Saturday, November 29, 2008

Lyn Hejinian's "The Distance"

Philosophy can be seen as the history of struggles over the definitions of certain words: not just "knowledge," "being," "value," "right," but more crucially "think," "I," "thing," "eye," and just as crucially "with," "in," "as," "from." And "music," "human," "some." Lyn Hejinian's "The Distance" (the second of two long pieces in her new book, Saga/Circus) adds the rarely-considered emotions and passions, regret, pathos, cowardice, enthusiasm, forgetfulness, understanding, shock, love. This addition isn't her major philosophical innovation. That comes with the ways in which she sets every idea, feeling, variety of situatedness into motion. Everything is deployed, and what a concept is can no longer be a question of definition, but must instead be seen in the way it moves, happens, acts, its form of concretion in situated time. There's no general description of its motion; it's always what it is as a particular event, an event being a context thought of not as a "place" but as the whole structure of an occurrence (we are at sea, on a groundless ground).

I haven't mentioned that "The Distance" is the name of a ship, and that the poem takes place as an ocean voyage, without stated purpose or any end in sight.

We are passing through cascades of animation
And even that which is 'merely imaginary'
And that which is overlooked
Soak us.


on the other hand,

We are surrounded by immobilized projections.

There is the water, and there are icebergs and islands, frozen water and land at which it laps.

The emotions and concepts, so evanescent in themselves that they can barely be spoken of, let alone examined via direct observation, are deployed in "The Distance" via methods that are truer than definition and more radical than metaphor. Feelings and inclinations are bluntly personified, so that Pathos and Regret as animals simply do things, behaving in ways that aren't any less complex than real-life behavior, and therefore not reducible to allegories for the emotions that gave them names. Emotions are externalized through characters (Madoud, Feliz, Miroire, etc.) who don't embody them, but rather pass through them from varying directions. Or concepts are depolyed in propositions, but those propositions run into figures (the horizon, the wake, the dip and swell of the water beneath the boat, the sunrise, auditory and visual illusions) which take over the definitional aspect of the propositions and replace it (so that the push-forward and pull-back of a particular aquatic turbulence becomes the essential description of ambivalence--and not as a metaphor in the usual sense: ambivalence is, for the moment, nothing but that dynamic, and the water is still the water, not merely an object of comparison).

All these deployments and attempts at definition happen in and as context, and so they're transient and provisional. Once, however, a provisional statement has been made, it will always have been made--so that the essence of a concept or emotion is found in the aggregate of its provisional manifestations, in the dialectic between provisionality and always-having-been.

This is the kind of thinking that even the most far-out philosophical writing can't quite enact (Deleuze, writing brilliantly about thought in terms of speed and dynamics, coining slippery terms that are only defined by their contextualization throughout a text, still falls on the side of the propositional, and so his concepts always risk freezing into thingliness)--but art can.

Life can't be studied
As if it were the nonlife of something
Lived by someone studying.


The sentences are beautiful.

...I pass the camera
To others so as to emancipate the point of view. Trade is relevant
Everywhere. We can't escape economy, economies.
As far as we can see the world
Is unsparing of things to see, reality
Is profligate, ubiquitous, vivid, prolix, it's all too much, vista
Without terrain, the "too much," the "neither given nor giveable"
World we can neither approach nor leave. We live
Then through. Then having lived, we will always have
Lived. The only immortality is absence.


Where the colors driven by the wind
Apply, history returns, and so can I, having told myself these things
And keeping them in readiness to tell again.


...I remember
Patches of my own adolescence as I catch glimpses
Of patches of turbulence the wind is picking up, tearing
At the surface of the sea
But in those days my imagination drew thick forests
Into which I would dash
Into a secret future
Between trees, walking the forest floor on the outer edges of my feet--
Silent, invisible, in an infinite process of disappearing.

Pursuing a vibration that we take for a grebe

I want to understand
What I have seen and understand
That nothing I have seen explains what I have seen.


I can tell you
Everything we know about rats but I can't tell you what rats know
About themselves.


The thinking here works in distances and at limits. Thoughts, words, things and unthingly phenomena call out to one another across them, need one another.

...The northern waters are black as ink,
The southern waters are pale in contrast--but the contrast itself is nowhere
To be found.


I know these words.
My thoughts are dead without them.


...I feel all that I feel but there's nothing
There, nothing
Could be there: an emotion is held
In an absence together only
With the strength of an interior--anterior--presence.
But happily the world has poles
And they draw things out
Just as night draws
Bats from barns...


The bats are encountered, though (in the next lines), at dawn. While most of Hejinian's recent work has been "night work," full of sleep and dreams, this is a day poem, full of waking, sunrise, the coming into visibility of things.

...There is nothing here
But exposure. Every wave, even as it curls over the light, produces exposure,
Every thought is crossed by its own frame of illimitable
Transient foam...
...The sun
Is always prejudiced in favor of appearances--change, eventfulness
And destination.


A journey with a beginning and no end. Saga flowing into the beginning of history. Exposure of prison, war. Music, the interdependence of what it does and doesn't say, bringing the latter to light.

I'm again struck by the positivity of Hejinian's thought as a writer, her light courage to do and think, to help inquisitive enthusiasm carry itself out. It makes possible a 37-section take on the "life is a journey" figure that gives that figure more life than it may have ever had.

So much of her recent work is concerned with the border, distance, limit as productive, as the source of possibility--of splits and rifts as the production of more individuals, and thus more relationships, crossings, contexts. In "The Distance" there's always the split between past and future, thought and word, feeling and object, body and soul, visible and invisible. The voyage is in and across these distances, giving life to what waits on either side.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The sense that this moment is unquestionably historic, and that, even more crucially, it's a chance to make it have been historic in a more profound and wide-ranging way.

On the south side of Madison, driving people to the polls: "Riiide to vote in style! We gotta juggler and a luxurious van! Free riiiides to the polls!" up and down the streets, kids chasing the car shouting "Obama! Obama!," Clay teaching three-ball techniques to the folks in the back seat, thumbs up and cheers from people in yards in the poorest part of town.

Back to the office after the polls closed, just in time to hear that Ohio had been called for Obama, thinking of my "Sing Out the Vote" cohorts.

The speech, like the campaign, made me want to be sincere, optimistic, tireless. The temporal and geographic expansiveness of it, the sense that it's not over for the human race, the plea for intelligence, its undeniable presence, had me in tears. The thought of everyone I know for whom the civil rights movement was the defining event of their lives, all the speeds and forms of social change, the thought that there were almost no bad reasons to feel bowled over by this.

I don't need to point out the reasons for caution, skepticism, not letting him get away with things, the need for the degree and intensity of involvement he asks for. My sustaining reason for optimism is the suspicion (based partly on my sister's reports of Obama while she was working for the Illinois Democratic Sentate) that he's actually prepared to listen, if we have something to say.

What in the hell is wrong with people in California? GLBT rights is an issue we're definitely going to have to press during the presidency of a thoughtful and articulate man who can still parrot the inane sentence "I believe a marriage is between a man and a woman," as if belief meant anything. (Admittedly, he tentatively opposed Prop 8).

Right now, though, I can't help feeling thrilled, even in exhaustion, at the prospect of a shift from eight years of a national political culture based on fear as the ultimate motivation to one in which desire and possibility are at least claimed as guiding ideals. To see photos from around the world of people's joy makes me think, again and again, that I want to love this country.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

I've got poems in the new Turntable and Blue Light.


Farewell to Studs Terkel.


Get out the vote


Cannot Exist no.4 seeks cover art--and submissions are still open for poetry until November 7th.