Monday, September 18, 2006

photo by Ben Friedlander

When Lyn Hejinian’s book My Life first was published by Burning Deck in 1980, I couldn’t read it for a year. Every time I opened it, I found myself staring at the new sentence in as pure a form as I had seen outside of my own Ketjak, published two years earlier by This Press, but written four years before that back when This Press editor Barrett Watten & I had shared a flat on San Francisco’s Potrero Hill. Then, one evening, returning from Baltimore to the Bay Area after what may have been my first East Coast reading tour, I opened Lyn’s volume up on the airplane and read the book cover to cover, stunned at what a wonderful work it was. Whatever impetus Lyn may have gotten from my work, she had taken it in a different direction & accomplished something unbelievably wonderful in the process. While I know that My Life is not her own favorite work – poets I think must always be focused on what they’re doing now & what they’ve done most recently – I think it’s no accident that My Life, whether in the 1980 37 years in 37 paragraphs of 37 sentences each version or in the (to my eye, slightly more diffuse) later Sun & Moon edition, 43 years in 43 paragraphs of 43 sentences each, will always be her defining work for many readers, virtually all of them ardent fans as a result of the experience. My Life is deservedly one of the classics of the 20th century.

I had something of the same experience reading Steve Benson’s Open Clothes this summer. Like My Life’s relationship to Ketjak, the last 83 pages of Open Clothes consists, with one major exception, of works written entirely in questions, the same device used in my own Sunset Debris, first published in Roof VII in 1978, and later published in book form by Roof in 1986 as part of its abbreviated version of The Age of Huts¹. To this day, it’s still the text I’m mostly like to read from if & when I’m reading to an audience that I expect will not have much experience with either my work or post-avant writing in general, as when I’ve read with Robert Hunter, whose years as the lyricist for the Grateful Dead brings in a somewhat different crowd than usually shows up at my events.

All of which means that when I open up Open Clothes, the 800-pound gorilla I have to get out of the way in order to read this text is myself. That’s not an easy process.

One way is to ask what isn’t simply the replication of Sunset Debris, much in the way that I was, on the plane trip, able to see for the first time that Lyn was doing something other (and more) than reduplicating my mode of disjunctive sentences from Ketjak. In her case, she turned the language literally in a different direction, away from the phenomenological & obsessively reiterative approach I had used toward her own past. The work was not about perception nearly so much as it was recollection, almost literally. Then there was her formal organization, which was simultaneously elegant & taut.

The answer as to what isn’t replication is, as you might have suspected, pretty much everything. To a degree that I can’t think of in any other book, including for that matter My Life, a comparison of what I’ll call the question works in Open Clothes with Sunset Debris demonstrates just how much this structuring of syntax is simply exoskeletal detail & that the real meat of what goes on in poetry – in language itself, I suppose – occurs on a deeper level yet.

Benson is first of all an improviser, which means that, at least in some circumstances, he composes his poems in public. He discusses this process twice during Open Clothes, once in a series of “After Notes” at the back of the book and again in a transcribed Q&A session printed here among the poems. Benson describes some of this process in this paragraph of the “After Notes”:

I finally did read in New York in February 2003, on a bill with Andrew Levy, and my fully improvised performance is transcribed here as “Did the lights go out.” It was hard at first, in spite of lots of practice, to keep all the sentences interrogative, but I kept correcting myself as I went along, which is how I improvise – though usually I have no particular idea what is right. A few days later, I did the same reading again in Philadelphia, transcribed here as “If you stop to listen to yourself.” In each event, I thought of the opening line shortly before I stood up to begin, but I had no other lines, strategies, or topics figured out in advance. I did, however, remind myself to move around sometimes. A longer “process note” on this reading appears at the website of Kelly Writers House at² “Is your thinking about the words” is a verbatim transcript of the public discussion that followed the second reading, with a letter assigned to each speaker from the audience, alphabetically, in order of appearance.

If this sounds potentially awkward, it ought to. Whereas Sunset Debris is always, at all points, writing, that is “the written” in the classic sense, each sentence plotted out with an eye not only to internal construction but how its juxtaposition is going to enable the reader’s frame to evolve, Benson’s improvisations are exercises in ongoing thinking, tentativeness, uncertainty and creative leaps that enable his questions – often longer and more winding than anything I would come up with – to complete themselves. If, as Bob Perelman once described my prose work, every sentence is its own short story, many of the questions in Benson’s Open Clothes are cliffhangers. If the price to pay for this is the willingness to seem awkward in performance, Benson has made a great grace of this. When you are actually listening to these pieces, you experience the end of each question – I want to say “each question mark” – with the thrill of rescue, of survival.

I was in New York over the weekend and wandered about the Chelsea on Saturday looking at the galleries. At the Gagosian, Richard Serra’s latest show of rusting metallic sculptures has been held over – now more than a month beyond its original “pull date.” These pieces feel heavy & stolid to me – there is a roomful of slabs and one work, “Round,” is a large round cylinder, not one of the giant coils of his last show there (which I thought of at the time as Serra’s Cinnabon collection), but filled in, like a Jack & the Beanstalk version of the kind of cement guards intended to protect some parts of parking lots (like the entrance to supermarkets) from runaway vehicles. Sunset Debris feels heavy to me in much the same way now – a solid block of text, unrelieved battering of the reader with question after question. Benson doesn’t feel like this in the slightest.

Partly this is because Benson is questioning himself as much as he does the reader, which frankly is a more confident stance for a poet than the one I was able to take three decades back. When “you” appears here, Benson is solicitous, much more than accusatory:

Do you want a martini?
Do you want a second martini?

It is this same impulse, I think, that leads him to include the discussion with students & other poets from the Writers House event, just as tho it were another improvisation, another poem, in this book. The question for Steve Benson is a fundamentally inclusive, embracing gesture. I have to admit that I don’t think this is true for Sunset Debris, and that my work feels to me now much more about discerning borders – this is where the writer ends, the reader begins, a continual scratching of a mark in the sand with some anxiety (What was I so anxious about?) as to who might cross this and how.

Think, for a second, of Benson’s tone in this piece or segment from “Open Notebook”:

Is there any such thing as floating
backwards? How can I tell if my heart is closed?
Will I find a way to open compassion and courage
in knowing and accepting myself? What distracts
me? Did anyone else hear the mist dripping off
the trees this morning? How can our friendship
survive such poverty?

There may be other sections, other passages elsewhere in this book, closer in their intent to what I had in mind, but nowhere in Sunset Debris is there a space where that passage could have taken place. It would have been a stronger work had there been such a space at that moment in my life, but it wasn’t to be. I’m appalled to admit this, but nowhere in The Age of Huts does the word compassion appear. Talk about having to learn the simplest things last!

So I’m not the right person, obviously, to review Open Clothes, but I do want you to know that I think this book is important and powerful, but powerful not because of how Benson exercises or craves power, but rather because of the care with which he heeds power’s sharp & heavy edges. The result, for me, is a lesson I need to work on personally, perhaps more than it is about what makes for good or great poetry. But I want to thank Steve for the beautiful way he’s forced me to dance with that 800-lb gorilla in my life.



¹ The full suite of The Age of Huts consists of Ketjak, the three poems in the Roof edition (Sunset Debris, The Chinese Notebook and 2197) as well as two satellite works, Sitting Up, Standing, Taking Steps and BART. In the 1970s, when these works were mostly written, had not yet gotten to the point where I could get them published in a single volume. They will finally appear together for the first time next year when UC Press publishes The Age of Huts (compleat).

² A recording of the event in RealAudio format is also available there. PENNsound also has an MP3 of Benson’s New York event as part of its extensive Segue archive.