August 2004

Dale Smith

marsupial inquirer

That is Beginning: A Look at Recent Work of Hejinian, Sabina, and Others

To say that Lyn Hejinian is a major figure in contemporary American poetry is an understatement. As an editor, teacher, essayist and poet, her work has contributed significantly to the ways young poets consider their craft. Author of the influential My Life and The Cold of Poetry, her investigations into language come from many perspectives: theoretical, practical, linguistic and poetic. As one of the seminal Bay Area poets, along with Ron Silliman, Carla Harryman and Barrett Watten, her influence has since grown beyond the coterie of Language Poets that helped project her work into the foreground of American poetry. It's interesting to note, actually, how Language Poetry no longer exists as a projective force, but as a unique historical bubbling of ideas from particular urban centers by a particular generation of writers. Those like Hejinian and Silliman, (despite the manipulative gesture of his blog, Silliman will be remembered perhaps as an exceptional poet and marketer of contemporary trends, rather than a purely critical thinker), persist beyond a limited movement to exert continued and actual force on the thinking of working poets. It's notable that Hejinian is editor of the Best American Poetry 2004, a sure sign of acceptance and influence in the greater world of cultural production.

A recent book, The Beginner, brings up for me something I've always admired in exceptional writers. Philosopher Gille Deleuze finds native to Anglo-Saxon literature a need to keep moving out--pure extension into space. Think Melville in that desire to flee, to be on the move. The Beginner, by contrast, points a way out into process, the removal of deadly second-guesses. It's a uniquely American book, in that it articulates an urgency for departure, kinetic passion and presence of mind within the uncertain flux of every day.

The beginner makes a beginning, and if optimism is in the air
(or pessimism, that mordant state of mind that says things can't
possibly improve), the beginner proclaims it a good place to begin.
That is beginning.
Something and other things in a sequence simultaneously.
Ants on a white sill buried.
A harbinger in the light.
A child composed nudely.
A side of a tree cut into squares at a shout from a man under
an umbrella.
A furtive marked moth fluttering into a beam of light.
A woman at a door falling.
The beginner is diverted.
Follow me. (12)

Deleuze suggests Anglo-Saxons begin in the middle of a line. The French come at language from both ends, seeking to join beginning and end. I don't much care for his comparisons, though it's interesting to think of Spanish literature in terms of dismemberment, or German in terms of intestinal twists. Nevertheless, Hejinian's work here moves within a line. Her beginner comes from a middle ground, centered. This small book is a working out of that condition, moving around the thing until it transforms her, movement by absorption and release in words. That bit about optimism or pessimism is essential. If around us the world plunges into an absolute negative-the negrido of alchemic lore-there must be a positive charge lifting through it, our own ability and desire for good within an increasing black. These conditions though-optimism, pessimism-are not central to the action of the beginner. The beginner is a finder, a wanderer who shares with Melville's Ishmael a curiosity for the depths he's capable of experiencing, whether it's a placid Pacific, the roiling guts of a whale or Ahab's sadistic craving urge to destroy everything. "There's an infinite connection to perform," she writes.

No stop.
We subtract, loop, erase, rope, return to zero, tug, and
begin over again.
Things give way, then things assert.
They appear in photographs.
"When I was 14 I went to Spain.
"Once early morning in Seville I left the hotel (of which I
remember nothing but deep gloom) and walked into the exhilarating but
devastating sunlight thatseemed to hover, to cascade, to penetrate
like some philosophical quandary.
"Could fate exist without us?
"No matter the answer, I was frightened.
"I was a small donkey; though it was trotting toward
me-because I was sad-it was absolutely still" is such a photograph.
But now the things in it have given way, yielding to
different assertions. (25)

This short book condenses and pushes out on themes others have addressed, as certainly we must, in our way. Why is it peculiarly American or English, or is Deleuze full of shit? To remove it from his generalizations for a moment, there is something in Melville or Lawrence always on the verge, at a limit where they risk exposure at all times in their writing. They seek transformation, becoming-anti-stasis. The key's to keep on truckin', on the road etc. Hejinian's work puts into motion these things in us, in our (our?) language.

Having begun I've blinked further.
There is too much light-the sun brings out the unwillingness
of things. (29)

It's in this unwillingness that great writing occurs. Listen to me -- "great writing." Does anyone still believe in that? To be capable of it, perhaps, is the point. The writers I've mentioned here persevered in unknowing circumstances to reveal what was hidden in themselves. They chipped away at that black stone until the violence of their strikes sent sparks flying out. To be a self is simply to be something in the world and yet yearning for it.


Renee Gladman's new book The Activist addresses social resistance, personal commitment and political devastation in this playful narrative inquiry. Her work here is theoretical in a sense, composed of dream imagery, ELF-like (Earth Liberation Front) social sabotage and social organizations on the brink of collapse due to the personalities and personal desires of key members within the group. Her vision is purposefully problematic. On one side there's a protest by white liberals for "greener grass." These whites represent a liberal system of "correct" discourse and regulated acts of protest. Meanwhile, there's also a dysfunctional terrorist network mobilizing in her book, and there's a catastrophe no one can quite agree on: did it happen or not? She's looking at the philosophical problems of identity, social organization, personal responsibility and psychic infection within the totalitarian structure of the State. It's an admirable inquiry and raises important debates on the function of social protest post 911. One side is a McVeigh-like registration of discontent: blow it up. The other is to refuse the State's power over domestic space and our internal lives-liberate the imagination. Her's is a work of the imagination for sure. Purposefully ambiguous, fragmented and marvelously disconnected, these narratives measure intent by ability, desire by action and faith by the secular intrusion of the State's social apparatus. Using divers strategies for her narrative revelation, including interviews, conversation and faux reportage, The Activist raises important questions in an era falling to Ashcroft's Patriot Acts and the President's permanent War on Terror.

This morning, forces stormed the homes of Altar Mendlesohn, Alvin
Mendocci, Alsana Mendoza, and Alonso Mitchell in search of the
spurious leader of the Commuters, now accused of three felony counts
of conspiratorial behavior. When asked the status of the "separate"
criminal investigation of the CPL, the organization most likely
behind the bridge's destruction, Daniel Sharpe of the BSU refused to
speak. This statement was released to the press earlier today:
"Americans need to understand that silence is sometimes necessary
when one is engaged in a psychological war. And that is exactly what
we are fighting here. There are too many people using our honesty
with the American people for their own selfish gain. Our top priority
is to disable the coagulation of all so-called angry people, be they
commuters, activists, what have you."


Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris are editors of a new series of books for the University of California Press that focuses on international writing in translation. First books in the Poets for the Millennium series released last year were by Mazatec mushroom "wise woman," or, poet, María Sabina and surrealist André Breton. The series is important for gathering a divers range of un- or under-published works of world modernism into English. The Sabina selections, for instance, present a translation of her oral autobiography Vida and folk chants along with "commentaries and derivations" by botanist R. Gordon Wasson, Henry Munn, Anne Waldman and others. For Sabina, language reveals God, through mushroom trance, chant and visions. Her practice with the "saint children," as she refers to the fungi, reflects religion, spiritual knowledge and practical affairs of the community. Besides local physical and psychic traumas, her words relate a language practice integrated into the solid fabric of daily life. Her humility in the presence of these awesome powers is extraordinary, as are her relations of Mazatec experience in the fields and villages of her native Oaxaca.

Look for books next year in the Poets for the Millennium series by Cuban modernist José Lezama Lima and Holocaust survivor Paul Celan.


Jerome Rothenberg describes his work as an "ongoing attempt to reinterpret the poetic past from the point of view of the present." He's published 50 books of poetry and numerous translations from the Spanish, German, Czech, Navajo, Seneca and Aztec. Celebrated for his work in the field of ethnopoetics, he edited the anthologies Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa, America, Asia, & Oceania and Poems for the Millennium (with Pierre Joris). Rothenberg is a giant among poets, whose work has contributed to the way we read our own literature as well as the complex range of world writing as it comes to us in English.

A Book of Witness, Spells & Gris-Gris, was published last year by New Directions. Here, conversations are shared between living and dead writers, the imagination the ground for his poetic engagement, where the living and dead thrive side-by-side. That they are all vital to Rothenberg's work is clear, with voices subtly entering these poems in acts of witness. Picabia, Stein, Duncan, Notley, Niedecker and even the Elizabethan magus and geographer John Dee bring words to his imagination, the living inner world. An investigation of historical loss, and mythic deprivation, these poems also enact a resilient hope, or profound longing, for a future world's safe passage through, well, the great evil all around us. Dramatic, edging on the surreal, the poems here conserve form and seek a kind of occult enactment. It could be the secular world is as full of spirits and superstitions as the sacred.

"There is in all of this a question of inventing & reinventing identity, of experimenting with the ways in which we can speak or write as 'I,'" he writes in an afterword. A kind of new beginning, from scratch, to acknowledge self as center and margin, "I" is a transpersonal tool not the exposed outer limit of ego.

I jubilate.
I gabble.
I implore.
The earth is friable
& falls
short of my vision.
I walk between
two friends
to slow the passage.
I write for science
with my thumbs.
The aim of health is medicine.
The monkey's scream
is not the monkey
but the end's the same for all.

(from "To Slow the Passage")


Robert Duncan's Letters was re-published last year by the exquisite Chicago-St. Louis-based press, Flood Editions. It's a gorgeous edition with an afterword by Duncan literary executor Robert Bertholf. It's the book Duncan wrote just prior to the influential and important The Opening of the Field (New Directions, 1964). Some of the author's concerns re: the typesetting and design of this book are reproduced here in his detailed letters to Jargon book designer Claude Fredericks. This important document relates Duncan's point-by-point proofs and his insistence on the importance of each typographic gesture, spacing and unconventional notation. Central also is an insistence on speech as the motivating element of poetry. For all of its strong angles, enjambment of lore and fractured surfaces, Letters takes speech as the primary force of the poem. Speech registers the physical limitations of language in the body. The typographic score of the page is a musical notation that guides the reader's romp through his words. It gives sensuous shape and embodiment to Duncan's hermetic cluster of concerns. Drawings, however, of his ideal reader reveal a sweet determination of extension by breath and typographic attention. She wears many large hats, in her study or garden, and seems to adore cats. Her plump body is often in repose, skirts billowing out over large plush chairs. His muse is measure particular to his character and intelligence. Duncan perhaps is our greatest poet of a union between bodies of feeling and mind. Flood's republication of Letters is a document of this projective integration of hermetic impulse with tangible forms of everyday speech.

The Beginner
Tuumba Press
42 pp.

The Activist
145 pp.

María Sabina: Selections
University of California Press
225 pp.

André Breton: Selections
University of California Press
184 pp.

A Book of Witness: Spells & Gris-Gris
New Directions
118 pp.

Letters: Poems 1953-1956
Flood Editions
72 pp.