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Postal Worker? Poodle?


Saga/Circus

By Lyn Hejinian
Omnidawn, 2008

My one and only conversation with famous poet Bruce Andrews ended flat when I mentioned a novel I’d been reading. “You can stop there,” he said. “I don’t read novels.”

I smiled, “Yeah, but this one was fantastic…”

“I said,” he meant it, “that I don’t care!”.

Andrews and Lyn Hejinian achieved prominence together as L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, a school that concerns itself more with how a thing is said than what is said, (or that the what lives in the how—or the ways in which how negates what) and it’s easy to see how the novel winds up odd form out. As currently practiced, the New York Times bestseller is as stolid and bourgeois a form as God in His wisdom made.

What I should have told Bruce, of course—and what he doubtless knows—is that the novel is the most elastic of mediums, and the line dividing novels from non-novels is a gray zone filled with exotic creatures (is Golden Gate a novel? Then why not The Folding Cliffs? Is Reader’s Block a novel? How about Little Casino?).

Lyn Hejinian’s new novel Lola is one of a pair of texts in Saga/Circus; the other is the long poem-in-parts, The Distance. Novel first: each of Lola’s sentences is a paragraph long—or each of its paragraphs lasts a sentence. Chapters run from a few lines to a few pages in length and none (with one exception) is labeled higher than “Chapter Three,” though there are nine or ten Chapter Threes, and variations thereon. Just so, a dozen chapters are called “Chapter One,” interleaved with “Chapter Three Looking Back at One,” and “Chapter Between,” etc. This kind of playfulness permeates every part of the book, which is a through-and-through delight to read. Here, for example, is the start of “Chapter Midway”:

Sue’s house is pocked as if it’s been strafed, its flat roof sags from the weight of fallen leaves, yellow, brown, green, black, and blasted, Sue’s just coming out, she’s trying to pull Sid in.

Calm as clockwork, free of meaning, innocent as the scattered moths, guilty as the very fairgrounds in the clear of day on the wrong side of town where one sees the reflection of a face in a shaking lake repeat, Sid breathes.

So what’s going on? First (and maybe last), we are to enjoy the words. Leaves, though they’re frequently brown and green, are rarely both at once and are almost never black; and blasted? But the line rolls so well we hardly notice. The metaphor of the lake is mixed and long, but self-consciously so, and I’ll bet you read to the end. Sue we meet coming out of the house, but no sooner does she emerge then we’re surprised to find her going back inside again, and pulling Sid along. Who’s Sid? Her husband? Postal worker? Poodle?

No, the poodle’s named Camus, and he features in the chapter’s finale, a few lines in:

Camus, arbitrarily targeting a clump of weeds, pees on it and makes it his responsibility.

Sue thinks, my son Sid and I suffer from disconnected modification of each other we’ll never understand as they go in.

Two heavy jays flit boldly back and forth between the branches of two dark oaks, one calls out shaaar, the word descending.

Recognizable characters emerge, action takes place, detail accumulates, but Hejinian’s aim is to dodge this and dodge that, teasing the reader:

It’s as if Askari Nate Martin, ss #545-09-3825, living at 93 Bennett Rd., son of May and Jackson Martin, telephone number 652-9850, has no identity, and as if Maggie Fornetti, ss #573-92-7579, living at 27 Pineview Rd, phone number 897-2979, has no identity too, they have no grounds for getting to know or be known, then what is plot without character and what is character without plot.

One of the many things that saves this crafty book from being a dry essay on the failures of the “traditional” “novel” is the tumble of the prose. Chapters begin, “Along comes Mrs. Sally Dover,” or “Along comes the mayor of the town.” Lola appears on bicycle, peddling through the mêlée. Characters fight, camp, parade, swoon, and analyze themselves philosophically (“ Maggie Fornetti must have had a pleasant childhood, she understands very little about human nature”).

Presumably the Circus of Saga/Circus’ slash-divided title, Lola, opens with “fanfare and ridiculous light.” We’d believe the characters, such as they are, were actual circus performers if that weren’t so obviously a metaphor (which is not to say the characters themselves aren’t metaphors, perhaps standing for nothing) standing in for some structural principles of stories, and the way life is perceived around stories, that Hejinian wants to explore.

The anti-formal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E agenda is at work here, of course (“If this were a novel,” begins one chapter, it would more decisively begin and end, “but something or someone always comes along”). But, as Hejinian knows, even when you’re noodling stray tunes on the keys, you’re still “playing the piano.” The anti-novel, too, is a novel, and much as the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers long to subvert, it’s the pleasures of their work—rather than the social critique—which most appeals. The crack-up of form and language adds to the pleasure of that language—spicy food, sharp whisky, rough massage.

Quindlan is curious, his imagination is engaged, he’s enraged.

But now a couple hurries by with a buggy carrying an infant wailing in the twilight its never-ending desire, no.

The oak leaves quiver, no point, no period.

Desire yes never to the end.

Some of the story of Lola involves the disappearance and death of “little Graciela Parker.” She’s been “knocked loose” from chronological time, discovered among some flowers. This event may be foreshadowed by the appearance of a black hat. Or, the hat may just be rolling there (“Along comes a black hat”). Just before Parker’s body is discovered, a French couple appear, in a scene as delightful and gratuitous as the “de fingers” scene in Henry V:

I’m called Sharl, says Charles to Frankie, and this is my wife, Foe-rah.

Eagerly Frankie says his name is Frankie but my real name, he says as if he’d only just this moment received it, is France!—and am I right to guess that you’re from France—too, as it were?

From Lyons in the West, says Charles, yes.

This is Fredo, Frankie says.

Olla, Fredo says.

The sun is drifting like a tourist through a country market overhead.

Getting to the end of Hejinian’s sentences, we’re often startled by how they turn out, or by how many ways they might be read (the market in the simile could be overhead, the real life market could be overhead). There are a number of technical terms for this kind of writing but its effect is that of cutting a hole in an oil painting where the moon should be and sliding it in front of a painting of white cat. Once slid away, the moon “becomes” the cat, without ceasing to be the moon. The eyes of the cat have been cut away too, and a painting of limes lies underneath, etc. Take the following lines from part I of Hejinian’s long poem The Distance:

… it was said
That a woman’s presence on a ship at sea would bring disaster down
On every sailor aboard but the gods
Of mythology seem to have liked us well enough
Or maybe they liked us too well, chasing us in animal form
With violent winds. Then mythology gave
Way to history
And now history is going
The way of fairytales.

Before we reach the next line the gods seemed like sailors, we seemed to be the animals, mythology seemed like a gift-giver, history seemed over, almost.

In The Distance, we see a lot of this device. The poem may relate the adventures of a boat called The Distance, or may be an essay on the idea of distance, time, the sea (as metaphor, or not). Like Lola, The Distance does not take place in a specific location. It is no place, like the center of a spotlight is no place (it is wherever the light goes, a zone of anticipation), so the sea in The Distance is life and death and time:

Turbulence is about, like time, there is nothing
Beyond
The symbolic disorder that stirs
Oceanic feeling in the dismal projections that cast
Boats into storms like parodies of the buoyant
Imagination. Madoud says that the gods can suddenly grant a wave
Astonishing beauty
But the change is imperceptible to humans. So is the turbulence
That the gods, were there any, would leave
In their wake (and there would be nothing but wake
Were their gods)
Or ghosts
Given to the syntax of the sea

This is beautiful stuff, and I could read it forever. Less convincing, I think, is the formal commentary later on. Like Hejinian’s disavowal of novel writing in Lola, The Distance contains literary criticism, of a sort:

Isn’t all autobiography
About which I’m disposed to be uncertain
About how things can’t cohere
Sentimental? Doubt grasps
At the very thing
It doubts. Silence is the name for it
Clearly perceived
As the day fades
And its fading pales further.

Hejinian’s poem can’t avoid sentiment, involving as it does both death and distance (as her memoir, My Life, is sentimental in the best way). How can we escape being sentimental about such things? The trick is to cut as much of it out as possible, knowing you’ll never get it all, and being fully aware that as soon as you touch the keys, you’re playing. I think Hejinian knows all of this, of course. She may even be acknowledging it.

And I don’t mean to be too critical, as both halves of Saga/Circus are wonderful and worthy of anyone’s time: Lola is farce without plot and The Distance is sea journey without arrival, or departure, or crew—a staring-at-the-waves meditation on mediums in gorgeous prose-like verse. Every page of this book kept me anxious and satisfied.

John Cotter is a founding editor at Open Letters Monthly. His first novel, Under the Small Lights, will be published by Miami University Press in 2010.

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