Saga/Circus, Lyn Hejinian. Omnidawn. 146pp, $15.95.
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Saga/Circus consists of two parts in reverse order: the first part, “Circus,” is prose that reads like poetry, and “Saga” is poetry that reads like prose. Hejinian, in her Poetic Statement found in American Women Poets in the 21st Century, acknowledges that she is a difficult writer: “I espouse a poetics of affirmation. I also espouse a poetics of uncertainty, of doubt, difficulty, and strangeness. Such a poetics is inevitably contradictory, dispersive, and incoherent while sustaining an ethos of linkage. It exhibits disconnection while hoping to accomplish reconnection.”
She makes no apologies for this, stating in her The Language of Inquiry: “ideas and, perhaps more startlingly, emotions are freed from the limits of the singular ‘I,’ allowing for a poetry of complex and densely layered affect as well as intelligence.” This is a poetics of intelligence, of consciousness, in which the line is valorized: “each line is an aspect of an idea, observation, or feeling. When one sentence ends and another begins on a single line, then the connection between the two is part of the plane of consciousness,” where the “writing” of the line “begins as an act of observation and is completed by recognition of the thought that it achieves there. The tension set up by the coexistence of beginning and end at each point excites the dynamics of the work, and this tension is vital to my thinking within it.” She recognizes the effect of this transference of emphasis from the word to the line: “In positing the line as the basic unit of the work, I realize that I am denying that function to the word (except in one-word lines). In this sense, syntax and movement are more important to me than vocabulary (the historically macho primacy of which I dislike in any case).”
In Saga/Circus, Hejinian plays with the line and the sentence, creating a torque that contorts syntax and movement into often unrecognizable shape. Meaning is not lost amidst this frenzy, it is discarded. This is first seen in “Circus’s” chapters, which never get beyond the integer three. Showing her penchant for ecology, Hejinian chooses not to use more numbers but simply recycle them into such items as “Chapter Between Two and Three” and “Chapter One Two,” with the latter being preceded by the metalingual text “Now we’ll go from Chapter One to Chapter One Two.” “Circus” is a Dadaist soap opera which would confound the afternoon addicts and render it unfit for prime time—something like Saturday Night Live with its unfit-for-prime-time players. But then, Hejinian creates her own cast of unfit characters:
Even before I existed, says Lola, I was already at work on myself. I came prepared.
Along comes Lola.
Along comes Bill in boots apparently.
It is much easier to be enthusiastic about what exists than about what doesn’t.
Air and screams, too, rubble, flitting litter, shadows and all the rest slowly in disequilibrium kept indefinitely before the senses of the payers by players yearning to share all their pleasure mercilessly, as if this were what they’d prepared for: that: to show their pleasure mercilessly.
That was the entirety of the true, original Chapter One. It doesn’t get any clearer than that—hear that syntax scream. That is what Hejinian calls parataxis: “Parataxis is significant both of the way information is gathered by explorers and the way things seem to accumulate in nature. Composition by juxtaposition presents observed phenomena without merging them, preserving their discrete particularity while attempting also to represent the matrix of their proximities.” This barrage of disconnection may appear to be a collage, but she denies that, seeking more affinity with the cinematic term montage:
Things in a collage are like letters of the alphabet—when you put some of them together they will always appear to be seeking meaning, or even to be making it. . . . In montage, all the above values are maintained (contiguity, contingency, etc.), but the result reflects decision rather than happy chance.
Also collage is a predominately spatial technique (developed in paintings), whereas montage (deriving from film technique) employs devices that are related to time. In this sense montage preserves its character as a process.
Saga, subtitled The Distance, opens with the lines:
Banned from ships as if I were fate
Herself I nonetheless long hankered after adventures
But buckets, lifeboats, gulls, and fish guts on wharves were as near as I got
Or the beach. The ban was inoperative on the sands and there I boarded
Wrecks, where the terns, godwits, and gulls were ashore
Bricolage is at work here as well in the form of montage—the scene unfolding with a pile-up of “fish guts” and other things, each taking their “tern,” ashore. “Saga” is about the sea and a wreck called The Distance, which she goes to and which may or may not be metonymic for life, or it may be metonymic for the writing process, or it may be metonymic . . . well, with Hejinian we can never be certain.
Susan Howe and Lyn Hejinian are two of the most exciting, innovative writers to have emerged from the Language movement. They will challenge you in ways unexpected, leaving you shipwrecked on some unknown shore without any mooring. Enjoy the cruise!
John Herbert Cunningham’s criticism has appeared in many places, including Malahat Review, Prairie Fire, Arc, Antigonish Review, and the Rain Taxi Review of Books.
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