I recently made my way through Lyn Hejinian’s “The Book of a Thousand Eyes.” Coming out over 300 pages, this work is a lengthy and interesting meditation on sleep, night, perspective, and narrative.
It is tempting to take a poem and hone in on how it is or isn’t an example of language poetry, but I want to look at a specific poem. It is the first poem that ends with the first indicated break at “Of a mummy! what sort of individual is that?”
What made my ears perk up as I read this poem was not the “language” aspects of the discussion (though, her use of words and categories as poles of the poem is remarkable), but I was drawn to the ends of lines and the enjambment that she uses to craft a poem that leaps from line to line. Further than that, Hejinian starts the poem switch-hitting: she throws us a line that acts as a thesis statement or summation of the content and action of the poem. This first thought inhabits and haunts much of the rest of the body of this poem.
Let’s look at a few lines in particular to see how this enjambment works.
Mounted on a sorrel rocking horse
Whose reins are made of braided hair
And whose saddle is slipping like a continental plate
Around a diamond
Because the girth is loose and we’re bound
On a crash course. . .
Her bag full of images are impeccable, even in this middle section. She gives us things that loosely connect: a sorrel rocking horse, reins, braided hair, saddle, bound, crash. There’s a continental plate, a diamond, and a crash course that are also loosely connected. But there is no final punctuation; this is, presumably, part of one long sentence with many disparate images that play off of and against one another.
However, notice the way that Hejinian stitches them together!
The final word of each line is the needle and thread that holds this multi-chambered thought together. It is comparable to Gregory Pardlo’s Pulitzer prize winning “Digest,” which used enjambment to make the final word of each line the pivot point of two divergent clauses. Hejinian uses these images and words as the thread that binds lines together (to both immediately adjacent lines and even earlier lines of the poem). “Horse” obviously ties to its own line, and stitches “reins.” “Hair” connects to “horse” and “reins” while stitching “saddle.” “Plate” to “diamond.” The poem goes on and on like that, using the enjambment of these huge, grammatically questionable sentences to piece together the conflicting images into constellations.
I didn’t forget about that summary that precedes the poem!
What a curious convention to break. Amateur poets give summary lines at the end that spell out too much of the magic of a poem. Unpracticed poets don’t trust the audience and kill the animal by picking it apart and giving it an anatomy chart stapled to its back. Hejinian makes a rookie mistake on purpose and has this summation carry the poem forward, rather than killing the end. Hejinian takes a conventional no-no, thumbs her nose at it, and turns it on its head.
“Ideas cross empty spaces in a game” begins the piece. This lays out the play of the poem, the constellations of ideas versus images that circle around rural or farm life, around county fairs, around childhood, around tragedies, around girlhood, and around womanhood. This first line sets up the disjunctive of the poem by setting ideas (mental constructs) apart from things (perhaps these are merely physical objects) and then telling them to march to the things. Ideas must move back into place in this game. There is a disconnect that must be resolved or played within.
And we see this tension continue in lines like “The rider will be thrown” or “When it fails to accord with her ideas of what a county fair should be/—Timeless!” Here, “Timeless” serves as a capitalized idea that fails to match up to what is. How things ought be must reach for what is. Even the final lines play out the tension between idea and thing: “Impressions/Of a mummy! what sort of individual is that?” Impressions being held as ideas and the question that points to facts—individuals are not impressions or mental objects.