Tuesday, November 28, 2006
Hannah Weiner, 1967
(photo © 2002 by Carolee Schneeman)
I’ve written on numerous occasions, starting indeed with the forward to the anthology In the American Tree, “Language, Realism, Poetry,” that language poetry has always been deeply involved with realism in the arts, a term that to my mind resonates with echoes of both Objectivism in American poetics & a perspective that is perhaps most clearly articulated previously in mid-century Italian cinema. Not only do almost all of language poetry’s literary devices function to strip away the social wrappings that come between the reader and the materials of the poem itself, but even when the poetry steps into a consciously referential mode, it’s default position often seems to be reportage. You can see this in my work, in Steve Benson’s writing, in Bruce Andrews’ ensembles of social expression & in Hannah Weiner’s journals, although otherwise we are all very different in our ways of practice.
The day after Thanksgiving, Krishna & I got away for an overnight up to the northernmost reaches of Bucks County, and spent the next bicycling along the towpath of one of the old coal canals, until we got down to the bridge across the Delaware River to Frenchtown. The one book I read on the trip was Country Girl, an early journal of Hannah’s coming pretty soon after The Fast, leading in the general direction of her signature work, Clairvoyant Journal, which was written three years later in 1974. I think Country Girl may be out of print – we seriously need a big edition of her work, not just the collected books published in, or soon after, her lifetime, but such writing as the 205-page 1973 journal that immediately preceded Clairvoyant Journal, Big Words, only one fragment of which was printed in Weiner’s lifetime (the whole is up as 205 separate JPEGs on Weiner’s EPC site, a solution that is pretty much unreadable – a single, albeit humongous, PDF file would have been better). Hannah Weiner is one of the major writers of my lifetime, but what we have available at hand feels fragmentary & disjointed, not only because of the disruptions her schizophrenia imposed on her writing, but due even more to the haphazard, small press, always-out-of-order chronology of her publications.
In 1971, when Weiner wrote Country Girl, she was 43 years old and had published, the year before, just -page sequence, Magritte Poems, brought out by Poetry Newsletter of Sacramento, not exactly a major trade press. Magritte Poems had been written in 1966 and was already a considerable distance from her concerns when it came out. Had she not had her psychotic break in 1970 – exceptionally late for a first major episode – Weiner’s career might simply have taken on an arc familiar to many women writers, that of the late starter or late bloomer. In her case, it wasn’t the usual narrative of childrearing, but rather a successful career as a lingerie designer after her graduation from Radcliffe, that absorbed her twenties & early 30s. But by the mid-1960s, Weiner was already an active presence in the downtown New York scene, right at the moment when Warhol & the Factory was redefining the visual arts scene, the poetry world was waking up to the New American poets generally (which in New York meant the second generation NY School & the sudden sense of an interrelationship between poetry & the visual arts in general), performance art was happening (Weiner’s second book Code Poems grew directly out of this engagement; the book, which didn’t come out until 14 years later, includes a blurb from Sol Lewitt, along with others by Jackson Mac Low & Jerry Rothenberg).
But then came the break, recounted in painful detail in The Fast, but still the focal point of Weiner’s attention here in Country Girl, visible in its very first paragraph:
I am in the country. Whether or not the spirit, which is what I called my mind at that time, approves. I cried a little when I put the deposit in the mail. Please I want to be well. So many negative visual signs on the above paragraph. I am now trying to be guided by my experience in what I’ve learned from the spirit, instead of just following advice. It is now I who make the decisions and the spirit gives a yes or no on all thing. He, she, it, is so active. I do not always listen.
Here Weiner’s sensitivity is to color, which she feels intensely & often with excruciating pain. Here is a passage midway through the book:
I wish I could understanding the signals. Perhaps the book would be clearer too. My life would be. The knee fucks up everything. But I can take more of the purple vibes than I used to. No it says. Not so much pain as there used to be. Still, some signals seem to mean OK, some no, some clear up the bad energy. And they keep switching. Perhaps it’s all a low vibration trip.
Wanted to eat chicken. Saw thumb all wrinkled chicken skin and yellow fat along fingers. Didn’t eat chicken.
Today wore avocado green sweater of acrylic with purple aura. Felt OK on back, although I could feel slight muscle contraction in shoulder, but knee really hurt. Had gotten my “carrot” signal on it – means too constricting. Knee felt better when I took it off and put on an all wool rust sweater with a red aura.
Sleep on green sheet with purple aura, gray blanket with purple aura, orange blanket with red aura, yellow blanket with purple aura. What I see in the morning is red and purple auras on shoulder. As far as I can tell, if the aura is strong it is more important than the actual color. The gray blanket, which is fuzzy, Peruvian and book print design, has a very energetic purple aura. I intend to blend all this to a nice rosy pink. Ho hum Blue on hum. Pink on hum.
Weiner is trying methodically & quite patiently to come to terms with what is happening to her and given the visual dimension of her symptoms at this moment – the words appearing in dog fur written across somebody’s forward would come later – the closest analogy she seems to be able to find is in the Hindu concept of chakra and aura. Yet nothing here fits very readily into that system (to the degree that it is one, which is a lot in India, and a lot less in hands of many a new age practitioner). Yet note that her first commitment isn’t to aligning her experience with any existing theory of auras, as such, but rather, systematically describing what happens now, what happens where, what happens how. In this sense, Weiner becomes the anthropologist of her own psychic processes, following with tremendous attention even as her senses begin to spin wildly out of control. Which, it would be fair for readers to ask, is the true Hannah Weiner?
I think the answer is both. But it is the powerful reporter, an absolute master of description, that is the writer. She is as much a chronicler of her unique condition as was Larry Eigner of his own more physical containment.
I knew Hannah at times when she was quite matter-of-fact about her psychiatric diagnosis and the need to use medications to keep from being whipsawed by visual imagery that “spoke” in a commanding, even commandeering tone. But I knew Hannah at other times as well, when I couldn’t get past the web of hallucinated commentary to reach her in any meaningful way. Phone calls could come at any hour of the day and she could explain away the rudeness of a call by insisting that my 18-month-old boy, whom she never had met, had told her to do so.¹
Perhaps because I was raised by a woman who had not uncommon psychotic episodes – not schizophrenia, but rather deep chronic depression that never was treated – I seemed to do okay responding to Hannah, and we got along as well as one might. But it’s a marker also of a deep sadness I feel that she never lived to see her work in print that would make the whole of it apparent to all, that I don’t think she really “got it” just how deeply her fans appreciated & responded to her work, that it’s taken me two years – long enough for this chapbook apparently to go out of print – in order to read it.
¹ Hannah’s own perspective, at least circa 1971, is stated here:
Question: is it better to call and ask someone to do you a favor and give them the chance of saying yes or no, or to concentrate on having them think of it and call you. Answer: yes to first. If you concentrate on them they might not know if it’s your thought or theirs, and if they get your thought and think it is their own, confusion – or you are trying to control them. Or they don’t get it at all. If they get it and think it might be your thought they still have free will about what to do and you’re not controlling them but in this case they have to be pretty conscious to know their own minds. Example: I was thinking I wish I could buy cookies to get some ready-made wheat; but couldn’t because they’re made with sugar. V goes shopping for me and say I walked to the cookie counter and almost bought cookies and then I said what am I doing here I don’t that shit. So he said, “Please tell me all your thoughts about food because I don’t know you or me.” I said “Were you thinking about dungarees because I got this thought I needed some, and I don’t wear them.” And he said “Yes.”
Labels: Hannah Weiner