Lyn Hejinian's My Life in the Nineties -- Thomas Fink

According to one of Lyn Hejinian's aphorisms in My Life in the Nineties (New York: Shark Books, 2003), "time itself, particularly since the shift from a product to a service economy, . . . is being asked to yield increasing amounts of wealth" ((74). The poet laments what "one can feel"-"the effect of capitalism's increasing control over time, the incremental process of the life being lost" (79). Perhaps in response to how ever-expanding work ("overtime") and commodity-penetration into "private" social space encroaches on opportunities for reflective recreation and creative reflection, Hejinian's text keeps moving briskly but simultaneously slows down reader- "consumption" through "ironies between aphorisms-traces of sensibility" (76), elaborate deferrals of closure, juxtapositions that give pause. Against "the life being lost" to faster and faster "killer apps" of instrumental reason, this Life (which refuses the unified narrative surface of conventional autobiography) provides the replenishment of marvelous and ordinary perceptions not easily assimilable to "project," of abundant chances to "continue thinking" (73).

The biography that serves as an Afterward to My Life (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1987) explains that Lyn Hejinian wrote this celebrated, book-length prose poem "in 1978, in her 37th year" and "constructed a work of 37 sections of 37 sentences, each section paralleling a year of her life. For the second Sun & Moon edition, published eight years later, Hejinian added 8 sections and 8 new sentences to each previous section to account for her . . . age" at the time. My Life in the Nineties is not a further augmentation of My Life but a separate, if related entity with ten sections to represent the decade in the title. Each section consists of a sixty-sentence paragraph, since Hejinian turned sixty in 2001. In the new volume, a handful of phrases, fragments, or sentences introduced (and often repeated) in My Life are included or slightly revised, but these passages, set adrift in new contexts, do not deliver "keys" to any "mysteries."

As in the previous books, Hejinian in My Life in the Nineties is committed to a transitional aesthetics: "Please note that in my effort to increase the accuracy of these sentences and the persistence and velocity with which they proceed, I'm pursuing change while trying to outrun the change that's pursuing me" (40). Thus, continuity between successive sentences in a paragraph is not supposed to be so great that "velocity" is hampered, but there is an awareness, in advance of authorial intentions, that mutability is changing the writer, and My Life's outrunning this is no possibility. Trying to get the sentences to run like this process is. The last sentence in the paragraph wonders whether "will and fate" could be "the same chance." If "chance" signifies opportunity, I might surmise that "fate" marks boundaries of opportunity within which "will" must operate; if it means randomness, it might tell us that both external constraints and internal motivation are established by arbitrary factors.

Intention, for Hejinian, is not without interest and impact, but she is fascinated by how language, once set down, leaps past intended frames:

I've done everything I'm supposed to do, washed my face, I plan my days, then I paid too close attention to the words on the page, noted the points at which, after offering only quick glimpses, they each departed from the ideas they were meant to convey, but the ideas themselves had already escaped me, and I thought I'd say all this (all that) to Larry, wondered at the desire to do so, the wisdom of the desire, a life of reason in this deracinated condition, talking to people I'll never know better. (43-44)

The phrase "too close attention" is full of irony; what, in these circumstances, would be the right amount of attention? Not only does forgetting reinforce the "original" conscious intention's unplanned obsolescence, but communication of the complex process of intention, disruption, forgetting, and the emotional impact of "all this/that" cannot be guaranteed to make a long-time intimate understand-especially if "Larry" is Hejinian's husband, Larry Ochs. She asserts that she will "never know" him "better" than her own undiscernible limits of comprehension dictate. "One seeks the shareable (not the universal)" (67), but even attainment of "the shareable" is difficult. Within one's own mind, "conversation" is subject to many divisions as well, especially if one surmises (in a Lacanian view?) that the self is composed of othernesses: "I 'talk to myself' and as myself, too, not yet knowing what I myself (or, better, selves) will say, what the rules are and will become, first thought flowing in imitation of a previous thought of a previous self one could say with equal accuracy scrawling or sprawling without limit, and yet that's not right" (46). While the prose-poetry is far from skinny accentual verse, here, it hesitates in its measuring of the self in exemplary Creeleyan fashion. Hejinian's method of composition, apparently, is not "free association" any more than it is cognitive or scriptive predestination. The producer of the "sprawling" "scrawling" may enjoy feelings of expansiveness while intuiting or experiencing important limits.

Disruptions that inform Hejinian's poetics of transition point to the importance of the fragment. Hejinian cites Poe's insight that "'what we term a long poem is, in fact, merely a succession of brief ones'" (9); this "succession" in the text in question-along with the extended work of many recent poetic experimenters-does not necessarily involve conventional notions of continuity. Hejinian resists the sense that an "accumulation" of data or bits of "consciousness" "will" eventually "add up to our knowing, at the very least, just what our life has consisted of" (66), even if such an impossible dream motivates much inquiry. Interestingly, for this poet, fragmentation does not impose a domination of discontinuity, because the "will," interacting with "chance" and its chances, finds "continuity in incompleteness. I perceive, I interfere - with details repeated and themes dispersed" (77). Continuity might be the reiterated inability to turn "incompleteness" into completeness: "It is the task of art to preserve disappearance" (80), not the things that, otherwise, disappear.

Like her "Language" colleagues, as well as New York School and many other avant-garde practitioners, Hejinian's commitment to the continuity of fragmentation and "disappearance" is firmly linked to an "artistic gaze (and the resulting defamiliarization)" which "heightens a thing's palpability, sees it turn not only unfamiliar but real" (23). Since "the well-known is not necessarily known at all" (16), "defamiliarization" makes something "real," not in any absolute sense, but in contrast with the unreality of automatic processing: "I lovingly took the head in my lap but it lay upside down and looked like that of a cyclops with an ocula dentata" (60). This approach is particularly germane to the subtle or overt representation of sociopolitical aspects within domestic situations: "I drove to an enormous Sears, its aisles trellised, latticed, grooved, and I walked around awkwardly with a pickaxe in my cart, looking for a small iron skillet and a bathmat and matching towels, maneuvering efficiently but with no sense of being seen nor even of being there, capacitated, in other words, anonymously" (9).

A cathedral of commodification and impersonal exchange, the enormity of the "Sears" dwarfs the solitary individual among many others and encourages a sense of anonymity or even absence within physical presence (alienation?) that, nevertheless, functions "efficiently," however "awkwardly." The image of "matching towels" as an emblem of the surrender of individual power in conformity, however, clashes delightfully with the material fact of the "pickaxe" and the purchaser's potentially violent uses of it. The question, never to be answered in the text, of what purpose she has for buying the pickaxe, disrupts the authority of the domestic here, even if the pickaxe might just be another household item. Further, the writer's point of recollection ironically allows her earlier "self" to re-exist despite the claim of her having felt non-existent in the shopping context: standing outside that self, she reanimates it.

Another example of both representation of and disruption of social forces' impersonalizing effect on individuals, especially women, is seen in another domestic passage about ten pages later: "Accuracy is not the voice of nature. The house was clean for its own sake, except for a scrap of paper that I'd missed no bigger than a speck on the floor, and I heave myself out of the chair and picked up the scrap which, if I'd noticed it a few hours later after the cleanliness had settled, I'd have left" (20-1). The juxtaposition of the brief first and long second sentences seems to contrast the messiness of "nature" (which would include women and men's presocial characteristics) with a patriarchal culture's longstanding demand that women keep things tidy. The strange personification of "the house" as self-motivated in its sparkling condition defamiliarizes the "naturalness" of a woman's desiring spotlessness by implying that the "house" of her society planted the idea in her consciousness as a "natural" desire.

Whereas little stories and descriptive passages-among the most striking parts of the book, as when we learn that a 300 pound man outraces a male relative who has called him "'a fat slob'" (39)-sometimes do the work of aesthetic and social defamiliarization, often, the collaging of unrelated narrative fragments, observations, and descriptions produces this effect:

Across parallels the homeless move, only singly or in pairs, since they're yet to move in crowds. Across irritable, anxious education cuts. A little boy playing on the street as we walked by suddenly ran at us and kicked the man who was with me, there was no misunderstanding, the humiliation was complete. The coaches shot him up with painkillers and cortisone to cover up the bone spur problem in his foot until the end of the season, when they kicked him out of school and rescinded his athletic scholarship. (11)

The word "parallels" signals what will be drawn between different facets of contemporary existence. The first sentence bespeaks the relative isolation of "the homeless," but then shifts to an emphasis on their eventual increase in numbers, the sense of their astonishing "crowding" into something like a "community" of the dispossessed. The fragment that follows this sentence links what punctuation has arbitrarily separated: the noun "crowds" and the reiterated preposition "across." (The way the two adjectives modify "education cuts" presents another personification that causes the reader to think about the source and the spread of irritation and anxiety.) Emphasis of a connection between extreme poverty and the denial of decent educational opportunities to some of the population may or may not explain the arbitrary, dehumanizing violence of the "little boy" in the next sentence. What could be the expression of resentment about homelessness or poverty against one regarded as a stereotypical victimizer might instead have a much more general significance: the notion that acceptance of the callousness and violent disregard for basic human rights in aspects of public policy and media coverage may inadvertently encourage other forms of violence, including juvenile delinquency. "Humiliation" spreads, and the sentence about the football player (perhaps a "kicker," like the violent "little boy") is an excellent example of ruthless exploitation and indifference to the long-term welfare of those denied education in one way or another.

In the coming decades, it will be interesting to witness whether Lyn Hejinian, who knows both the folly and temptation of trying to "outrun . . . change," will choose to handle the My Life format as she did in the first two books or in the third, or whether she will alternate between the two, or arrive at another imaginative way of conceptualizing the performance of autobiography that evinces skepticism about the usual demarcations of inside and outside. At some point, will all such volumes be housed together, as though a single work, in a Collected Life? And what consequences of all these possible changes for notions of transition, chance, fragmentation, the fictions of unity, defamiliarization and refamiliarization will she articulate (within or outside the books) or leave for her readers to formulate? Hejinian's texts have situated us and her "selves" in the contexts of transition, and such questions "hold" us there, if always in flux.

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