies.” There is never only one explanation; there are a thousand.
Compare Hejinian’s statement about genre and authorial intention quoted above to Benjamin’s definition of a “real story” and the connection between her poetics and his idea of the story becomes clear. The story, Benjamin argues,
contains, openly or covertly, something useful. The usefulness may, in one case, consist in a moral; in another, in some practical advice; in a third, in a proverb or maxim. In every case the storyteller is a man who has counsel for his readers. But if today “having counsel” is beginning to have an old-fashioned ring, this is because the communicability of experience is decreasing. In consequence we have no counsel either for ourselves or for others. After all, counsel is less an answer to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of a story which is just unfolding. To seek this counsel one would first have to be able to tell the story.
Hejinian’s idea of “free knowing” is akin to Benjamin’s idea of “having counsel” in that the purpose of writing moves away from self-expression or authorial intention (a type of hyperindividualism) to a communal sense of coterie where writing emphasizes shared experience as the foundation for knowledge. What Hejinian consigns to changing “definitions of the self,” Benjamin assigns to the alterations in the capacity to tell a story, but both tellingly frame their critique of contemporary language use in terms of genre. Hejinian notes that even novels and lyric poetry have the capacity to feel passé if not “subverted or reinvented,” and hence the penchant for the experimental, revolutionary, and generically hybridized in her work. However, these inclinations are not necessarily new but rather hearken back to the traditional function of the story where “a man listening to a story is in the company of the storyteller” which, as Benjamin points out, is also the traditional function of poetry: “For even the reader of a poem is ready to utter the words, for the benefit of the listener.”
Benjamin anticipates the way in which events will increasingly become grist for the information-mill and come to us prepackaged as “news” stamped with the imprimatur of truth. Separated from context (and, as a result, the process of constructing meaning), events feel “objective” as personal experience gets replaced with sanctioned, institutional forms of explanation. Readers are made into consumers, which is one reason Benjamin associates information with the structures of capitalism. Under these circumstances, it should not be surprising if we begin to feel as though both what happens and what it means are inevitable. Coming to us as a fait accompli, the objectivity of information in the guise of news mimics knowledge; however, real knowledge, as it functions within the story — and this is how it is in The Book of a Thousand Eyes — replaces a sense of inevitability with a feeling of possibility. Knowledge is heuristic and creative; it is understanding in an active, provisional mode.
Adhering to Benjamin’s idea of a story, The Book of a Thousand Eyes replaces “free expression” with “free knowing” by fostering a sense of unfettered access to interpretation. The potential for knowledge comes through an engaged imaginative process. One might argue that all texts, and especially all literature, invite interpretation; however, there are different kinds of interpretation and different degrees of authorial control over meaning. The news gives us one extreme to which we’ve become accustomed: “Every morning brings us the news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation.”The Book of a Thousand Eyes, in contrast, is designed for reader intervention, encouraging the reader to enter into a linguistic exchange where the positions of “writer” and “reader” are interchangeable. Hejinian performs this exchange in the book’s opening lines:
and I myself can read
to see if what I’ve written is right.
Sleep offers an excuse
But who else would dream
the world one thinks?
It’s only there
the world repeats.
Many days are often mine.
Do I feel that
There is something of the Seafarer’s solitary “I” in the first lines (“Mæg ic be me sylfum / soðgied wrecan”). Only the dreamer can tell the dream — who else? But as the lines progress, the certainty of the speaker is replaced by uncertainty. A question mark appears. The type of authorial control insisted on by the Seafarer is substituted for Chuang Tzu’s identity paradox: When the writer wakes and reads what she has written, has she been a writer dreaming of herself as a reader or is she a reader now dreaming of herself as a writer? The writer is to the reader as waking is to the dream or the experience is to writing. One reality replaces another and both are illusions, substitutions for “the world one thinks.” The poem like a dream is capable of being transported and therefore transposed into other minds, places, contexts, and times. Perhaps it is this transitive quality that lends our days that feeling of “timeless satisfaction”? The activity of writing in Hejinian’s book is in fact geared toward transforming the writer into a reader, an interpreter of experience, a creator of knowledge through contextualization. The writer doesn’t tell the reader anything but writes in order to read, rattling the conventional correlations between the self and text by putting the reader and the writer on the same plane in relation to the story.
Hejinian treads along the fault line of a paradox: as sanctioned explanations fall away, we become increasingly responsible to the associations our minds make even as we are forced to embrace uncertainty about the validity of those connections. Reading The Book of a Thousand Eyes requires us to substitute provisional, contextualized forms of knowing for the assurances given by sound bites that inform to convince rather than to inquire. Although contextualized knowledge may seem more unstable, it is when meaning becomes discursive that events recover their capacity to be useful, applicable, and personal. Instead of exhuming a world of our own construction, the activity of writing these poems, as much as the poems themselves, provokes us to move beyond our previously held beliefs about the world. Because of what Keats famously described as our “irritable grasping after fact and reason,” there may be a tendency to take refuge in binaries like author and reader because they feel stable and unchangeable. But from the beginning, Hejinian problematizes such staid, distinct dichotomies. An innate discomfort with confusion may make information attractive, but poetry such as Hejinian’s promotes interpretation which, as Benjamin notes, “is not concerned with an accurate concatenation of definite events, but with the way these are embedded in the great inscrutable course of the world.”
Those who dream of the banquet may weep the next morning, and those who dream of weeping may go out to hunt after dawn. When we dream we do not know that we are dreaming. In our dreams we may even interpret our dreams. Only after we are awake do we know that we have dreamed. But there comes a great awakening, and then we know that life is a great dream. But the stupid think they are awake all the time and believe they know it distinctly. — Chuang Tzu
The Book of a Thousand Eyes is a thousand titles and one title, both plural and singular. It is the book of a thousand eyes, not a book of the thousand eyes. E plurbis unum? What are the epistemological implications of the “the”? What are the ontological implications of an “a”? There are either a thousand books with one reader or one book with a thousand readers, a thousand books with a single eye, or the book with a thousand eyes.
There are many — a thousand? — implications inherent in this title. Hejinian offers a history of it in her brief interview with Rusty Morrison, the editor of Omnidawn and publisher of The Book of a Thousand Eyes:
The title of the book makes a nod to The Arabian Nights, one of whose equally well-known titles is The Thousand Nights and A Night (the title that Sir Richard Burton, creator of its greatest English translation, gave it). It also alludes to “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” a popular Victorian-era poem by Francis William Bourdillon, whose opening lines are “The night has a thousand eyes / And the day but one.” The poem goes on to offer a parallel statement: “The mind has a thousand eyes / And the heart but one.” Bourdillon’s point is that the sun (as the one eye of the day) and love (as the one eye of the heart) are superior to the thousand eyes of night and the mind; I suggest that the multiple views available to the night and to the mind have something in their favor, too. 
Here’s another possible interpretation: Once, Avalokitshvara, Buddha of Compassion, finding himself on the cusp of enlightenment, chose to forgo nirvana so that he could return to the world and free all other sentient beings from their suffering. The depth of his empathy made him think he could singlehandedly rescue all souls from the condition of samsara. So he goes back and starts to draw others toward enlightenment. But for every one soul that achieves nirvana, ten more appear. In his increased effort to keep up, his head explodes into eleven pieces. Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, puts him back together and gives him nine heads and a thousand arms. Amitabha also gives each hand an eye in the center of the palm; this way, Avalokitshvara can see all who suffer and work faster. And so, Avalokitshvara commits himself to the world of illusion and the ineluctable desire for the well-being of others. While there is some debate about the meaning of his name, all scholars seem to agree that Avalokitshvara means in one way or another “the god who looks.” Avalokitshvara is the Buddha of a Thousand Eyes.
Erotic play discloses a nameless world which is revealed by the nocturnal language of lovers. Such language is not written down. It is whispered into the ear at night in a hoarse voice. At dawn it is forgotten. — part of an excerpt from Jean Genet’s “The Thief’s Journal” on the flyleaf of John Zorn’s Elegy
One way to think about The Book of a Thousand Eyes is as a postmodern version of Benjamin’s traditional story; another is to understand the relationship of the book to its generative model, Sir Richard Burton’s translation of Scheherazade’s tales, Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night. Benjamin only mentions Scheherazade in passing, but she remains a key figure for his conception of the storyteller:
It starts the web which all stories together form in the end. One ties on to the next, as the great storytellers, particularly the Oriental ones, have always readily shown. In each of them there is a Scheherazade who thinks of a fresh story whenever her tale comes to a stop. This is epic remembrance and the Muse-inspired element of the narrative.
Benjamin latches onto Scheherazade’s form of story because it offers episodic continuation, which not only creates “the chain of tradition which passes a happening on from generation to generation” but also presents “many diffuse occurrences” where multifarious stories replace the authoritative history of the “one hero, one odyssey, one battle.” Benjamin also alludes to Scheherazade when identifying the origins of this form. Identifying traders and their travel tales as one key foundation for his conception of the story, Benjamin states that “their task was less to increase its didactic content than to refine the tricks with which the attention of the listener was captured. They have left deep traces in the narrative cycle of The Arabian Nights” (101). More than a foreclosing lesson, a good story depends on suspense.
Scheherazade provides the elements of story on which Benjamin’s conceptions are based, but Benjamin never addresses the conditions that give rise to her inventions; in neither of these crucial asides does Benjamin take note of the fact that Scheherazade is a woman speaking for women. Hejinian, on the other hand, recognizes the effect a female storyteller has on the story’s purpose, meaning, and means of being told. Hejinian applies the strategies of storytelling that Benjamin identifies (postponement, discursiveness, and intrigue) to a feminist poetics that is partly derived from Scheherazade’s example. So while seeing the link to Scheherazade further illuminates the flame of the story glowing at the center of Hejinian’s poems, The Arabian Nights also provides a context for understanding what it means to say that The Book of a Thousand Eyes is a book written in the dark.
What allows for the story to exist as a social and feminist critique of patriarchal power is the context in which the story is told. Hejinian elucidates this point in her essay “La Faustienne”: “Scheherazade’s nights begin voluptuously and it is after she and Shahryar are satiated each night that she takes up her stories. It is thus narrative not sexual suspense that Scheherazade sustains.” Hejinian uses the figure of Scheherazade to critique Western Enlightenment’s conception of female power as purely sexual, since it is not Scheherazade’s body but her knowledge that keeps Shahryar in suspense. But Hejinian does not deny Scheherazade’s sexual power: with regard to both sex and storytelling, Shahryar is clearly left wanting more. In The Book of a Thousand Eyes as in The Arabian Nights, the interrelationship between the erotic and the political, the body and the story, is explicit. The narrative strategies, therefore, resist the kind of Platonic split between mind and body that underpins the tradition of Western philosophy. As Hejinian insists, “philosophy should not be hostile to the eyes.”
In Hejinian’s book, this “erotic and dramatic context”  amplifies the shouts of “You f-ing cultural pimps!” and emboldens the plots of “the wife of the merchant George” and heightens the suspicions of “the women in line after 5 pm at Blockbuster’s.” The Book of a Thousand Eyes reworks the relationship between sex and knowledge in terms decisively opposed to the binary split between the body and the imagination: “I am writing now in preconceptions / Those of sex and ropes / Many frantic cruelties occur to the flesh of the imagination.” Her knowledge is embodied; the story remains inseparable from the storyteller: “The mouth is just a body filled with imagination.” Unlike Benjamin’s view of the storyteller — “he is the man who could let the wick of his life be consumed completely by the gentle flame of his story (108) — the female storyteller undergoes a threat of physical violence that accompanies the traditional patriarchal impulse to suppress her tale. In “La Faustienne,” Hejinian offers the example of the Little Mermaid who has her tongue cut out so that she can’t sing. The female hero occupies a dual position. In order to tell her story, she must overcome a physical threat, as she must derive her power both from her body and her song: “The silencing of the fairy tale maiden renders her inner being (her thoughts, her feelings) secret. She embodies her secret; she is a nocturnal inscription, both writer and what’s written in the dark.” Scheherazade’s narrative strategies are ultimately a means to overcome both physical and intellectual domination.
So considering The Book of a Thousand Eyes “a night work” in the tradition of The Arabian Nights not only designates a particular time for the text to be written but also a particular kind of writing activity. The when and where cannot be separated from the writing’s purpose. As Hejinian observes, “Scheherazade tells her tales in bed, but their milieu is public.” The stories graft an intimate space to the public sphere. Likewise, Hejinian’s poems, while presented as dreams and therefore private, run counter to a confessional mode: instead of making intimate stories public, these poems unravel the political in an intimate setting. Sex becomes erotic foreplay to the more seductive and climactic story rather than the story using sex as a prurient form of suspense. When Hejinian says that the stories of Scheherazade are “part of that public and political tradition, though with the unique feature of being, finally, a night work,” she points to the subversive nature of the female storyteller. This “unique feature,” this context of privacy and darkness, marks Scheherazade’s narrative methods as forms of feminist storytelling to which The Book of a Thousand Eyes takes part and should be added. “Sentences in bed are not describers, they are instigators” and in their telling, the stories embodied by the female storyteller are transgressive and therefore potentially transformative.
While providing narrative tension, the arousal sustained by an “epistemological suspense” maintains a moral purpose. Hejinian espouses the discursive as a means of creating such postponement:
The narrative momentum, how one thing leads to another, thus could be said to be digressive, but not in the linear sense; the temporal linear context is, in fact, precisely what has to be reoriented if Scheherazade is to save “the daughters of the Musulmans,” herself included, and the way this is accomplished is with performative concentricities and spirals. To achieve this redemptive outcome, the tales and Scheherazade’s strategies for tale-telling defer conclusions, prolong suspense, and interiorize meaning.”
The reordering of time is not only an aesthetic postponement but also a survival strategy. Scheherazade tells stories to stave off death, which is ironically associated with dawn: “death hovers at the edge of dawn on the horizon of light when all stories come to an end, inscribing her end as well.” The feminist tale reverses traditional poetic tropes and, as a “night work,” counters the masculine tradition of poetic forms like the aubade by putting off the morning for a more urgent reason than “sweet reluctant amorous delay.” The redemptive end to which the story is addressed is nothing less than making a tyrannical ruler wise by transforming his lust for death into “an appetite for life.” The story, therefore, becomes a personal means of exerting political influence; as Hejinian explains in her interview with Morrison, “the Scheherazade story is about an Eastern woman’s generous gift of knowledge to a tyrannical ruler who is made kind and wise by it.”
The stories are embedded in a story as the days are embedded in the night, which changes both their meaning and their purpose, and it is this frame — the night work of Scheherazade herself — to which Hejinian attends and her poems extend. Political action gets exerted through the bedchamber and night gets extended into diurnal activity through story. The night work uses this intimate domestic space to inform, interrupt, and finally intervene in political discourse, working to break down the opposition between day and night, public and private, personal and political. Hejinian says, “The Book of a Thousand Eyes is a night work, in that my interest is in the processes of assimilation and assessment that take place in the figurative dark and silence of night, where opposites as such can’t exist because they always coexist.” In a profound sense, what Hejinian shares with Scheherazade is this radical sensibility to make apparent opposites coexist through the dissolution of binary categories — man and woman, us and them. Like Scheherazade, Hejinian utilizes the imagination to affect political change: “Daylight tests the imagination; the imagination, in turn, targets the dark.”
Scheherazade’s private fate is tied to all “the daughters of the Musulmans”; likewise, Hejinian’s dream-poetic counters “our fucked up structures of thought.” Both use narrative to alter the power dynamics engendered in both personal and political relationships. To a great degree, altering the dynamic of personal relationships effectively changes the dynamics between politics. It was Pound’s dream, too, for the poetry to become the instrument of enlightened leadership in this way, although his idea of exempla (forging one hero, one odyssey, one battle out of many) runs counter to the narrative strategies described by Benjamin and utilized by feminist writers like Hejinian. Mimicking the culture narratives he opposes, Pound constructs an alternative history but one that is nevertheless superior, exclusive, sanctioned, and which carries an expectation that it be properly explicated by an elite reader. To some extent, Benjamin is in line with Pound. His storyteller stands in opposition to “fully developed capitalism”; yet, as someone “who could let the wick of his life be consumed completely by the gentle flame of his story,” Benjamin’s storyteller seems relatively comfortable within its systems, maintaining a secure place in its structural hierarchies. Contrary to Pound, Hejinian uses narrative to extend outward from one incident to many, from one person to a plethora of people. And unlike Benjamin’s storyteller, Hejinian’s Scheherazade fights being consumed; rather than incinerating in the story’s blaze, she passes it on like a flame from wick to wick, and, through this accretion of small flares, illuminates the dark.
Cautious — We jar each other —
And either — open the eyes —
Lest the Phantasm — prove the Mistake —
And the livid Surprise
Cool us to Shafts of Granite —
With just an Age — and Name —
And perhaps a phrase in Egyptian —
It’s prudenter — to dream —
— Emily Dickinson
Reading The Book of a Thousand Eyes is also a good way to understand the recidivistic power of the unexpurgated fairy tale, which Benjamin identifies as the primum mobile of the story: “The first true storyteller is, and will continue to be, the teller of fairy tales. Whenever good counsel was at a premium, the fairy tale had it, and where the need was greatest, its aid was nearest.” Hejinian reassembles the fairy tale to update “good counsel” and test whether “the synthesizing tendency of the syllogism and the aphorism” can be made compatible with “radical openness.” More simply stated, can a decidedly closed form be put in the service of an open text? Since morals, maxims, and advice have become signs of authorial tyranny and even the hallmarks of “bad writing,” for Hejinian’s experiment to work, the poems must become instructive without being reductively didactic and illustrative without being linearly explanatory. Hejinian deconstructs the moralizing impulse of the fairy tale through multiplication, discursiveness, and non sequitur, shattering the acquisitive Faustian impulse toward knowledge where good counsel curdles into pedantry.
As Benjamin argues, the chief end of the story — its moral — is not didacticism but is always open-endedness: “After all, counsel is less an answer to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of a story which is just unfolding.” Or, as Hejinian writes in A Border Comedy,
the epic accumulation of good advice called ‘Happenstance’”
Can tell its own history in its own terms
In one thousand thinking sleeps
Aligning “good advice” with chance operations makes the accretion of advice or counsel a matter of incessant activity, which is more a function of continuous recontextualizing than a static collecting of exempla. Writing, then, offers advice by demonstrating a way of being in the world:
I wrote almost daily just
As the waves ring against the sand
Like quickly sinking sacks
All identical and each alone
Writing day by day — or, in this case, night by night — each poem testifies to the specific context in which it was written as the particularity of any wave is unrepeatable; at the same time, the accumulation of the poems creates a book like the cumulative repetition of waves forming the surface of the sea.
As a book that started out as a one-page addition to The Book of a Thousand Eyes, A Border Comedy is a good example of how this accumulation functions. The book as a whole works in very much the same way as the stories of which it is comprised:
One anecdotal fact would be followed by another
And many together would make a story
Consisting of “separate facts tenuously connected”
Story to story
To which everyone should add and be added
Because “an anecdotal story is merely a span / Consisting of separate facts / Each tenuously connected to the next,” it reaches beyond the limits of its pages where it becomes part of yet another, larger text. And so it goes, extending onward and outward, toward an idea of the infinite.
Whether or not they overtly adapt the form of the fairy tale, the poems in The Book of a Thousand Eyes exist between the temporal coordinates of the fairy tale’s “once” and “ever after.” The “once” is not just a casting back into the past, a reminder that things were not always as they are, but also an admonition that — and here one feels the drag of Heraclitus’s river — the story like the experience it recounts happens once and once only:
This tale like many others happened once and only once and I will tell it only once and then no more so listen well and if you do you will understand why I have filled my basket with sand
The story can be repeated, the poem reread, but the situation itself does not recur. So the moral that attends to the story will always address the particular circumstance of its hearing in a peculiar way:
That is the tale, and if you have listened well, you will understand that the four girls have lived happily ever after
But opposed to the incommensurability of “once,” there is the continuity of “ever after.” “Ever after” is the last temporal coordinate of the fairy tale and offers an alternative to the other ending: finis. As opposed to “the end” which defines a goal as a terminus, the fairy tale’s counsel — “the continuation of a story which is just unfolding”  — maintains an open-endedness and a receptivity to chance:
The point of such moral instruction is, of course, the continuation of happiness:
Let’s think of happy people going to sleep
Like Pythagoras to music. When they wake
They become persons and require clothes
And that’s what we term wakefulness.
Happiness, by definition, is dependent on good fortune and “the future, like fortune, is to be found not in events but in their meanings.” The moral of the story depends on a dream logic that offers unexpected outcomes and dodges the type of rigid identities that “require clothes.” Moreover, the disjunction of dream allows for an interpretive atmosphere that promotes the giddy surprises we often associate with being happy:
She had it in mind to go up the fir tree to watch the nude
pigeons, or angels if transparent, or a flea, like a man in mental
wind churning in the creek, two men on the road bouncing by on
glass with the greatest pleasure but not until then able to say,
it’s on the floor. I am a laconic and I have a truck. My statuette
not then and cannot now do better than a tree trunk or a wrist.
The stability of the fairy tale’s fabulist structure might make us feel secure, but it is the errancy, digression, and surprise within the fairy tale — its infinite possibilities and meanings — that make us feel free. These are the poles of the story in between which Hejinian operates.
The two impulses — the beginning and the end — come together in the narrative crisis, frequently marked in The Book of a Thousand Eyes by the word “suddenly.” The critical hinge in any story, “suddenly” is both the inevitable turn of events and the liberating surprise, the expected unexpected leap. In The Book of a Thousand Eyes, Hejinian frequently uses the fabulist’s well-used trope to shift away from the sequential logic of chronology that falsely sutures experiences together into one long slog. “Suddenly” cuts and splices images and events together in an unforeseen way:
Suddenly a film
Weathering a film
Shareably a film, shakily a film
A film about a man who’s framed
“Suddenly” juxtaposes contexts and provides multiple, simultaneous frames for what we think of as experience. “But,” as Hejinian qualifies early on in The Book of a Thousand Eyes, “The word suddenly is always relative.” Suddenly, too, requires a specific, limiting context to furnish its surprise; so, if Hejinian’s conscious and conscientious use of the fairy tale’s conventions do not entirely free us from the conventions themselves, the poems reveal how these structures might at times unnecessarily confine us.
I was in Paradise or in the vain fantasies of a dream. — The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night
The Book of a Thousand Eyes took almost twenty years to write. In contrast, Scheherazade told stories for about three years. These are the living contexts, the “real time” of the storyteller who tells the tale within which the time of the story expands and contracts. There is the dream that may last a few minutes and the time within the dream which may feel like forever. There is the time it takes to read a book and the time it takes to write it. The story outlasts both. As far as poetry books go, The Book of a Thousand Eyes is a long book (333 pages) and therefore requires time to read, and therefore accrues meaning over time, and therefore changes as it is read and reread, since its entirety cannot be retained by memory.
Taking twenty years to write, The Book of a Thousand Eyes is a postmodern, deconstructed epic akin to Zukofsky’s “A.” Beyond the deft blending of the political and the personal, the shifting between an autonomous “I” and a communal “Thou,” the book mediates temporalities, as epics tend to do whatever their ostensible subject matter. The poems flit between classical temporal conceptualizations — carpe diem and tempus edax rerum, tempus filia temporis and tempus fugit (often figured allegorically as the Fugitive). There’s Kronos and Chairos as well as the proverbial tic toc.
It is a book of hours, its length a reminder of the extent of our days and of Scheherazade who told a story every night in order to survive. The poems are short, circuitous, cross-pollinating. There are no hierarchies or chronologies beyond the inevitable order of the pages. Titles, numbering, chapters are absent; the poems are separated by a symbol that looks like an asterisk in full bloom or some type of astral flower, or perhaps it is a sleeping celestial eye.
The index of The Book of a Thousand Eyes is its most telling poem. It is a compendium as well as an alphabetically ordered reminiscence (a gesture toward an open-ended totality). It reveals the affects of order on randomness (and randomness on order) by restructuring the sequence of the poems and decontextualizing the first lines. These lines, which become the last poem in the book, offer new connections that accrue fresh meaning in their indexical context. As both a foundry and a foundation, a means of finding and recalling, collecting and recollecting, the index is the book’s memory: it both contains the book and is contained by it.
The index refutes the book’s ostensible end on page 333 where we wake into an unspeculative dawn, its rosy figures reaching out to strangle the book’s protean dream. So the index becomes the continuation of a dream from which you have already awoken. The index begins:
Accident and necessity renew their fatal pact,
A dream, still clinging like light to dark
And ends 282 lines later:
With fish fault thought,
Wobbly deeds possess vitality
Written descriptions are no more than tickets,
Yesterday has arrived and remains,
Your brain is like a lake,
You’ve taken off your socks,
If “When they wake / They become persons and require clothes / And that’s what we term wakefulness,” then The Book of a Thousand Eyes is a book of no shoes, no shirts, and full service.
I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours. — Bob Dylan
The Book of a Thousand Eyes makes happiness a moral imperative. Benjamin writes, “The wisest thing — so the fairy tale taught mankind in olden times, and teaches children to this day — is to meet the forces of the mythical world with cunning and with high spirits.” Hejinian echoes this: “Though they may not be redemptive in effect, the diverse works that comprise The Book of a Thousand Eyes argue for the possibilities of a merry, pained, celebratory, mournful, stubborn commitment to life.” The accretion of poems is both a matter of endurance and a means to make matter endure. To put it in Viktor Shklovsky’s adamantine terms, they make the story stony and the stone storied.
Because in the end, Hejinian’s writing proves that we are not real in any absolute way. We do not last and eventually, we leave no trace. One of the great literary fictions of which even the scientific bent of the Enlightenment did not rid us is that writing’s perpetuity makes us indelible. Perhaps it was even part of the project of the Enlightenment to foster this assurance of immortality. But not even writing can prevent our eventual disappearance. Writing can, however, replace us. Not by becoming a relic that outlasts the body — although it might be that sometimes for some — but, more profoundly, by becoming an erratic reality that takes the place of an illusion we call variously the world, experience, memory, reality, the self. The story substitutes the fantasy of the perpetual self with the perspicacity of a dream that sees through the “seems” of what otherwise appears to us as a seamless continuity. Because, as The Book of a Thousand Eyes demonstrates, writing that has at its heart “a commitment to life” is different in kind than writing that intends to perpetuate by memorializing. As Benjamin states, “the statement that makes no sense for real life becomes indisputable for remembered life.” In life, the insensibility of death expresses itself as nonsense or as non sequitur; otherwise, life appears as remembrance and, from the vantage of death, as a totality that is always already completed. As Hejinian quotes in “La Faustienne,” “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.’” In The Book of a Thousand Eyes, being alive is clearly not the opposite of being dead but rather an aporia of which dying cannot make sense. If “A man … who died at thirty-five will appear to remembrance at every point in his life as a man who dies at the age of thirty-five,” then a commitment to life means resisting finality and finding, through the forms that language allows, ways of writing that depend on change and chance and express plenitude rather than a plenum:
Everything changes but perhaps the whole remains although it seems unlikely as
well as undesirable
There is nothing but reality
Once there was a man named Task-in-Life and there is no perhaps about that
There can’t be perhaps about anything that is
But perhaps there is
1. Lyn Hejinian, “La Faustienne,” in The Language of Inquiry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000). Hejinian writes, “The Book of a Thousand Eyes is a night work … I have wanted to write in the dark, so to speak, when the mind must accept the world it witnesses by day and out of all data assemble meaning” (250).
8. Benjamin writes, “Information … lays claim to prompt verifiability. The prime requirement is that it appear ‘understandable in itself.’ Often it is no more exact than the intelligence of earlier centuries was. But while the latter was inclined to borrow from the miraculous, it is indispensable for information to sound plausible. Because of this it proves incompatible with the spirit of storytelling” (89).
14. “A Brief Interview with Lyn Hejinian,” by Rusty Morrison (Omnidawn). Hejinian states, “The Thousand Eyes project proliferated; it might be thought of as a source work, one element of a larger process, as well as a creative compendium in its own right.”
19. For context, see page 33 of “Song of Myself.”
21. For context, see page page 50 of “Song of Myself.”
27. Hejinian’s publishing project Atelos is “devoted to publishing, under the sign of poetry, writing which challenges the conventional definitions of poetry, since such definitions have tended to isolate poetry from intellectual life, arrest its development, and curtail its impact. All the works published as part of the Atelos project are commissioned specifically for it, and each is involved in some way with crossing traditional genre boundaries, including, for example, those that would separate theory from practice, poetry from prose, essay from drama, the visual image from the verbal, the literary from the non-literary, and so forth.”
29. Hejinian makes this distinction while discussing authorial intention in “La Faustienne”: “The sense of independence must now include, where it hasn’t been replaced by, a sense of interdependence, and, in writing, interest in free expression may be giving way to interest in free knowing” (235).
32. The line can be translated variably: Burton Raffel translates it, “This tale is true, and mine.” Raffel’s translation emphasizes the two key words — “true” and “mine” — that inflect each other through the poem. Ezra Pound combines the gritty Old English sound with connotations of reckoning when, punning on wrecan, he famously transposed the line as “May I for my own self song’s truth reckon.” The word “reckon” not only connotes the sense of fate underpinning the poem (i.e. a reckoning) but also gets at the spoken quality of the poem by selecting a colloquial Americanism for recall. My own translation is “I myself must a true tale tell.” While similar to Raffel’s, my emphasis is different. I want to stress “myself” in order to evoke the solitariness of the Seafarer and also “tell” along with “truth” to suggest storytelling as a third term that negotiates the “true” and the “mine.” I also try to capture the alliteration that formally organizes the Anglo-Saxon line. However one translates the line, the sense of the storyteller using personal experience as the basis for discerning truth seems analogous to what Hejinian explores in Book of a Thousand Eyes.
36. Morrison, Interview.
37. According to Random House Dictionary, nirvana is “freedom from the endless cycle of personal reincarnations, with their consequent suffering, as a result of the extinction of individual passion, hatred, and delusion: attained by the Arhat as his goal but postponed by the Bodhisattva.” The world literally means “to blow out, a blowing out (‘not transitively, but as a fire ceases to draw’).”
38. According to Random House Dictionary, samsara is “the process of coming into existence as a differentiated, mortal creature.” It is also “the endless series of births, deaths, and rebirths to which all beings are subject.” The word literally means, “running together.”
40. Despite the passing references to Scheherazade, Benjamin’s storyteller is decidedly male. Benjamin places a notable emphasis on “him” and “his.” The emphasis is, of course, partly due to the fact that he models his storyteller on Leskov; yet, more broadly, Benjamin conceives of the political arena for the story in fairly patriarchal terms.
49. In this context, we can see that the aesthetic move to occupy both the reader and writer positions and liberate them from their adversative relationship becomes yet another strategy to overcome the patriarchal suppression of feminist narratives by occupying both the subjective and objective positions.
58. Morrison, Interview.
63. The connotations of recidivism may seem oxymoronic in relation to “good counsel”; however, by calling the fairy tale recidivistic, I would like to suggest that good counsel tends to resist rather than reinforce social conventions. The resulting poetic repetition and reconfiguration of traditional forms, therefore, is not conservative but pursues radical social transformation.
66. Lyn Hejinian, “The Rejection of Closure,” in The Language of Inquiry, 40–58. Hejinian writes, “Form does not necessarily achieve closure, nor does raw materiality provide openness. Indeed, the conjunction of form with radical openness may be what can offer a version of the ‘paradise’ for which writing often yearns — a flowering focus on a distinct infinity” (42). She then goes on to define “open” and “closed”: “We can say that a ‘closed text’ is one in which all the elements of the work are directed toward a single reading of it. Each element confirms that reading and delivers the text from a lurking ambiguity. In the ‘open text,’ meanwhile, all the elements of the work are maximally excited; here it is because ideas and things exceed (without deserting) argument that they have taken into the dimension of the work” (42–3).
70. Morrison, Interview.
72. At one point in A Border Comedy, Hejinian calls the poem “a writing in lost contexts” (63): by “mov[ing] from one [of the poem’s fifteen books] to the next / In the course of many days adding every day / A few lines to a book / Each of which takes a long time and considerable thought,” Hejinian “facilitates forgetting” (151). Along with allowing for continuous recontextualizing, forgetting becomes a means of retention as well as repetition. For example, with regard to the story, Hejinian writes,
An anecdotal story is merely a span
Consisting of separate facts
Each tenuously connected to the next (27)
Several pages later, Hejinian writes,
Just as, in the old days (to quote Viktor Shklovsky)
One anecdotal fact would be followed by another
And many together would make a story
Consisting of “separate facts tenuously connected”
Story to story
To which everyone should add and be added
And be confused (31)
75. Benjamin again uses the novel as contrast to the story’s “ever after”: “[T]he novel reaches an end which is more proper to it, in a stricter sense, than to any story. Actually there is no story for which the question as to how it continued would not be legitimate. The novelist, on the other hand, cannot hope to take the smallest step beyond that limit at which he invites the reader to a divinatory realization of the meaning of life by writing ‘Finis’” (“The Storyteller,” 100). To extend the point further, we can turn to Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon, 2006), where he reminds us that “The Latin word finis has two meanings: the end or the finish, and a goal to reach” (70). In terms of Benjamin’s genre categories, this means that the story resists the kind of teleological ending that gives meaning to a novel.
85. Morrison, Interview.
87. Hans Blumenberg, qtd. in “La Faustienne,” 250. Hejinian cites Hans Blumenberg’s “Light as the Metaphor for Truth” in order to argue against the dialectical categories of the Enlightenment that oppose Being to non-Being (cf. 249–50).
A review of Gail Scott's 'The Obituary'
Gail Scott’s The Obituary occupies and animates the tantalizing space of the in-between. Between English and French, poetry and prose, lurid gutter noir and stylish Hitchcockian thriller, Scott’s novel (though it is in some sense an injustice to characterize it simply as a novel) inhabits these elusive gaps, experimenting at every turn with subjectivity, grammar, and the poetics of lapsus. Set in Montreal, The Obituary reflects the city’s gleeful heterogeneity — its negotiation of old, new, and postmodern, francophone, anglophone, allophone, and native cultures. The novel’s main protagonist, I/Rosine/Rosie is haunted by the latter and by the suppression of a secret history — her Métis origins — in her journey from rural Alberta to Montreal, Quebec and present-day Mile-End, a culturally diverse neighborhood at the heart of Montreal’s artistic community. Scott’s previous novels, especially Heroine (1987) and Main Brides (1993), are likewise about Montreal as signifier: neither European nor American nor conventionally Canadian, nestled on the fringes, happily bridging a French sensibility for the subtle and the erotic and a North American desire for openness — a metropolis that, like Scott’s writing, is polyvocal, swerving, and elegantly eclectic.
The particular vibrancy of Mile-End, with its working class history, bohemian aura, and quintessential architecture, is as much a character as it is a backdrop for The Obituary’s plot — an oblique murder mystery, for which the French term intrigue is, not accidentally, the mot juste. Scott presents us with a matrix of narrators, scenarios, histories, and dialects, all tinged with amorous conspiracy. We are made to inhabit the often voyeuristic perspectives of its many narrators — I/Rosine, who rides the bus through the city soaking up its “little conflagrations” (7); an anachronistic gendarme who obsessively tracks Rosine’s comings and goings; the multiple, ghostly voices of her mother, Veeera, Uncle Peeet, and Auntie Dill; MacBeth, the dubious neighborhood psychoanalyst; Face, the all-seeing visage behind the blinds at 4999 rue Settler-Nun (the triplex at the novel’s center); “I/th’fly,” a lascivious fly-on-the-wall, whose multilensed eyes probe when others would turn away; and the elusive Basement Bottom Historian, who “guards against overinterpretation” (10), often in the footnotes. From the outset, then, The Obituary asks us to immerse ourselves in a delightfully tangled sonic landscape whose silences and gaps are as telling as its declamations — a symphonic reading environment in which we loiter hoping to discern the “tale encrypted mid all these future comings + goings of parlour queens, telephone girls, leather divas, and Grandpa’s little split-tailed fis’” (6).
But it is Scott’s clever use of the triplex as architectural signifier, historical marker, and poetic space — “Is not landscape the supreme historian?” a narrator asks (42) — that ties these many threads together. The triplex at 4999 rue Setter-Nun (a fictional address) becomes the literal and figurative space of intrigue in The Obituary, a three-dimensional palimpsest that defines, even as it is defined by, the characters who inhabit its walls. As one of Scott’s narrators puts it, “If material conditions shape the spirit, we may empirically declare the Triplex the place where what is happening is the place” (16). Indeed, the three-dimensionality of the triplex, “awkward as 3-D set of Dial M for Murder” (18), is echoed in the structure of the novel, as layers of language accrue and it comes to resemble a relief sculpture — a surface we have chipped away at, but whose depths we have not quite set free. In this respect, its murder plot might be read as an intentional red herring. Solving the crime (or even determining of what the crime consists) is not nearly as important as the various ways of seeing/sleuthing enacted throughout the book, and the search for clues, i.e. the experience of Scott’s experimental style, is far more captivating than the brute information — the corpse — we eventually discover. A perfect example of The Obituary’s franglais sensibility, each errant “clou” we stumble upon — “Here is a clou in th’case.” (71) — is literally one more nail in the coffin. As readers, then, we peer through various portals — the doorways, the blinds, the “oeil de beouf” windows, and an entire section entitled “VENETIANS THAT EVEN PRIVATE EYES HAVE TROUBLE SLEUTHING” — all of which happily conceal as much as they reveal.
Yet, the novel’s experiments with the lure of language, its “slippy-slidey sentences, switching this way + that” (33), do not amount to wordplay for its own (beautiful) sake. Just as the Mile-End triplex encodes a history of its many renovations, The Obituary constantly revises its own story and method, “little by little revealing why we meandering in speaking” (33). This process of revision gestures toward a “future novel space” (24) that Scott portrays as a prosthesis for the past, a scarred signifier that takes the place of a history that was never written: the novel’s indigenous secret, its “Indig-nation” (56). In this way, the textures of everyday life and its intrigues, so expertly rendered through the eyes of Rosine and her cohort of narrators, are emblematic of the kinds of diagetic repression that allow her (and her family, her city, her nation) to not-quite-forget, for “Do not skyscrapers bear, deep within, straw huts? The person, her ancestors” (115)?
Ultimately, then, Scott’s novel performs the desire to uncover that which has been “nearly totally felt-pen redacted” (61), the crucial details — shards, flashes, and “scintillas” — that explain the present via the “past + its objects, as saying great Walter B” (116). Benjamin, who was an interlocutor in Scott’s My Paris (1999), appears in this novel as a ghostly reminder of these chance interactions between surface and depth and of what Benjamin calls our “tenden[cy] to deflect the imagination … back upon the primal past.” Scott’s Montreal, like Benjamin’s Paris, vibrates with our “collective pathos” (145), and The Obituary, in the process of writing that collective history, invents a new vernacular for its (and our own) hybridity.
Building is a Process / Light is an Element: Essays and Excursions for Myung Mi Kim
Andrew Rippeon and Michael Cross, editors
In my language of Tagalog, the word “dura” means spit. In this way, Myung Mi Kim’s Dura is potentially a circumstance of utterance as much as it risks the gesture of contempt as much as it attempts to manage one’s digestion as much as its perceptions clarify cultural practice as much as it risks the evanescence of spitting. Zhou Xiaojing’s essay “The Nomadic Poetics of Myung Mi Kim’s Dura” elaborates further on the word’s plasticity as it exists in the present:
“Dura” “is the name of a critically endangered language of Nepal, [and] of the ethnic group that historically spoke it” (Wikipedia Encyclopedia 2006). But the meaning and spelling of the word vary and multiply with geographical and historical differences, evoking “translinguistically” (Kim’s word 2007) the nomadic and rhizomatic movements of Dura. According to Standard College Dictionary, “dura,” or “durra,” is a variety of sorghum of southern Asia and northern Africa. It is also “spelled dhoora, dhourra, doura, dura,” and “called Guinea corn.” Another variation of its spelling is “durr,” or “dhura” in Arabic (1963). In addition, “dura” has yet another rhizomatic line of mutation: as [Josephine] Park notes, “dura” in Spanish is the adjective “hard,” which modifies “a feminine noun.” And in Western medicine, the phrase “dura mater” has evolved from the Latin “tough mother.” According to OED, “dura mater” refers to “the dense, tough, outermost membranous envelope of the brain and spinal cord.”
Movement created by the sensation of recession and advancement is at the heart of one’s pronominal constitutions. Kim’s poems are dwellings in constant states of contraction and expansion akin to breathing and, by extension, flesh out the responsibility of reading amid the plastic states of language on the page in the here and now.
Kim states the complexity of this dwelling in an interview with Yedda Morrison titled “Generosity as Method”: “I’m interested in augmenting or complicating that model of change by opposition, by friction, by overthrowing the law of the father, in order to embrace a model of radicalization that doesn’t solely rely on that kind of direct opposition.” In this way, Kim’s works also attempt to question my capacity to utter the aforementioned potential of “dura,” which makes inquiries on her work, published or otherwise, necessarily a part of her work.
A relentless refrain heard all throughout Building is a Process / Light is an Element: Essays and Excursions for Myung Mi Kim, edited by Michael Cross and Andrew Rippeon, comes from a line in Dura: “Propose: constant translation.” This proposal fills the book with those attempting to document their own impressions of Kim’s inquiries of, off, and on the page. By enacting this end on the page, Kim’s poems question the terms of their arrival in our reading:
Propose: constant translation. Propose: the
application of the compass to navigation. Propose: from
a settlement, a capital grows. Propose: foray, expansion.
Propose: as relates to an America. Propose: as relates
to immigrant. Propose: knowledge becomes the parlance
of the state. Propose: sound combinations. Propose:
The anaphoric repetition of “Propose:” creates an experience of motion rooted on the etymology of the word “propose” and the spatial movements it proposes inasmuch as it becomes an attempt to redefine the word “propose” in Dura. According to the OED, the Latin propositus “put or set forth” and Old French poser “to place” influence the word “propose.” One can read the first “proposal” in three ways: 1) a call to put forward or set in motion the act of constantly translating (or carrying across from the Latin translatus), 2) a redefinition of propose as “constant translation” and 3) an attempt to reconstitute the event of proposal in relation to the various spatial configurations the poem posits.
In Building is a Process / Light is an Element, Michael Cross, a coeditor of the book, states the struggle of the question in his essay “Becoming-Subject”:
As the opening volume in a long poem including both Commons (2002) and Penury (2009), Dura  signals a mode of listening that, most importantly, takes the diaphanous nature of legibility as its premise — that legibility must be practiced or maintained — that our whole bodies must listen, and, in turn, struggle to respond.
Yet, what is at stake in this struggle? And, how is this struggle not merely a way to postpone a writer’s responsibility to make legible the circumstances and conditions of our dwelling today? These conditions of legibility are discussed in Maryanne Wolf’s book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain:
We were never born to read. Human beings invented reading only a few thousand years ago. And with this invention, we rearranged the very organization of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species. Reading is one of the single most remarkable inventions in history; the ability to record history is one of its consequences. Our ancestors’ invention could come about only because of the human brain’s extraordinary ability to make new connections among its existing structures, a process made possible by the brain’s ability to be shaped by experience. The plasticity at the heart of the brain’s design forms the basis for much of who we are, and who we might become.
At the same time, Walter Benjamin states the following in the seventh thesis from his essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History”: “The nature of this sadness stands out more clearly if one asks with whom the adherents of historicism actually empathize. The answer is inevitable: with the victor.” We were never born to read, yet the reading and justification of history is inextricably woven into the violence in history. The interaction between the page and our pagelessness has informed our sense of humanity as much as it has been used to violently revise it.
The struggle to respond to Kim’s work is a circumstance of how her work attempts to enact and resist this interaction. It attempts to recognize the ways in which we as readers are already implicated in these processes inasmuch as there is a belief in the capacity of reading to affect these processes. Her poetry is a circumstance of rendering legible the implications of her being a Korean-American who participates in the revolving door of language as it pertains to history. The proposal for constant translation becomes a form of attuning the selfsame movement that diaspora creates on the page and, by extension, its interrogation of history inasmuch as it can also be observed in pedagogy. Kim’s interrogation is one that implicates itself by the fact of its taking place on the page and the weight of history inextricably woven into the page. In this way, the act of reading her poems is in constant motion as it enacts and interrogates history thereby changing the conditions of the reading inasmuch as her work interrogates the terms in which we as readers are historical. This can be seen in her poem “311” from Commons:
Hours whose length varied with seasons
Hours held by mechanical clock
An abstract metric to gauge daily time
Compendium to dispersals of currency
Farm and factory, bank and municipality
travel . athwart
What would identify the speakers of the idiom
The conditions of our historicity begin with the way we participate in rendering time legible. The poem “311” belongs to the section “Lamenta,” where enumerated poems unfold chronologically albeit fragmented while interspersed with poems composed of historical accounts of dissection all titled “Vocalise.” Between the numbered poems and the “Vocalise” poems, the logic of the number to create value as it is vocalized is consistently present.
The poem’s first two lines engage with the development of time harnessed from the seasons and inevitably constituted as technology (i.e. “mechanical clock”) to manifest repetition that is similarly enacted in the repetition of “Hours” on the left margin. These repetitions are understood as abstract in the third line once hours are translated from designating the passing of seasons to numerical repetition in the mechanical clock’s organization of a day. The figurative use of “compendium” in the fourth line highlights the relationship of valuation created numerically with the clock and currency, yet it is also a way to address the legibility of the two in relation to the pagination of the book.
These inquiries in value are explicitly addressed in the development of spatial centers that harness and manage the relationship between clock and currency in the fifth and sixth line. Here, measurement (i.e. work hours of “farm and factory” and money of “bank and municipality”) implicates space by creating its mobility within the frames of measurement’s fluency. The poem ends with the question and explanation of fluency created by these mutations in measurement through time. These abstract metrics become fluencies that become idioms that are vocalized in order to create the enclosures of historicity.
We were never born to read, yet these movements and inquiries on legibility serve “To mobilize the notion of our responsibility to one another in social space,” which is the last line from Commons. The capacity to think through the responsibility of reading is inextricably woven into Kim’s vocation as a teacher. Andrew Rippeon, the other coeditor of the book, observes this practice in his essay “‘Once we leave a place is it there’: Radical Pedagogy”:
To say Myung’s practice is radically pedagogical, then, is to say that it wants to make the primary scene of pedagogy — that dislocation of the plural subject by positioning it in a spatial-temporal interval, rather than at a particular location and time — the very place to which we’re being taken, the very matter of the way we’ve set out upon: “A time of writing as a time of reception. Relativizing” (Spelt, np). The epistolary Spelt, with Susan Gevirtz, is one example, in more ways than one, of this bringing of the interval to itself. Writing as on the way to each other. Writing as the ground upon which each sets out with the other. Writing as on the way to itself … In such a gesture as Spelt is in its entirety, the writing becomes the paidagogos: plural, restive, led and leading, facilitator of later transformations for other subjects.
Rippeon’s theoretical engagement with Kim’s pedagogy continues Kim’s proposal for constant translation as much as accounts of Kim’s pedagogy are encountered time and time again in Building is a Process / Light is an Element, especially Zack Finch’s account from his essay “Among Passages: Studying with Myung Mi Kim”:
Myung offered her own metaphor on that first day of class: what if we modeled our meetings in terms of the studio rather than the workshop? ... Whereas only one activity takes place in a workshop, devoted strictly to production, a studio is a space where an artist works, studies, eats, sleeps, and idles. It’s also a place where one welcomes friends and visitors every so often for a studio visit. Entering into that space, one often finds the margins to be just as interesting and informative as whatever’s being framed as “the work.” Every fragment, every clipping, every piece of kindling speaks of a world of material potential, a practice very much in progress.
Kim proposes the form of this potential at the beginning of her work “Fell (for six multilingual voices)” from Penury:
: | Measure streets by the number of uniforms
: | It’s the pitch of the cry that carries
: | Hunger noise thirst noise fear noise
: | Inside acts conducted outside
: | Decades of continuous drought
: | Weapon and deed
Each multilingual voice posits a pattern that vocalizes the space it disperses. The private and public, through the process of their interactions, create a dwelling as the aforementioned model of radicalization observed in the reorientation of the workshop to the studio. Here, dwelling is manifested as pedagogical practice, where one’s thinking in the present progressive is the space in which others can reside.
From the streets and uniforms as echoes of the public it aims to account for in the first voice to the valences of noise sounded out by the demands of the body (i.e. hunger, thirst, and fear) that harmonizes with “Inside acts conducted outside” in the third and fourth voice to forms of technology that impose voice (i.e. weapon) and space (i.e. deed) in the sixth voice, every line renders a sensation of recession and advancement in the revolving door of language framed by the potentiality of multilingual voices. This sensation, much like my experience of the word “dura,” the book Dura and the utterances in Kim’s oeuvre renders the word legible the moment it disperses and is carried.
3. Michael Cross, “Becoming-Subject in Myung Mi Kim’s Dura,” in Building is a Process / Light is an Element: Essays and Excursions for Myung Mi Kim, ed. Michael Cross and Andrew Rippeon (New York: P-Queue/Queue Books, 2008), 119.
The spiritual materials of Hank Lazer and giovanni singleton
Hank Lazer’s most recent collection, N18 (complete), and giovanni singleton’s first collection of poetry, Ascension, deploy similar formal strategies to remind us of an old truth: the bone of spirit means just that, the inseparability of the spiritual from the material. Lazer uses handwritten shapewriting as a kind of “first tool” to meditate on song, knowledge, and being in relation to the quest for transcendence embodied in his ongoing projects. singleton frames her more normative meditative lyricism with shapewritten (non-standard) typographical differences. Moreover, singleton’s book title, an allusion to a John Coltrane composition, might very well describe the strategic turns and twists of N18 as a kind of Nocturnes 18 — serpentine handwriting as night music (and an allusion to the name of the poetry journal singleton edits) that points toward what hovers “above” or “beyond” while Days, a previous Lazer book, could serve as the alternate title of “Eye of the Behearer,” a section of singelton’s book composed in honor of the forty-nine day passage of Alice Coltrane’s soul into eternity. In citing an earlier Lazer publication as well as singleton’s magazine Nocturnes, I am suggesting that the paths of these two poets have long been intertwined even if they do not know it (or each other’s work). I refer here not to their metaphysical ruminations — we could cite everyone from Nathaniel Mackey to Elizabeth Robinson, Noah Eli Gordon to Fanny Howe, on that score — but rather to the specific procedural methods both poets deploy as gestures toward the ineffable.
N18 (complete) is the latest incarnation of Hank Lazer’s work as a series of Benjaminesque dreambooks: allusions to, and quotations from, Levinas, Heidegger, et al. dominate the text (qualitatively if not quantitatively). The Nietzschean-Heideggerean subtexts offset each other rather well, the former’s humor and hubris compensating for the latter’s solemnity, though as absorbed and refigured through Lazer’s writing, these serpentine citations still make for some fairly “serious” reading. On the other hand, the spare, fierce lyricism of Ascension, harmonizing with the late music of Coltrane, has the effect of the epigram and aphorism, though without the despair underlying, say, Pascal. As for “content,” the differences are stark enough. The cultural contexts of singleton’s work — in general, what do “we” do in the wake (in every sense of the word) of the Black Arts Movement and its “political” wing, the radical Black Power movement — grounds her work in a specific culture and epoch even as it attempts, ambivalently, to go beyond the last century’s very real social and political possibilities, however much compromised, internally, by sloganeering and posturing. By comparison, as its apotheosis of shapewriting implies, N18 is both more iconoclastic and “universal” inasmuch as the Big Topics — “the downpour of holiness goes by the name each instant is miraculous the …” (21) — processed through Oulipo proceduralism, explicitly inform its trajectory. Still, each book, in its own way, seems to presuppose an impasse — spiritual and political, metaphysical and materialistic — that is both specific to our epoch and, possibly, a general condition of human existence. In that sense, as Elizabeth Robinson notes in her Rain Taxi review of singleton’s book, Ascension must be understood, pace its title, as a refusal of verticality and its hierarchical implications.
In that spirit, Ascension opens with a mandala entitled “The Odds,” essentially a spiraling series of hedged bets — “read the leaves roll the dice shuffle the cards lay the runes write some poems and pray pray pray” (3) — and closes in “silence” with “Eye of the Be/Holder,” an abbreviated journey toward (Buddhist) self-abnegation (the three movements of the poem are “I,” “I,” and “.”), that “final” period a nano-mandala purified of language. Between “The Odds” and “Eye of the Be/Holder” three serial poems challenge verticality even though they, as more or less normative poems written in English, invite left-right, top-bottom, reading practices. “Eye of the Behearer” and “Melanin Suite,” comprised, respectively, of forty-nine and nine movements, link the bardo of Alice Coltrane’s soul to the dialectics of negrophobia (e.g., Jim Crow) and negrophilia (e.g., the Black Arts Movement). Singleton imagines this “argument” regarding the “negro” transcended by the spiritual flights in “Exodus” (“this earthen soul, a flock / of birds // where we are new / we are new / we are new to this body”) (62), a poem situated between “Eye of the Behearer” and “Melanin Suite.” The thesis-antithesis-synthesis structure, traditionally represented by the pyramid (replicated in “Day 45” of “Eye of the Behearer” as a triangle comprised of the repeated sentence “The World Is Round” — thematizing the mandala — and punctuated at its heart by the tag “Ain’t it”), is echoed by the last poem in “Melanin Suite,” an acrostic tribute to ecumenism that spells out Alice Coltrane’s name, the first letter of which represents both pyramid and triangle: “vedAntic / tempLe prayers / tambourInes and / hallelujah Claps for/Krishna, GanEsha, Shiva” (75). Unlike the normative wordprocessed fonts of the bulk of “Eye of the Behearer” and “Melanin Suite,” both “Exodus” and the acrostic are reprints of pages typed on a “broken” typewriter (the right column of “Exodus” is a handwritten series of Greek letters). These typographical irregularities mimic handwriting, suggesting that, for singleton, the “moments” of transcendence can only appear, from the perspective of the world, as apotheoses of iconoclasm.
In N18, Lazer accepts the apotheosis of iconoclasm, of handwritten shapewriting. In our historical moment, such a gesture can be understood as both pre-and post-conceptual, pre- and post-flarf, even though it approaches the former’s solemnity more than it does the latter’s humor. The tension Lazer enacts here is largely (though not only) formal: a personal hand writing its way through largely Western philosophical and theological arguments, ideas and values. Though Lazer’s “own” thoughts are given more than their due here, neither his ideas nor his procedures reverse the text-marginalia relationship; rather, N18 emphasizes the ideational (rather than the sensory) level of citation in general. The centrality of the a priori text — here, as direct quotations — and its authoritative potency is only partially mitigated by Lazer’s handwritten shapewriting since his ideas bear the traces of his predecessors. For example, the page dated 10/16/10 is comprised of two quotations in the shape of mandalas linked by two lines of “original” writing: “pay attention pay attention to what / what exactly it is that calls us into attention.” Echoing singleton’s “pray pray pray,” this page of writing has the shape of a quarter note, not the first or last time Lazer (like singleton) links the possibility of transcendence to music (cf. Days). Despite their mutual valorization of the uppermost limits, the Heideggerean-Levinasean undertones in N18 pigeonhole Lazer as the prototypical scholar-academic poet. Of course, to put it that way only reinscribes what N18 (as well as some of Lazer’s previous books) is at pains to dispel: the Romantic notion of originality as the aesthetic value par excellence of poetry. Indeed, what marks Lazer’s writing is its insistence on playing with the tradition, somewhat along the lines of jazz improvisations of popular tunes: “on the bridge to sing with the sound of what passes by / this way / his way / the play // of sway machinery” (37). In that sense, Lazer’s handwritten shapewriting is not teleological or, if it is, if it does tend toward the answer or the truth, it insists on dancing down the many roads already traveled. That traditional, if ecumenical, impulse also links N18 to Ascension. Still, if N18 is more scholarly, more academic, than Ascension, Lazer’s apparent aversion to titles — the book is one long poem — and narrative makes it even more serial, more radical, than the poems that comprise singleton’s book. Or does it? After all, a few of the pages of N18 are dated. At any rate, Lazer’s writing, largely shorn of the lyricism that informs Ascension, can be read as a critical “commentary” on singleton’s work. And need I add that Ascension can be understood as marking the limits of the sweeping grandeur that shadows N18?
1. Do dates of composition function as titles? Put another way, does the shift from thematic or structural markers — the usual function of titles — to temporal ones reduce the normal stop-and-go reading process? Is the difference between a title of letters and one of numbers merely the difference between red stop and yellow slow down signs? And in the context of reading practices in our age, what is the significance of the fact that Ascension asks us to occasionally “stop” while N18 (complete) “merely” asks us to slow down?