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Jacket 19 — October 2002   |   # 19  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |
This issue of Jacket is a collaboration with Verse magazine

Paul Killebrew reviews

A Border Comedy by Lyn Hejinian. Granary, $15.95.

This piece is 1,200 words or about four printed pages long.

In a talk with Craig Dworkin, Lyn Hejinian says that ‘western science bases its definitions of knowledge on certainties, and certainty requires that something be perceivable repeatedly.’ She makes this comment as a segue to Gertrude Stein:

This is interesting in terms of Stein’s argument that there is no repetition, which would have to mean there is no certainty, while at the same time she considered herself a realist writer and, like me, she was very enamored of the scientific method: requiring patience, careful observation, an attempt not to over-interpret, to let the thing be itself.

I mention these comments to begin a brief argument whose crux is that Hejinian is less an experimental writer than an investigatory one. I know that I can’t really make this distinction — or at least make it air-tight — chiefly because these may not be very distinct categories. My sense is that Gertrude Stein was also more investigatory than experimental, or more accurately that she investigated through experiment — using some version of a scientific method. The Making of Americans is a great example, a work that’s part of Stein’s ‘enormous and spreading study of the relationships of everything to everything else,’ as Hejinian describes it. This work seems to fall more cleanly into the ‘investigation’ category than something like Ashbery’s ‘Europe,’ which seems more purely experimental. Perhaps the difference has to do with the structuring of the process; Stein sought to systematically categorize types of people, whereas Ashbery has described ‘Europe’ as ‘experiments which I thought would perhaps lead to something, but I didn’t really intend them to be finished poems.’ I think I’m distinguishing between a poetic investigation and a poetic experiment based on what the work under consideration expresses as its most fundamental priority: an investigation would seek out the possibilities of knowledge (and residually, language), while an experiment would seek out the possibilities of language (and residually, knowledge).

I may be forming and clinging to these distinctions to hide a personal discomfort with anti- or non-lyrical poetry, which is another difference between Hejinian’s investigations (which are more like lyrical inquiries, as well as inquiries into the lyric) and Ashbery’s experiments. Like any border of taste, my discomfort here reveals the limits of my sensibility and intellect. Often, I feel like anti-lyrical poetry would turn these borders against me, implicating me through assumptions of my social, political, and economic standing. What I like about Hejinian is that she tends to accept the borders of taste as a constituent part of a sense of self, and she sees the erosion of the self as concurrent with the individual’s ever more common reluctance to disclose, for political or social reasons, borders of taste — I’m okay, you’re okay — resulting in the soft-skulled subjectivity(/liberalism) that was so bemoaned in 1998 by our friends across the Congressional aisle.

The borders of taste, along with other borders (of genre, most obviously), constitute the major ‘argument’ of A Border Comedy. I used inverted commas in the last sentence for the same reason they’re used on a sign outside a small town in Iowa, which reads: Welcome to ‘Ames.’ A Border Comedy might be described as recurrent approaches toward narrative that never quite resolve into recurrence, approach, or narrative. Actually, the incapacity to resolve may be the point — so much so that I’m reluctant to write ‘is the point’ — of A Border Comedy. The work occurs in fifteen ‘books,’ the divisions between which afford the only full stops in the work; there are no periods or stanza breaks, only textual interruptions in the forms of ‘Morals’ and ‘Tales.’ I think the implications of this one-long-sentence structure are obvious enough. Curiously, though, Hejinian employs — as she has often done in the past — the traditional habit of capitalizing each line’s first letter. One can see how the two might play off each other — a bouquet of cohesive utterances in one long breath that undermines cohesion:

Effacing one distinction only to discover another
A vast difference between two loves
And perhaps this can account for the enormous fear some people have of women
That’s easily aroused
By the invisible realities
Between beginning and end
The real plot lying between

You can see how the lines bleed into one another, though I’d say much of the book feels like the first and last lines compressed: ‘Effacing one distinction only to discover another. . . The real plot lying between.’ In fact, it’s tempting to review A Border Comedy through a patchwork of lines from the text itself, so often does Hejinian seem to be walking around her book in the reviewer’s loafers:

We will know more still when the sentence is done [. . .]
My ambition being to unite the process of transformation with that of interpretation [. . .]
That’s the best way to proceed [. . .]
The poem has no horror of dispersal
Even if only leaving 2% for one to understand [. . .]
Though surely everybody gets their information somewhere [. . .]
So the story (language) can begin [. . .]
Opening [. . .]
To narrative [. . .]
To derive
Not a long poem but a succession of brief ones [. . .]
With implied social criticism
Though in a presentation some people might find ‘extravagant’ [. . .]
We will know more still when the sentence is done [. . .]
Let’s experience interstitiality, a delay [. . .]
For example, the phrase [. . .]
Humanity is a double placement [. . .]
Between [. . .]
The attendant dissipation, skywriting [. . .]
In a tale very like a number ever to be divided, ever to be coming out [. . .]
We will know more still when the sentence is done [. . .]
This is an extended act of conjugation [.]

The one complaint I’ve heard about Lyn Hejinian’s work that I can’t get around and that irks me for its oafishness is that it’s boring, which it certainly can be. Again, this may be a question of the borders of sensibility and intellect, but either way I had to read the book out loud to really find it, and even then I could only see it swirling around itself, hands extended while retreating. I think I was thinking that hearing the book in my own voice would bring some sort of aural sensuality to the heady lines, and if it did, I could only describe the feeling it gave me as decadent indeterminacy, or maybe decadently indeterminate. I originally wrote the previous sentence on the bottom of page 73 of A Border Comedy, which contains these lines:

My ambition being to unite the process of transformation with that of interpretation
And if that’s taken as didacticism
Then what have you learned from this poem
And what have I learned as I’m writing it

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