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Currently Reading: Prose Poems of Lyn Hejinian and Sheila E. Murphy

My Life, Lyn Hejinian (Green Integer, 1987, 2002 edition)

What a fascinating book. I’m past halfway thru and am comforted by its eventual end that I am quite happy to reread fragments, sections or whole unlike most works, it satisfies as much on rereads. It plays in language, observing among words and humourously. “The child gawks, the child is gawky.” She plays with sound without feeling like she’s doing scales. She plays with roots of language and roots around there and what she comes up with fits with the text.

I can fall into the text fairly readily. Perhaps because with so much direct plain and plaintive storytelling as poems, there’s an appetite for more complex patterns with a considered canvas. Vocabulary is simple but medium common words are used disproportionally. It creates a sort of nubby texture, a sort of structure to see vocabulary repeat like colors of horse, farmer, plump (often birds but with other pairings) flesh (often of a kind of fruit but sometimes other pairings, like book).

There are pings of insights and refrains of repeated and remixed phrases that crop up and a mass of details. It resists narrative and yet builds overall scenes, not in the sense of [that cursed word of] “evocative” but her idea “Only fragments are accurate”. p. 82

I was tired of ideas, or rather, the activity of ideas, a kind of exercise, had first invigorated me and then made me sleepy, so that I felt just as one does after a long, early morning walk, returning unable to decide whether to drink more coffee or go back to sleep. The uncommon run of keeping oneself to oneself. The piggy-back plant is o.k. Tell anyone who telephones that I’m not home. I liked doing that, had made room for dolls on trucks that way, looking in through windows. It was a pretence of keeping our distance from anything that appeared pretentious. A sorry-mess but well-framed. As if a contorted checkerboard formed the portrait of the handsome woman in a hat of several ochres and umbers. The dog circles more than a moth before resting. Let traffic pass. They were on vacation and therefore bored.

And so on. It is rich in details and discontinuous yet there are plausible hinges, tangental relationships between thoughts that are like a renga or ghazal. Chasing an idea feeeling like a walk, a figurative run, the body, the imaginary absence, the imagination of dolls looking in windows, figurative, glassed off distance…

It is like a sidewalk rummage sale where there is a jumble of odd things next the other and yet if you zoom up, there’s an order of lined tables and zoom further there’s a pattern of streets and pattern of city she has made.

There are runs when she stays more on a thought such as p. 65

I suppose I had always hoped that, through an act of will and the effort of practice, I might be someone else, might alter my personality, and even my appearance, that I might in fact create myself, but instead I found myself trapped in the very character which made such a thought possible and such a wish mine.

That rings home as the paradox I was born in. Always this extending self past what I imagine self to be, or be interested or positively inclined towards to re-form self. It is a common enough mental stance I suppose, a habit of a writer positioning oneself as an outsider to whatever society, an estranged observer, rather than a part.

Letters to Unfinished J., Sheila E. Murphy, (Green Integer Series, 2003)

The book works something the same way, each sentence not following linearly, and set down formatted in prose. There isn’t the sense of sestina-like order to it as with Hejinian’s. It has the same principle of leaps and considered judgements about how things work laid bare and yet in a pleasing cadence. Both are a calm intellect at work more than the organ-grinder-heart pulping itself away and seeking to provoke in that common poetry and drama way.

Murphy’s text I’ve been reading on and off for probably 3 years. It is pleasure to come back to each time. It doesn’t seem deliberately opaque and yet doesn’t pant after sympathies. It isn’t ploy and coy reveals. It isn’t dumbed down. If the right word is latinate, we won’t find a working class word for the idea to dress it down to place “consistent” over precision. It isn’t avoiding giving an opinion as if didactic is a venal sin but at the same time doesn’t load language to skew with leaning words and mood abstractions. It doesn’t dabble in personification and other of the romantic gestures of poetic forms. p. 70-71

Latitude is scenic but we’re new at this. And latitude is part-way bronzed immediately following the post-war news. Is any kind of wood an armful. Any kind of meteor the one we know. Remediation is the thing that makes digestion difficult. New forms of snow distract from settled moments trying on percentages of repartee. Barometers used to be free when we were iffy with our lawns. Some day she’ll need me was the lore. And which of us will still be here.

44. Tomorrow I’ll use both halves of my round ticket to hell.

Both poets refrains from the question mark even when they structure questions but if the audience isn’t able to reply in text, it is rhetorical, distinct from conversational questions for information. Another poet might put italics to lead the reader by the nose Some ay she’ll need me was the lore. This grants the reader more credit for figuring such simple syntax out.

The sentences and sections don’t dovetail but there’s still the latitude to see links sketched lightly in pencil. There isn’t the same repetition keeping the words over a long span in tension. I can set it down and pick it up again more readily than Hejinian’s. Murphy’s I walk away from satisfied even at a short read. It is dense but not opaque. More dazzling in the sense of being oblique enjambments. It is fresh.

There’s a sense of poetry going somewhere instead of trying to proselytize itself and boil down a simple story from complex data.

The marvel of the sculpture is that sense of movement, lightness, elegance in a material that is solid, dense, unremarkable rough stone, the raw material of everything that lands in the crate. If you make a linear narrative, you sculpt marble and what you cut off is the same type of material and density as what you leave behind. The objective is this paradox of form against material.

But once that trick has been done often enough, as hard as it is to do, it doesn’t seem like a paradox anymore. It is like consuming the comedy channel as a diet until everything looks like standup or failure at being good stand-up comedy.

What more can words do? The elements can be tumbled. Sound is still used. Movement is still used. What can we leave out? Line breaks that cluster thoughts for the reader. The reader can infer what chunks together and use his or her own initiative to pause where need be. Punctuation variation. Same thing applies.

Do words need to have a string run thru the holes in the a and o and b etc, and be laced with the ring in the readers noses to keep them on track?

Does it have to add up to something only if stacked in a tidy column for addition or can the reader be the one to audit the book, see which receipts of living are useful to keep and which to glance at and pass over?

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