Wednesday, April 25, 2012

the best kind of spying

The Wordsworth Museum is in the process of transcribing a collection of 19th-century letters from women in the Wordsworth circle (Dora Wordsworth, Sara Coleridge, & Maria Jane Jewsbury, for starters) and posting the transcriptions online.  The database lets you search by categories including "activity" and "states of being."  What do we want?  Centos.  When do we want them?  Now.

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,


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

My god, it's full of stars

The oonaverse sends its congratulations to Tracy K. Smith, who has won a Pulitzer Prize! Smith's poems often make use of one of our favorite recent cultural trends--a tendency we're calling domestic science fiction (not to be confused with the related concept of normal paranormal.). You can read our discussion of her award-winning collection Life on Mars right here.

We'll send you off with the appropriate anthem:

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Theory Objects & Shareable Concepts

Reader, we have either been terribly remiss or charmingly discreet. April's almost half over & we've not once mentioned Intergalactic Poetry Month! (We have now.) In our defense, every month in the oonaverse is Intergalactic Poetry Month. 

One thing we're thinking about during these heightened days of poetic contemplation is Bruce Sterling's essay on the "New Aesthetic," a term writer & artist James Bridle uses to talk about the "eruption of the digital into the physical." Here are a few of Bridle's examples: 

(Images via

We're reserving judgement, for now, about the usefulness of New Aesthetic as a generic label but it's intriguing to think about how trends in contemporary poetry fit with (or fail to fit with) the kind of urbane, pixellated witticisms of New Aesthetic visual culture. Flarfist poetry might present a recent analogue but, somehow, eruptions of the digital into the linguistic don't seem to be quite the same sort of animal (macro). There is something to be said here about search engine poetics more generally, though we are not quite saying it. Some interesting responses to Bridle & Sterling may be found here. You're quite welcome!

But don't stop there. While you're at it, you might as well take a look at I'll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women (Les Figues Press 2012). When you've done that, go straight to Sina Queyras'  fascinating & unlikely "Lyric Conceptualism, A Manifesto in Progress" (via Harriet& the impeccably pink-suited Kenneth Goldsmith's subsequent response.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


If not for our obsession with science & poetry--an intersection explored by Katherine Larson in this brief interview--we might never have discovered Newshour Poetry Series, the Poetry Foundation's answer to the mid-afternoon slump.  The videos hover around the five-minute mark, & include not only reflections on process & snippets of verse but also the occasional childhood snapshot.  Featured poets include such honorary oonables as Rae Armantrout, Tracy K. Smith, & Khaled Mattawa.  Enjoy!  (& then, get back to work, you!)