Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Epistolary Review (Part 1 pp. 1-170): The Book of a Thousand Eyes, Lyn Hejinian, Omnidawn (2012)

Dear (r),

The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets (& their sister theorists) taught us that all text is context.  Lyn Hejinian taught us to resist closure.  (Just say no!)  In a postmodern textual landscape, is there any room for a fairytale?

Such is the question posed by The Book of a Thousand Eyes, Lyn Hejinian’s anti-epical homage (faux-mage?) to Scheherazade.  The tome, which proceeds via a series of untitled poems introduced by a uniform dot ( ), weaves a linguistic dreamscape:

The bed is made of sentences which present themselves as what they are
Some soft, some hardly logical, some broken off
Sentences granting freedom to memories and sights

Beyond their attention to nighttime and their formal capacities to interlock and expand, the poems in this collection actually take few cues from Scheherazade’s stories, which proceed via the principle that suspense=life, that compelling narrative has the capacity to keep one alive.  Hejinian writes:

Poetry may be didactic; it is certain that it’s the best place to mix genres.
    This may be because narrative expectations...
Well—imagine a narrative expecter, out in a forest at dawn.  It shouldn’t
    be taken for a forest ranger.  Forest rangers are explainers and law
    enforcers, but the narrative expecter is a hunter.
The narrative expecter may also be an animal, the object of the hunt.
Folktales, by definition, exist in many versions.
For example, the “hunter” who comes into the forest in this story is, in
    one version, a “cop.”
But here that would have been all wrong.  Here, the narrative expecter is
    like a marvelous centaur.

Are we, dear (r), “narrative expecters?”  If so, how do we fit in to the story?  Are we the evil king, waiting to hear what Scheherazade has to offer?  Is this even the right source text?  Is my imposition of narrative already in error?

Perhaps another way to approach The Book of a Thousand Eyes is to attend to its treatment of the imagination, a treatment that, after William Carlos Williams, defines the imaginary as the actual:

Dreams don’t provide the thrill of sleep
Waking does
Sleep only exists in memory
It’s imaginary


Throughout the ages, works of the imagination have been taken as
    proof of something.

Within the imaginary and therefore real world of sleep, questions of intellect come to the fore:

Isn’t sleep fitted to this world?
Aren’t dreams a form of internal criticism?
Doesn’t each dream catch a previous day of the world in an act of criticism?
Isn’t this itself dreamed/criticized by an expert?

In this way, perhaps The Book of a Thousand Eyes is, at least in one sense, about the stories we tell ourselves about poetry.  (“Why did Gertrude Stein determine to eliminate memory from the processes of cognition?  Perhaps because she had been unhappy.” [73])  Or maybe not.  (“I exhale/the smoldering fumes of all I’ve consumed” [71].)  Can you help me read, dear (r)?  Are these a thousand and one tales without plot or characters?  Is the text a book-length poem in the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E tradition with an added emphasis on lyricism?  Is this a dream work?  Have I been wrong to read this book before bed, and pick it back up upon waking?

Will you write me soon?


Dear R.,

I am. I will. Maybe you’ll allow me to reflect, for a moment, on a vulgar coincidence arranged for us by the world. In our last review, of Kelli Anne Noftle’s I Was There for Your Somniloquy,  we noticed that collection’s preoccupation with the exile of sleep--how the sleeper is exiled from waking life but, more than this, how someone who watches a sleeper is exiled from a dream. Reading The Book of a Thousand Eyes,  I  couldn’t  help thinking about  how Hejinian’s work inverts that idea. In The Book of a Thousand Eyes,  metamorphic, sinister, comical, fabulous sleep bleeds into all that is not sleep (“The panorama of logic, I’ll say, requires uninterrupted scanning in sleep/There can be no other foreground than what appears [63].). It resists closure (a typical Hejinianesquery, as you remind me). It will not be exiled. It is too liquid. It is too much like waking after all (“Biography belongs both to the sun and the reprobate but very differently” [60].).

Hejinian & Noftle are very different poets, of course, & tBoaTE & IWTfYS are very different collections. tBoaTE is encylopedic, IWTfYS ruthlessly curated. tBoaTE sees dreams as critique (I really like the passage you’ve cited & have decided it bears citing again: “Doesn’t each dream catch a previous day of the world in an act of criticism?  [130]),  IWTfYS is far more suspicious. Where Noftle tends to focus on epistemological discontinuities & their consequences, Hejinian prefers to examine the ways in which one way of knowing overflows imperfectly into another. You can admire the former for the way she acknowledges the failure of words to cohere & without faulting the latter for her close attention to what is endlessly preserved & transmuted in language.  Although these collections are interested in accomplishing dissimilar things, their shared emphasis on sleep as a poetic test case is worth thinking about.

What is it about sleep?

Everyone does it. Possession of a body--a body that sleeps, no matter how well or ill--is a sort of lowest common denominator for the human organism. (Insomnia & parasomnia aside.) You could do worse (& many have) than to found your critico-theoretical positions on the postulate of embodiment. But the sleep-state, for Hejinian, at least, seems to do more than that.

You cite William Carlos Williams on imagination as actuality--a possible touchstone for reading Hejinian’s claim that “works of the imagination have been taken as proof of something” (76).  I wonder, though,  in what way tBoaTE might be using that formulation to sidestep the question of the actual: “But things requiring imagination don’t just happen./Everywhere there is imagination it is evident in a sort of willfulness” (76).  The poem seems to tell us, more than anything, how good the imagination is at designing or seeming to design, assembling systems of such amorphous richness that, regardless of the places where they don’t line up exactly right, they convince us of their actuality, their holism. (“We (all things),” Hejinian writes, “exist in a historical/temporal continuum, true enough. But it behooves us not to be subsumed by it. We must each retain (and be granted) our uniqueness even as we retain our relevance--which is to say our interrelatedness” [74]. Tricky!) It’s in this way that you might take an act of the imagination as proof of the actual without bothering overmuch (as Williams does) whether they’re  actually equivalent:

    I saw a juxtaposition
    It happened to be between an acrobat and a sense of obligation
    Pure poetry
    Of course there is a greater difference between an egg and a napping man. (90)

Really, what is it about sleep?

You’ve already noted that Hejinian takes her title &--notionally, at least--a few of her methods from Scheherazade’s narratives in the Thousand Nights and a Night. “Is there,” you write, “any room for a fairytale?” meaning, I think, a fairytale grown (as things in fairytales do) from a strange marriage--post-L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetics & fable filtered through layers of critique. You’re posing some really hard, great questions about where we as readers fit into this hybrid text that I hope we can take up next week when we discuss the second half of the book. How notional, after all, is the relationship between The Book of a Thousand Eyes and the Thousand Nights and a Night? Are we interlocutors, possessed of a fatal power, or merely eavesdroppers with our ears pressed to the wall? I feel I am, as yet, more the latter than the former, but I’m frail enough to be persuaded of my own power, given the proper encouragements. If there’s anything poetry, useless as it is, accounts for, it is the shocking lot of

dream variations to which we are accustomed,