alerts


alerts is an on-going section of this publication set aside for informal commentary and information on new or neglected books by relevant women poets, in brief letter, journal or notation form. We intentionally think of these comments as not complete in the scholarly sense, with the hope of removing prohibitions linked with writing/thinking critically. Your response is invited.

THE GUARD by Lyn Hejinian

Lyn Hejinian's The Guard, a long poem in eight sections, is the last of the Tuumba chapbook series. Parts of it have been published in several magazines, such as Sulfur and This, and yet the real poem does not seem to be present in these fragments. The Guard is an extremely difficult work to excerpt from because in it meaning is relational. Resonance is inherently pleasurable, as this work shows us, and requires no raison d'etre. Of course, many good poems involve complex interrelations among their parts; this is certainly true of the prose poems, such as My Life, which Hejinian has produced over the years. But here, as she moves back to the compression of the verse line, she is able to weave her materials into an intensely echoic play of identity and difference which becomes, at last, her single theme.

The book's beginning stanzas enact, as well as announce, a cycle of thematic development and interruption (or identity and difference) as the work's real subject.


Can one take captives by writing--
"Humans repeat themselves."
The full moon falls on the first. I
"whatever interrupts." Weather and air
drawn to us. The open mouths of people
are yellow and red--of pupils.
Cannot be taught and therefore cannot be.
As a political leading article would offer
to its illustrator. But they don't invent
they trace. You match your chair.

Such hopes are set, aroused
against interruption. Thus--
in securing sleep against interpretation. . .

The sentences in this opening passage trail off, and are sometimes interrupted by ellipses. Note, too, how the discussion of repetition and interruption in the first four and final three lines quoted above is itself interrupted by the mention of weather, colors, pupils, etc. Later all of these will reappear and, fugue-like, be developed as minor themes. Thus Hejinian seems to comment on her process of composition when she writes, "Staring at the optical illusion I will it / to reverse itself--I will it to get opposite. When I first read these lines I wondered if they were intended to describe the book's method of composition. Hejinian immediately continued, "The interruption is an indirect description." Here I felt as though she were answering my question, as though I were in dialog with the text. This is a work of consummate intelligence, classic in its formal attention to pattern and detail. It is self-conscious, self-referring, but not in a way which foregrounds its own cleverness.

The content of The Guard is continually in process; it seems that whatever enters Hejinian's field of vision becomes part of the poem. Certain unobtrusive, seemingly inconsequential words, repeated, form connective threads running the length of the book. One could follow, for example, the progress of the word "pack." It first appears as, "The sky was packed / which by appearing endless seems inevitable." Here packed seems synonymous with filled, as in filled with clouds. Immediately below, but entirely different are "counter-arguments like pack-ice." Much later Hejinian adds that, "Really nothing packs the sky. . . " and that "to unpack the suitcase is like dissolving the trip." Taken together these lines seem to skirt an argument on the solidity/reality of matter. They also create an unlikely alliance between "arguments," "the sky," and a "suitcase." One of my favorite examples, though, is "flowers packed on their pedestals." This image is vaguely echoed several pages later when Hejinian writes, ". . . or could say blooms / like noun on verb. . . " This, in turn, somehow suggests the earlier ". . . skull slightly displayed on the spinal column." She creates her resonances by presenting the identity of a single word like "pack" in different contexts, and more abstractly by elaborating variations on a single theme such as interruption.

Sometimes Hejinian multiplies meaning by allowing the ghosts of familiar phrases to become apparent behind a passage. For example,


. . . When mad, aged nine, and dressed
in calico, confusion is good
for signs of generosity.

echoes the maxim, "Confession is good for the soul." The fact that soul would have half-rhymed with "calico" heightens the impression. As Hejinian (typically) comments in the next line, "Each sentence replaces an hallucination." Identities are fluid; since any phrase is likely to suggest others it becomes (to use a previous Hejinian title) a "mask of motion."


. . . The ghosts that blend
with the daylight come out like stars in the dark
longing to have their feet fit in boots.

And finish in Eden.

They do finish there too, in a way, since the last word in the book is "paradise." The final phrase reads ". . . this / is the difference between language and 'paradise.' " Yet in the responsive, transpersonal world of this poem the reader can find a structural model of heaven.

-- Rae Armantrout

Rae Armantrout's book, Precedence, is forthcoming from Burning Deck Press.


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QUICK NOTES ON LYRIC PROSE

Aiming to come upon, or utter, a truth, it's important to be artless, because the artificial is inappropriate to this situation.

To be artless, however, you have to possess a crafty intelligence, a thorough sense of design. While truth is still beauty, embellishments are often like snares aimed to distract or conceal the truth.

The ideal prose would be fixed and not fiction. For instance, the essay can be a very lyrical form with its own aesthetic, but is undermined because of its non-ego-centered focus. Given the essayist's generosity in discussing a subject outside her historical self, the work sustains a moral luminosity.

A word (or set of words) which images its object lifts up that object, like the wafer, the Word of G-d, in the hands of the priest. In this way, lyric prose is, to me, tilted towards the unknown, towards an impersonal description, and this is manifest in a singleness of intention similar to that in the essay. It also acknowledges, with every line, that words are tools limited in number and in scope, so that there is a kind of sensual irritation between the writer and her materials. Not enough, not enough, the lyric says between the lines.

The prose poem seems to want to sustain an alert intelligence in a wild dream scenario, to freeze the judgment of narrative in an amoral system. But when the frantic non-sense of the unconscious is projected over this narrative, it cancels out the entire force of the work. Americans, already weak on judgment, don't write very good prose poetry. I think we panic in its chaos and become pretentious or silly.

I'm not interested in prose poetry, but here am talking about lyric prose, as you find in large portions of Moby Dick and in the prophetic sections of the Old Testament.

The kind of prose which has the factual objectivity of an essay, and is ahistorical, and is also using emotionally charged language, is my idea of a good time.

--Fanny Howe


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