Friday, January 03, 2003

Lyn Hejinian has offered the readers of My Life a unique look into the compositional strategies of the project by publishing two different booklength versions. The first, published by Burning Deck in 1980, includes 37 paragraphs of 37 sentences each. The second, published by Sun & Moon in 1987, offers 45 paragraphs of 45 sentences each. Thus, in addition to adding eight new paragraphs, one for each of the intervening years of the project, Hejinian also added eight sentences to each of the existing paragraph of the first version. Hejinian also appears to have made small additions to at least one existing sentence within each paragraph. Here is the seventh paragraph of the 1987 version, known by its epigram “Like plump birds along the shore,” with material new to this version printed in boldface:

Summers were spent in a fog that rains. They were mirages, no different from those that camelback riders approach in the factual accounts of voyages in which I persistently imagined myself, and those mirages on the highway were for me both impalpable souvenirs and unmistakable evidence of my own adventures, now slightly less vicarious than before. The person too has flared ears, like an infant’s reddened with batting. I had claimed the radio nights for my own. There were more storytellers than there were stories, so that everyone in the family had a version of history and it was impossible to get close to the original, or to know “what really happened.” The pair of ancient, stunted apricot trees yield ancient, stunted apricots. What was the meaning hung from that depend. The sweet aftertaste of artichokes. The lobes of autobiography. Even a minor misadventure, a bumped fender or a newsstand without newspapers, can “ruin the entire day,” but a child cries and laughs without rift. The sky droops straight down. I lapse, hypnotized by the flux and reflux of the waves. They had ruined the Danish pastry by frosting it with whipped butter. It was simply a tunnel, a very short one. Now I remember worrying about lockjaw. The cattle were beginning to move across the field pulled by the sun, which proved them to be milk cows. There is so little public beauty. I found myself depended on a pause, a rose, something on paper. It is a way of saying, I want you, too, to have this experience, so that we are more alike, so that we are closer, bound together, sharing a point of view – so that we are “coming from the same place.” It is possible to be homesick in one’s own neighborhood. Afraid of the bears. A string of eucalyptus pods was hung by the window to discourage flies. So much of “the way things were” was the same from one day to the next, that I can speak now of how we “always” had dinner, all of us sitting at our usual places in front of the placemats of woven straw, eating the salad first, with cottage cheese, which my father always referred to as “cottage fromage,” that being one of many little jokes with which he expressed his happiness at home. Twice he broke his baby toe, stubbing it at night. As for we who “love to be astonished,” my heartbeats shook the bed. In any case, I wanted to be both the farmer and his horse when I was a child, and I tossed my head and stamped with one foot as if I were pawing the ground before a long gallop. Across the school playground, an outing, a field trip, passes in ragged order over the lines which mark the hopscotch patch. It made for a sort of family mythology. The heroes kept clean, chasing dusty rustlers, tonguing the air. They spent the afternoon building a dam across the gutter. There was too much carpeting in the house, but the windows upstairs were left open except on the very coldest or wettest of days. It was there that she met the astonishing figure of herself when young. Are we likely to find ourselves later pondering such suchness amid all the bourgeois memorabilia. Wherever I might find them, however unsuitable, I made them useful by a simple shift. The obvious analogy is with music. Did you mean gutter or guitar. Like cabbage or collage. The book was a sort of protection because it had a better plot. If any can be spared from the garden. They hoped it would rain before somebody parked beside that section of the curb. The fuchsia is a plant much like a person, happy in the out-of-doors in the same sun and breeze that is most comfortable to a person sitting nearby. We had to wash the windows in order to see them. Supper was a different meal from dinner. Small fork-stemmed boats propelled by wooden spoons wound in rubber bands cruised the trough. Losing its balance on the low horizon lay the vanishing vernal day.

I know of no other poet of my generation – & perhaps only Jennifer Moxley from among younger writers – who could write a phrase such as “vanishing vernal day.” This is just one of dozens of small, almost intimate details in this paragraph alone that render Hejinian unmistakable as a poet, & which together account for the passionate advocacy her poetry inspires.

What interests me here, first, is the absence of any formal system for the incorporation of new material into the piece. Six of the eight new sentences in this seventh section are introduced in pairs – in the book’s first paragraph, however, there was just one pair, plus another group of three clustered together, while in the eighth paragraph, all new sentences appear by themselves, singletons of new data & context. And of course, after the 37th paragraph, all additional paragraphs can contain only new writing.

In the seventh paragraph, the new material transforms the section’s beginning and end, but makes relatively modest interventions during the main body of the text. The most significant of these latter insertions is a sentence (plus two words) positioned between two sentences that were built around uses of the word “ruin.” Where in 1980, the text made a sharp turn precisely at the point of the two meanings assigned to “ruin,” in 1987 these meanings function far more softly, echoing their common moment.

Three sentences can be read as alluding to the phenomena of heat-based mirages rising up of the pavement:
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>The explicit new second sentence of the paragraph, which sets up the structure for the image schema – the length & detail of this sentence are necessary if the paragraph is to intelligibly re-invoke this construct later with shorter, more brief sentences
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>A sentence one-quarter of the way through the paragraph that reverses the point-of-view, focusing instead on how the narrator is “hypnotized” by the waves of the mirage
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>The final sentence in the paragraph, a moment of closure radically different from the 1980 homily
A fourth sentence is also plausible if one incorporates “The sky droops straight down” into this same image schema. Thus a point of reference that was not even hinted at in the 1980 version of the paragraph becomes the controlling image schema for its 1987 incarnation. This transformation is not insignificant. The nature of this paragraph has not been “updated,” but completely re-envisioned by the process. The frame of late ‘40s radio dramas – which then models the role given over to family stories in the 1980 version of the poem is far less of a master paradigm for the paragraph, replaced in fact by the presence of mirages. While its own juxtaposition to family narratives has not changed in the slightest, its position overall within the paragraph redefines the meaning of that juxtaposition.

There are, of course, several other things going on here, more or less at the same time. Two of the eight new sentences – “lobes of autobiography” & the question “Are we likely to find ourselves” – function as metacommentary on the process of My Life itself. The sentence concerning “small fork-stemmed boats” can be read – although I’m suspicious of this as the scale seems wrong – as related to the narrative of childhood engineering, damming the gutters, that is constructed via several sentences of the 1980 version of this paragraph.

Also of considerable interest to me are the two words now added to the final phrase of what had originally been the seventh sentence: “without rift.” I think that it is possible to interpret that sentence in just that way, so that these words add relatively little to what has already been written. But it is also possible, or at least was in 1980, to see in that image of the child the twin masks of theater – comedy & tragedy – which then allude back again to the image of “radio nights.” Here again, Hejinian’s intervention mutes or thwarts that reading – it’s a different text in 1987, with connotations distributed accordingly.

Both versions of My Life are remarkable works, although I have a personal bias toward the earlier version that is really an allegiance to the intensity of my first full reading of it on an airplane. Potentially, a project of this sort is infinite in the sense that it never need end so long as the poet herself continues to live & write. Hejinian did continue the actual process for some time after the release of the Sun & Moon edition, although no later version has been published.