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.