The ongoing

Left to right: Julian Talamantez Brolaski, Jennifer Scappettone, Lyn Hejinian, Elizabeth Marie Young, Olivia Clare Friedman, Hillary Gravendyk, Lauren Errea, and Jessica Fisher. Photo by Margaret Ronda.

What Lyn taught me. 
Lyn taught me.  

In a poetry workshop at Berkeley twenty years ago now, at the beginning of our first meeting together, I remember Lyn taught us to differentiate between like and as. She preferred the latter form of connection — where like compared things, as compared ways. She wanted us to hold that word, as, to turn it around to see how it moved, almost imperceptibly. What is a simile, how does it function to bring disparate realities together, she asked. But she also wanted us to see as in its temporal dimension, the way it allows for writing to get at the ongoingness, the adjacency, of things which are brought into contact, whether in time or in the mind. It was the movement she was after, and form was its result, the way song and allegory will emerge out of the radical contingency of what is. I had never experienced such patience.  

She began the workshop with a premise: “I am assuming,” she wrote in an email before our first meeting, “that everyone in the class already has a body of work and is interested in thinking about what you are doing and why you are doing it at a theoretical or conceptual level. I know you to be utterly serious about your writing and about the kinds of projects that poetry undertakes.” We rose to the challenge. Such astonishing writers blossomed there, under her care; she saw our work for what it was, and helped us to know it, but in her particular way. As she describes in the preface to her book of essays, “The language of poetry is a language of inquiry, not the language of a genre. It is that language in which a writer (or a reader) both perceives and is conscious of the perception. Poetry, therefore, takes as its premise that language is a medium for experiencing experience.” 

I have never felt so seen as a writer as I did when she wrote to me of the disparate poems that would eventually form my first book. In response to my sense that my poems were exploring the possibilities for ‘a subjectless subjectivity,’ Lyn wrote, “I sense that this subjectivity is literature . . . Literature is, in many respects, a historiography of the ‘function of desire.’” About each of our projects, she was equally perceptive; and though her own aesthetic judgment was so strong, she genuinely seemed open to our work.    

She understood, I think, the power of teaching, that what she believed, we would come to believe. In an email from long ago, she writes, “I’m a little worried about my English 100 class, since it’s on the Objectivist poets (principally Zukofsky, Niedecker, and Oppen), and I’m not sure how juniors will take to them — nor even IF they will. But as I’ve been reading the works of all three in preparation for the class, I am more certain than ever that they are truly great — so I guess if I just quiver with that certainty, the students will become convinced and after that they’ll begin to understand the poetry, as a whole if not in its every part.”

I think of George Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous,” which she first taught me, which begins, “There are things / We live among ‘and to see them / is to know ourselves.’” Those years as her student, how to describe them, what shifted in our minds, how our minds learned to move — well, I feel it again, poetry not as some antidote to despair, not a different world than the one in which we are always in, but a different way of being in the world. Her work exhilarates me, as it always has. “A pause, a rose, something on paper” — so begins her groundbreaking My Life, and even in this briefest span of her mind’s thinking, there is so much to see about how she creates within the interstices of syntax a space into which another mind can enter. The door is open. And when we enter, we live among the things there, “and to see them is to know ourselves” through perception, as minds moving in a shared world. A created world, which is the trace of a mind moving.

So much I don’t remember, but I can see us still, sitting around the table in her dining room on Russell Street, or in the Wheeler classroom. What memory is not a “gripping” thought. Certain things are clear as day.

I remember that class went officially from 4 to 5:30 on Mondays and Wednesdays, but she booked the room until 8. She wanted there to be time for improvisation and collaboration.  

I remember we broke to watch the Kerry-Bush debates. Two in the workshop were falling in love — who among us could forget that. 

I remember that at the end of our workshop, the members of the class wanted to make her the gift of a collaborative poem, and each began their line with one word from a sentence from her book A Border Comedy: “Of pleasure producing work producing pleasure as we lose control.” Oh, to be assigned pleasure! I had never experienced anything like it. Nor had I known before Lyn’s class how to express that the self in writing is never isolated. We wrote to show her we loved her, that we had learned from her not to be alone —

I remember her question, when reading Oppen: “What is the syntax of interruption?” 

Almost a decade later, when my kids were little, and just after my second book had come out, an older man, a famous writer, told me that I wouldn’t have the solitude and depth of thought necessary to write poetry for a long time, given the many distractions that my life as a mother and new assistant professor guaranteed me. It was a cruel thing to say, though I don’t know if he meant it cruelly, and it would have hurt me were it not for Lyn. Instead, I felt her at my back, saying with her characteristic serious humor how totally ridiculous such a statement was. I realized in that moment, as I had many times before and have many times since, how incredibly lucky I was to have had her as my teacher, and to have the example of her thrilling, shifting, whipsmart writing before me. I didn’t really even need to answer him; I just thought of her and knew he was wrong about what poetry requires.  

I am so grateful to her for modeling that a poet’s life can be defined by collaboration rather than isolation, that poetry and poetics are intertwined forms, and that poetry itself can be radically open — “an art,” as she describes it, “made of materials that are usually used for other things.” As she writes in the introduction to The Language of Inquiry, “Poetry comes to know that things are. But this is not knowledge in the strictest sense; it is, rather, acknowledgement — and that constitutes a sort of unknowing. To know that things are is not to know what they are, and to know that without what is to know otherness . . .”

To encounter Hejinian’s writing is to encounter a mind alive to itself, and to find one’s own mind enlivened by the encounter. There is a politics to this form of attention, this commitment to the present tense, and I have come to feel its force time and again. 

At the most difficult time of my life, a moment of terrifying illness in my family, the only text I could read was Lyn’s. It’s not that she calmed me — she was not really a becalming presence — but she brought me into the present moment with vitality. Everyday life was not a burden to her. Art did not need to escape it. 

Her work encodes an ongoing present tense, and it is there I continue to find her, as a teacher and friend, and as a force of conviction. Her person and her work are so vibrant, so alive to the shifting world of things real and things imaginary, “a sprawl of nasturtium flowers, a child on a swing” as well as “time, suffering, knowledge, black holes.” These lines are from her last work, Lola the Interpreter, which she wanted to finish before she died. “Interpretation is merely a quest for a slower chaos,” as she wrote there. And, in her last email to me, “Delusional to think death is far away,” she wrote, “[b]ut, that said, I am very much engaged with living.”  

She is, still, just elsewhere —