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Book Review Jeffrey C. Robinson

The Fatalist
Lyn Hejinian

Lyn Hejinian’s recent poetry sets a trap for its reader and, particularly, for a reviewer or commentator—a trap to say what her poems mean, or, to ask the question with an overly valued word in Western and modern U.S. society, what “knowledge” do we “take” from her poems? Why is this a trap and not simply an invitation to accomplish a primary task of response to poetry, that of trying to recover in one’s own language the principles of coherence present in a poem? The major method of response in the institutions of reading—reviews, schools and universities—has privileged the recovery of meaning of a poem over any other kind of response. The “life” or ‘on-goingness’ of a poem gets replaced by the monumental implacability of the interpretation. The long rolling “New Sentences” in The Fatalist, with their endlessly startling and often funny internal shifts in domain make the search-for-meaning difficult; however, the relentless upsurge of aphoristic statements encourages a reader to latch onto them as signposts of the poem’s definition. One starts feverishly looking for these statements to “add up,” or coalesce into something concrete and small enough to put in your pocket and walk away satisfied. Yet as the poetry pours by, with aphoristic phrasing twisting into quotidian detail without pausing for a dash or semi-colon, one accepts the fact that this river of words features “thought” as an essential impurity. Or rather, thought is not “featured,” as it is in Keats’s aphorism in "Grecian Urn" that lands like a brick of vision at the end of that poem. The generalization, rather, becomes eroticized in the flow of signifiers and referents.

So, you stop looking for the big q.e.d. of The Fatalist, although, like the poem itself, you don’t stop thinking and realizing that the poem urges you to an insistent, estranged yet familiar subjectivity more or less parallel, and occasionally intersecting with, the speaker’s own. But more than parallel because the “you” in the poem which, if you look closely, is someone else—the beloved—and at times feels like yourself: she is talking to me!–and I wish to respond.

Response: in the OED, the word, in addition to meaning simply “answer” or even “an action or feeling which answers to some stimulus or influence,” is part of the liturgy sung by the congregation in reply to the priest, and can be “an oracular answer.” Response in this sense can be mobilized far from the quotidian, the “normative”; when I respond to poetry, ideally, I respond from the sources of life within me, from the collective. In The Fatalist the gesture of poetic concern radically encourages this welcomed but, in Wordsworth’s word, “unacknowledged” displacement. This is very different from J.S. Mill’s notion of response to a poem as an “overhearing” of another voice from a stable, familiar position. Hejinian’s speaker says:

I receive things at this address, but I don’t seem to be
here in the usual sense.

Like all poetry worthy of the calling, this one eschews dwelling in “the usual sense” in the same way that Marina Tsvetaeva claims that poets dwell not at home but at the crossroads. From that “nomadic” (Pierre Joris) position the postal system of receiving and delivering messages seems a possible if highly strenuous activity. Dickinson:

Could mortal Lip divine
The undeveloped Freight
Of a delivered Syllable–
‘ Twould crumble with the weight–

As you “progress” through the poem, you increasingly feel “in love,” receiving this “New” love letter, in a state of heightened stimulation and intimacy with, however, a rising and falling of concentration that becomes part of the twisting of your thinking around hers. The Fatalist produces, and reflects, a radical asymmetry–of normative and expanded consciousness–between reader and speaker that’s constantly shifting; the feeling of destabilization pervades the reading; one is never at home; sentences always have the upper hand because, although any one phrase may signal the familiar, the paratactic drive makes everything belong to “unknown Zones” (Dickinson) which is where knowledge (reified, imperiously stable) transmutes into mobile, spiritualized subjectivity. Hejinian characteristically takes familiar, historically burdened terms and de-familiarizes them–like progress, or the Enlightenment dyad progress: knowledge:

Progress has to be made
repeatedly rather than continuously. There can’t be any plot
it’s impossible to know why
people do the things they do. The frozen stage
burns the feet of the leaping actors in a Noh play
called “The Fatalist.”

This is ecstatically spiritual poetry, in the Emersonian sense. One imagines the full extent of life as concentric “circles,” an outer circle maintaining a point of greater “perspective” (perhaps Hejinian’s sentence), but you come to realize that there are always circles beyond the formerly last one that places the perspectival point in a newer sentence.

The poem, which upon first reading, seems like an endless flow of sentences and topics, might better be considered an enacting of cosmic stutterings–impulsive beginnings again and again, in the form of roughly 30- to 60-line lumpy verse-paragraphs, a sequence of “strophes,” an echo, perhaps, of a sonnet sequence–the formal closure of the sonnet an allusion in a poem more of beginnings (the title of a poem by Hejinian is “The Beginner”) than of endings which for her, in the tradition of visionary poetry, exist to initiate new beginnings.

The Fatalist is wary of too much consciousness, too much awareness; the countenance of the speaker won’t settle into completion; experience, that typically precedes the Western poem, the plenitude of possibility that resolves into a choice and thus (mournfully) excludes possibilities, like the night world of dream that wakes into the “dawn phenomenon” of most traditional western poems, is continually resisted. Amazingly, though the world depicted here belongs largely to events (domestic, erotic, literary, political) lit by the sun, her poem itself bears more resemblance, dynamically, to Novalis’ Hymns to the Night, the pre-dawn world of oneiric plenitude.

Similarly, the poem strives to rid itself of plot or, in David Antin’s word, “story,” yet holds vigorously to what he calls narrative. Her poetry is “narrative minus story”: “when [Brian McHale] points to Lyn Hejinian, a marvelous poet, and speaks of her having a kind of persistent narrative aspect without all the aspects of what would traditionally be considered narrative, what he’s calling attention to is the absence in her poems of the consistent spatial and temporal mappings that could specify unambiguously the events and relations between events producing the powerful experiences generated by the text” (Brian McHale, ed., “Talking Narrative: A Conversation with David Antin,” Narrative, vol. 12, No. 1, January 2004).

Our imperialistic society, where expansion means control, has created for art an economy of scarcity where plot and knowledge exclude the subjective experience of events. The hypotactic structure of events, so to speak, in the public domain of daylight, do not belong to the people who make and experience them. Her poetry (and in different ways that of her colleagues Barrett Watten, Bob Perelman, Carla Harryman, Charles Bernstein and others) seeks to restore experience to the subject, which, in her case, is manifest largely through paratactic syntax and movement. And there’s an ethics of perception and concern in this subjective narrative:

What is cooking? The best cook knows ingredients rather than recipes.
She also knows whom she is cooking for. The best cook with a
can of anchovies and three children to feed will leave the
anchovies on the shelf and go to the grocery store for
macaroni, milk, and cheese.

Recipe is someone else’s knowledge, generalized and for a generic (i.e. adult) community. Ingredients, like words, leave the cook free to reach her specific community. This freedom is expressed as a parataxis that allows the shift from anchovies to macaroni, milk, and cheese: “There is a moment in each day that Satan [plot, knowledge, recipe] cannot find.”

Blake’s proverb, visionary and defiant in a society of pervasive ideological control, might signal a radical legacy for all of his followers. It can account for the form as well as the content of Hejinian’s poem because it allows for an imagining of a position that again and again resists identification, or, as she would say, “naming” or fixing and yet is fully alive and present. One way that Romanticism attempted to escape the Panopticon was to imagine a location–in a poem, in a community based on love and not power; but a more powerful corrective to this “rescue fantasy” lay in a vision of a continually active and creative subjectivity–the subject as perpetual “beginner.” When he says at the end of his “Ode to a Nightingale,” “the fancy cannot cheat so well / as she is fam’d to do,” Keats insists upon the Fancy’s perpetually renewing powers of mind while rejecting the notion that some kind of salvation rests in the object itself, even so capacious an object as the (mythic and consoling) nightingale. The object can be found and known and controlled. The mind, says Romantic and post-Romantic visionary poetry, will find the moments that Satan cannot.

Hejinian says:

I gather fate all at once but “all at once” (eye open and close)
does not mean best or full seen. My address is pathos and my goal
is to follow myself into the present
and restore to the political a capacity for ambivalence and quandary as sharp
(And as beneficial) as acupuncture.

“ All at once,” the sign of epiphany at the beginning of “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” is for Wordsworth total: the single vision that follows is transforming, permanently, and ever renewing. No such moment occurs in The Fatalist; it couldn’t because the eye opens but then closes; nothing can be fully seen and known. And yet this condition, she claims, allows for a sharper, curative politics based on complexities (no axis of evil possible here), and based also–according to the principle of a poetry of aperture–on an orientation towards the present, in poetry and quickly by extension as a principle of living and acting. The fundamentally paratactic structure of sentences extends, it seems to me, to a vision of a contiguous relationship between poetry and politics. That is, if one perceives contiguity as the description of an always alert subjectivity, then that alertness could apply ultimately to the poetry/politics linkage. This may account for Hejinian’s own activism, her internationalism, amidst a poetry in which for the most part the referents belong to a quotidian, middle-class, not at all overtly political domain.

In a fascinating brief radio broadcast, “Ist die Kunst heiter?” (Is art cheerful, or happy) Theodor Adorno argued yes, only in so far as the “cheerful” cast of mind presumes or encourages a free play of mind in the midst of oppressive conditions and traumatic events. Again, it can only refer to a cast of mind, not an affect in a poem or a place, a utopia, represented in a poem. In this sense art provides or models a cast of mind not totally bound to dominant ideological strictures. Hejinian would not assent to the notion of “happiness” found in Diderot’s Encyclopedia (though not written by him): “a state or situation in which we would like to see continue forever unchanged.” Yet if she could alter it to “the feeling of an ever-renewing (beginning) subjectivity alert to an ever-changing reality,” she might go along with it. Her focus is not on a place or an embodiment but on the act of mind. Thus, an earlier poem is titled in adverbial as opposed to nominal form: “Happily.” (The nominative, the “name” in the Encyclopedia is not valued in The Fatalist.)

If it is true that this poem privileges a continually restless, self-reinvigorating subjectivity, what is the status of the referent? I don’t think the poem answers this question except to associate the referent with event, something that includes but is not totally defined by the subject. The final sentence: “That’s what fate is: whatever’s happened–time regained.” Just as the speaker is not future- or past-oriented, not invested in “romantic longing,” so she is not invested in the content of her world as in the relationship (the continual revisiting and reshaping that David Antin calls “tuning”) that she sees or creates among its elements: life is always “the anomaly we find everywhere.”

And the title, The Fatalist? She alludes to a Noh play of that name, but it also is the hero’s epithet in Diderot’s picaresque novel, Jacques le fataliste et son maitre. Diderot, she says, is “one of [her] particular heroes.” And Jacques—who like his author’s Rameau’s nephew, stands in servant relationship to a master philosopher–actually wields a brilliant, philosophically irreverent fascination over the master, anticipating directly Hegel’s master-slave paradigm. Believing that “up yonder” lies the cause and meaning of events, unknowable to persons (thus a fatalist), he advocates making creative decisions based on “contingencies” as Hejinian puts it:

I said that the contingencies that the senses perceive
and animate are what is literary about literature, just to name one of my own particular heroes, Diderot. Later Romanticism celebrated sentient experience in the ground. What is this? You might ask. Where did it come from? How did it get here? why is it this way? What is it doing?–how can we get real?

Jacques, and his very visible author Diderot, write, act, speak, narrate in such a way that every moment is a choice based on contingencies, leading to a prose style and to a focus on “narrative” rather than (predetermined) “story” that anticipates Antin and Hejinian. In her recovery of Diderot and contingency, she significantly acknowledges the Romantic sequellae as a cultural moment in which the senses specifically engage with the world of contingency. This makes her, then, a Romantic revisionist; her method of revision is to recover the continuity between the subversive Diderot and Romanticism, which a degraded notion of Romanticism had (has) dropped for the complacency of a vision of poetry and/as transcendental rescue fantasy. The wit of The Fatalist is transmuted Diderot, the “whole-souled” engagement with and emphasis upon the “sentient” subject are derived from Romanticism, the poetics and the elaboration and celebration of her world belong solely to Hejinian herself.