Lyn Hejinian's 'The Beginner' (2001).

Lyn’s talk kept you going. Her questions affirmed, her speculation danced, her allusions morphed into stories, into books you sought out later. Her own writing, her music, and her provocation are self-sufficient. She is gone, and the experiments, each different, stand together, their own shelf. They accommodate me partially, they change as I return.  

I came into Berkeley late in my twenties, a poet dissatisfied with the modes I’d worked in, wanting sharpness. Fall 2018, with that imagined armor, I sat down in Lyn’s evolving Benjamin seminar. This variant, The Writing of Daily Life, put the Arcades Project beside texts by Henri Lefebvre, Renee Gladman, and Ariel Goldberg. I had half-expected, from her essays, the free crossings into metaphysics, or visual media, or music; the way we kept remembering the Cold War (here, via Svetlana Boym); and the extreme sensitivity to syntax. Syntax was for her both a way of experiencing, a field of sensation, and an analytic. As she wrote, descanting near Stein: Perhaps it was the discovery that language is an order of reality itself and not a mere mediating medium — that it is possible and even likely that one can have a confrontation with a phrase that is as significant as a confrontation with a tree, chair, cone, dog… or penny —. 

Still I had failed to expect what was so instantly obvious in that classroom: how much of her thinking moved through people, began with friends. How thinking, per se, was only one manifestation of the central concern: how to care for, and keep safe, those she loved. Who were so numerous, varied. If some of her collaborators are famous, each conversation with a student could also be a project, a duet. In seminars and reading groups, she affirmed most carefully, most generously, those who were moved by our texts in terms that lay aslant the central discussion. Inquiry was an endeavor, richer for its range; and I felt, writing for her, trying to stay with her in talk, that the object or the mode could evolve at any moment. It was good faith that anchored talk, the force of the moment that mattered. 

I no longer feel the word ‘permission’ as keenly as I did, but that was part of what she offered me in a place where I felt, at first, wrong-footed. She showed how, with some translation, what Jeremy Prynne calls mental ears, the makerly instincts that become habitus, could be knowledge, could become articulate as a method. When I began to write and work with her individually, in her aerie on the fourth floor of Wheeler, we moved through — at her suggestion — the Frankfurt school, Nietzsche, affect theory, the Pre-Platonics. I accepted that these blent, bent courses of reading were filtered through her many other interlocutors, only some of whom I knew, as I accepted that from her I would receive idiosyncratic, but responsive and utterly useful, readings. Here, too, it was the text that mattered, and the activity of making meaning with it. I offered up, in response, jagged prose experiments. I felt myself departing from what I knew how to do: she pushed me further. The point, she said, was to keep producing; to be alive to writing’s ethics and to my own; to see how the project could change me. 

Her life, which lives in so many other lives, rejects closure. Her books are open before me: The Beginner, A Border Comedy. I remember the view of the hills from her office. The landscape that ‘made itself its own landscape’ was bright and substantive, heavy, burdened, under the tension of its own sufficient and complicated activity, its habitual readiness, a form of charged waiting, a perpetual attendance…