Thursday, May 24, 2012

Epistolary Review (Part 3): The Book of a Thousand Eyes, Lyn Hejinian, Omnidawn (2012) & Epistolary Review: The Malady of the Century, Jon Leon, Futurepoem (2012)

Dear (r),


You’ve capped our discussion of Hejinian beautifully, having waded through and waited for clarity.  There’s a really deep way in which you’ve parsed Hejinian’s manipulation of various “classicisms”—from the contemporary classic tradition of narrative interruption to the always already invented classicism of a figure like Ovid.  Not to mention Scheherazade and all appertaining melodrama intrinsic to literary form.

What I’d like to think about today, in complement to your interpretations, is the extent to which The Book of a Thousand Eyes is, in a word, current.  We’ve been discussing TBoaTE in relation to Kelli Anne Noftle’s I Was There for Your Somniloquy, and I’ll add another voice to the conversation—that of Jon Leon in his new book, The Malady of the Century.  In his blurb on the back of TMotC, Wayne Koestenbaum describes the book as “a cold and funny porno-dystopia that ‘sends up’ poetry while also behaving like a strict modernist manifesto[,]” likewise, Bruce Hainley’s blurb describes the book as “R. Kelly covering Les Chants de Maldoror.”  Put another way, TMotC is a high-low phenomenon, a book that’s explicit enough to require justification by comparison. 

TMotC collects five texts by Leon, all previously released in limited edition.  The first, a series of prose poems entitled “Drain You,” introduces Leon’s poetics of excess—“When I produce poetry I am responding to a God who touched me in a perverse way” (3).  The second, “Hit Wave,” offers a grotesque prose long-poem that figures the implied poet as a bizarre combination, one part contemporary rap mogul/international billionaire, one part Jack Kerouac/Roberto Bolaño, one part Lord Byron, one part twenty-first century embodiment of gross Whitmanic indulgence.  Eg: “I secured beauties for the screen tests, which were more fulfilling than sestinas” (19) & “A lot of people didn’t like me.  Most of them were poets.  They called me names like proletarian, idealist, romantic, handsome.  ‘Fools’ I thought.  Why would people sell themselves short and not just live the life of pure creative glamour” (20) & “Toward the end of our conversation he brought up the distinction between academic cool and world cool.  We both agreed that I was world cool” (22).  Part three is, I’m pretty sure, a list of purposefully objectifying descriptions of images of female models, ranging from “Ciara” who “is another Elite model” (40) to “Elizabeth Taylor” who “is wearing the famous Cartier Love Bracelet” (42).  The final two sections, “Mirage” and “White Girls,” reinforce Leon’s poetic mode, praising “Everything everything everything” (58) and claiming that “I need you to know the source of all value.  It is here.  It is in my waterbed” (66).  The final poem, “Adults Only,” sums it up.  I quote it here in its entirety:

They call me an American poetry bad boy.  The groupie of the grotesque.
Because I move like a mist, seeking the border that seeks to contain
me.  I stand at a metro platform, my life’s possessions in a bag the size of
an attaché, and catch the blowback of a life encased in the tyranny of
pulp.  A pulp novel called Soft Thighs written for adults only in the year
of the stag.  I throw down the book and finger the tear in my lamb’s wool
sweater.  The sweater that smells like the jade room at a Korean spa, like
an ambience of finery worn by the whole of the zeitgeist.

Dear (r), I’m not quite ready to say that Leon’s masterful irony, cultural critique, & evocation of poetic tradition justifies TMotC’s aesthetics of objectification.  (I’m not even sure Leon would want me to.)  Even so, I think we can read TMotC as the self-proclaimed dark side of a coin minted in the moment and flipped by new voices (Noftle) and experimental poetic monarchy (Hejinian) alike—a coin imprinted with various incarnations of a question we’ve been asking.  What is it about sleep or partial sleep?  What is it about staying up all night?  What does it mean to stay alive until morning?  What is it about Scheherazade in the year 2012?

When he turned to book-length mimeographs, Jack Spicer called his prior, shorter poems “one-night stands.”  Leon takes this idea to the extreme.  With the exception of the longer narrative “Hit Wave,” his poems all contain some sense of having taken place at night, in a seedy state of partial consciousness and/or total inebriation.  Figures flicker in and out of the poems, named and then discarded.  The landscape shifts, at once juvenile and disillusioned, decidedly American and other, Eastern, global, in flight.  The tonal setting is the unexpected but resonant counterpoint to Hejinian’s manipulation of the dreamscape as poetic form and to Noftle’s guiding trope of the sleep-talker overheard.

What is it about sleep?  The question is here refigured: What does sleep hide from you?  What does sleep protect you from?

Perhaps we can read TMotC’s list of erotic portraits, “Right Now the Music and the Life Rule,” as yet another homage to Scheherazade.  Read in this way, RNtMatLR shows us twin grotesque interpretations of the Thousand Nights and a Night.  In one, we see the palace bed before Scheherazade—a different woman every night, objectified and ultimately destroyed by the evil king.  We see one-night stands in their most tragic and most mythic form.

Or perhaps we see Scheherazade herself.  Perhaps, in Leon’s interpretation, it is not Scheherazade’s stories but Scheherazade who changes.  The stories told over a thousand and one nights are not just life-sustaining stories, then, but actual life stories.  Scheherazade shape-shifts, from anonymous to iconic, haute couture to pornographic.  In this dark interpretation of the Scheherazade story, it is not the king, but Scheherazade herself who is defeated.  Rather than a thousand stories, the queen must have a thousand eyes.  Her stories exist to interrupt and/or to embody the inevitable narrative of her destruction.  Her survival is both the triumph and the destruction of form.

My dear (r), it bears repeating: paranormal is the new normal.  Asleep is the new awake.  Scheherazade is the new Elizabeth Taylor.  No.  The old Elizabeth Taylor.  We’re jotting down some of the terms, I think, of the current poetic moment.  Now we just need to come to terms with them.

Yours ever,

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

it's a small world

We've been over-thinking things, among them the relationship between text and space.  If the simplest answer is the best, we choose this written world map by the Scottish Poetry Library.  Forget the Olympics & the politics of selection & translation--this sparse anthology-in-progress uses the map form to cultivate, above all, a mood--it's an argument shaped like a map and made out of poems.  There's something a little Victorian about it.  Let's not over-analyze.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Epistolary Review (Part 2): The Book of a Thousand Eyes, Lyn Hejinian, Omnidawn (2012)

Dear R.,

I have been thinking—as you suggested I ought—of Scheherazade. One thing I have thought about is how Scheherazade doesn’t sleep, at least not at night. She’s playing a deeper game—spinning tales for her life. The story has to be good if it’s going to keep her alive but even that isn’t enough—it has to create suspense, it has to be addictive, to leave you wanting more by dawn. It can do anything except slacken its pace or—& this is particularly important for Lyn Hejinian’s The Book of a Thousand Eyes—draw to a close. (“But whether it was a return or a departure, and of what,” the book tells us, “will be something we’ll learn only tomorrow night, or some night not long after it. First you must learn where the spider went.” [249].) We referred last week to Hejinian’s 1985 essay “The Rejection of Closure,” which tells us, somewhere near its conclusion, that “[t]he undifferentiated is one mass, the dif­ferentiated is multiple. The (unimaginable) complete text, the text that contains everything, would in fact be a closed text. It would be insufferable” (The Language of Inquiry 56).

I think I called The Book of a Thousand Eyes “encyclopedic” in my last letter—a category error perhaps (?)—for there is no text that aspires to totality quite like an encyclopedia. But wait—maybe I’m not wrong after all—it’s just possible that writing a text that looks & feels encyclopedic (compendious; composed of various entries) is a way of critiquing a totalizing encyclopedic project. The Book of a Thousand Eyes makes it perilously clear that it can’t & won’t, vast as it is, “contain everything.” Consider the poem’s final section, a prose poem in medias res:

I have lived aboard a ship stranded by a terrific immobilizing wind. Now it is Thursday and I’m to teach a class at a technical institute—I’m to lecture on Noh plays. M has loaned me representative masks, L has volunteered to come to the class and sing, C with dramatic compassion has sent seven e-messages of encouragement. Just as I step into the driveway, I’m arrested. My long-postponed life of crime is brought to an end before it has even begun. B has achieved enormous prestige—will he use it to help me? Dawn brings all speculation to an end. (335)

A ship is becalmed. Masks are proffered for classroom use. A lesson’s in the offing. There is an excess (or is there?) of “dramatic compassion.” The final “arrest” works, on the one hand, as a narrative goad (What will happen next!?) &, on the other, as a literal “arrest” of the poem. This is where the book ends, arrested (like a cardiac event?) rather than concluded, cut off in the middle of the action rather than rounded to a close. Dawn may “bring all speculation to an end” but it is merely an end, not the end.
           Throughout her career, Hejinian has played with the conventions & expectations of narrative, mostly in the interest of disrupting them. (Consider, to name just one example, Oxota: A Short Russian Novel, Hejinian’s remix—though it’s really much more than that—of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which destabilizes the forms of the verse novel.). The Book of a Thousand Eyes will be, if scale is any indication, the apotheosis of Hejinian’s exploration of this method. It’s here that she critiques the mode of the didactic narrative (which usually features some kind of implicit or explicit moral) & its structural teleology: vice punished, virtue rewarded, disobedience tamed, ignorance educated, the inhuman humanized:

Everyone learns from stories, though not everyone learns the same things. The Arabian Nights is a story of stories, the hearing of which educates a ruler: once vile, murderous, bewildered, a slave to resentment (with its tendency to explain everything), he becomes benevolent, wise, confident, and suffused with a sense of well-being. It’s spring; the skies are overcast turbulent, with a pink glow to the south, a yellow flicker to the west, but the wise ruler shouldn’t think his or her thoughts are free. (260)

The text warns us not to place too much faith in any transformation, not because it’s impossible for people & things to change but because it is all too possible—tyrants may turn to philosopher kings but those flicks of color to the south & west are a promise that nothing lasts forever, that the wise do not assume they are free at last. “Philosophy should not be hostile to the eyes,” Hejinian writes elsewhere, “[t]he eyes project variety of character and possess laws of organization that defy rigidity” (252). The thousand eyes of the title—a veritable Argus!—are routes of access, ways of knowing & altering without end (Ovid is the relevant phantom, though he’s not, I think, invoked by name. Perhaps The Book of a Thousand Noses lacked a certain ring.)
           To underscore the problems of the didactic, Hejinian ends many poems with one moral or sometimes several, as if she were writing one of those multiple choice reading comprehension questions they used to feature on the SAT. Some of these resemble the false morals of certain of William Blake’s poems: and “Serenity can be achieved through fussiness (although probably only for the fussy)” (205) and “Moral: One shouldn’t look too closely into the gaps in a story. They are hiding places, and what’s in them is none of your business” (307). Others, less witty & more profound, seem a bit like zen koans & also like very serious statements of poetics: “Third Moral: A mere bare fraud is just what our Western common sense will never believe the phenomenal world to be” and “Fourth Moral: Various women writers will take up the philosophical quest for uncertainty” (51). If the text means to be our teacher, it is an opaque one, one that asks us, if we must have morals, to extract them very carefully & not to regard any of them as final.
           “I call carelessly that the door is open” (269), Hejinian writes in one poem, borrowing—deliberately or else with the exquisite aptitude of the cryptomnesiac—a line from Gertrude Stein’s long philosophical poem Stanzas in Meditation. The Book of a Thousand Eyes—also a long philosophical poem—strives to keep all doors ajar, to draw attention to gaps in narrative structures that seem, at first, seamless & impervious: “There are many passages in the tale that contribute nothing to the plot and seem inconsequential, but without them the tale would be nothing. Those passages are like the members of the audience in a theater, requisite but powerless to intervene” (261). Are we, as in the passage you cited last week, more like “narrative expecters,” necessary but impotent or more like the active students that the poem’s “didactic” sections seem to ask us to be?  I think that if the poem means to do anything (inasmuch as a poem can ever “mean” or “do”), it’s to transform us from the former to the latter—the degree to which it can perform this rather ambitious act being modified by the book’s admission that, once changed, we are likely to change more or to change back. That, I think, is my provisional answer about where & how we belong here, though I look forward to



pea ess: I am reminded, suddenly, of the sword of the bodhisattva Manjushri, which is said to cut continually at the entanglements of ignorance & ego. It cuts & the thing you thought to be the foundation gives way. It cuts again & whatever is left gives way too. It can slice through anything & will until there is nothing left. Only there is never nothing left.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Poetry is the Doing & The Leaping

We're eagerly following Ali Liebegott's cross-country pilgrimage to Emily Dickinson's house! Her first dispatch from the road (via The Believer) comes from Los Angeles, where she spoke to Maggie Nelson, author of marvelous volumes of poetry & non-fiction.

(Images of Ali Liebegott & Maggie Nelson via, respectively, &