Nothing but passage, for Lyn Hejinian

Lyn Hejinian at the launch of Belladonna Elders Series #5: Poetry, Landscape, Apocalypse in New York. Photo by erica kaufman.

I first read Lyn's The Beginner in a campground. It was a parting gift from Kazim Ali. I was leaving New York to start grad school at Berkeley, driving across the country with my husband and three-year-old son, and I was five months pregnant. I remember precisely the camping chair, the trees behind and to the side of me, the fire pit. “This is a good place to begin,” I read, and kept reading.

          Listening, especially at dawn, to birds,
seductive facts, we listen to their songs as to the songs
of brains.
          We wake and dream wanting a great accum-
ulation of adventures, as complex a thought as possible
and all there, if only for a minute, nothing but passage.
          What things know no one knows, what we
were we don’t remember, nothing stops, clarification
is constant and ubiquitous even if things are unclear
and occasions don’t

Here was sensation (listening), seduction, dream, desire, and a theory: the theory that even as all is in flux, happily unfixable and perhaps unhappily forgettable, the mind will nonetheless engage in a “constant” process of “clarification.” Importantly, clarification is not calcification. Instead, I gathered — or more, felt as I read on — the greater the “accumulation of adventure,” the more “ubiquitous” this clarification process is, and vice versa. In other words, an open mind is a clear mind; a clear mind must be open. This strange-seeming contradiction, in which accepting flux, allowing for movement, produces clarity rather than chaos, is at the core of what Lyn’s work means to me. This is the practice, the ethics, of improvisation, and it applies not only in art-making, but also in living. 

For while I was learning about this confluence of receptivity and discernment by reading Lyn, it was when I met her that I understood what was truly at stake. For the first thing I noticed about Lyn (I think it is the first thing anyone would notice) was her openness to the pleasure of reading, talking (and joking), and thinking with others. Lyn led poetry workshops in a manner that contrasted solidly with everything I’d experienced during my MFA and in other workshops in New York. There, most workshop leaders had focused a class’s attention on individual poems, modeling and asking for a kind of gloomy process of judgment. Lyn focused her classes on the pleasure of being open to one another in and through language. We were encouraged to collaborate, to write a lot and to write quickly. We were discouraged, by way of example, from offering “criticism.” Writing was radically playful, and to play was to discover what our materials were: our minds, our languages, our pages, and most of all, each other. To play was to be available to possibility and happenstance, to find there a certain alertness of mind. To play, to improvise, was to keep things alive. Nothing but passage.  

Around 2003, Lyn’s daughter-in-law died too young (of cancer, I believe). Perhaps a year later, Lyn gave a reading in which she read poems she described as being “against death.” Her way of writing against death was to try to free each line entirely from the one that preceded it and from the one that followed. She worked hard, as she explained, to break the logical progressions that the mind tends to form between things. Every single line was to be a new beginning. In this way, the poems would resist the inevitable move — of a poem, of a life — toward “closure.” I remember her saying how hard it was to do this, that the mind naturally falls into “narrative.” The work, the real and urgent work, was not to come to a conclusion, but to refuse to. In that refusal, that disruption of “progress,” lies the seriousness of Lyn’s aesthetic. To find sense in the now is to believe fully, ferociously, in the value of life itself, for itself. Ferociously one must drive on to tenderness (The Beginner, 19).

The day Lyn died, I took a very long bike ride through my city. I was on my way to visit a friend in his studio, to see his new work. It could have been a short ride, but my phone (which I had foolishly consulted) had me traversing half the city, crossing the creek, then crossing it again, heading east when the studio was west. I was disoriented, not knowing why I had to go so far, but also, even in my grief at the sudden news, I found I didn’t care that I was, in a sense, lost. Spring was on the way and the afternoon was warm. I was remembering Lyn riding her bike to campus, laughing about something while she fumbled with her lock, and I thought of Lyn also on one of the last times I’d been in a room with her. She was speaking to an auditorium of feminist philosophers about the value of epistolary form, the value of literary companionship, how in that friendship the most ordinary details blend with the most profound losses or questions. I felt very connected to Lyn while on my bike precisely because, in giving myself over to the “passage,” the simple motion of riding along, headed, nonetheless, toward my friend, I felt both “improvisational and purposive” (The Language of Inquiry, 139). Far more than just an aesthetic, this was a way to experience aliveness, to be as alive as possible in the time that we have.