Editor: Bernadette Keating
You spill the sugar when you lift the spoon. My father had filled an old apothecary jar with what he called "sea glass," bits of old bottles rounded and textured by the sea, so abundant on beaches. There is no solitude. It buries itself in veracity. It is as if one splashed in the water lost by one's tears. My mother had climbed into the garbage can in order to stamp down the accumulated trash, but the can was knocked off balance, and when she fell she broke her arm. She could only give a little shrug. The family had little money but plenty of food. At the circus only the elephants were greater than anything I could have imagined. The egg of Columbus, landscape and grammar. She wanted one where the playground was dirt, with grass, shaded by a tree, from which would hang a rubber tire as a swing, and when she found it she sent me. These creatures are compound and nothing they do should surprise us. I don't mind, or I won't mind, where the verb "to care" might multiply. The pilot of the little airplane had forgotten to notify the airport of his approach, so that when the lights of the plane in the night were first spotted, the air raid sirens went off, and the entire city on that coast went dark. He was taking a drink of water and the light was growing dim. My mother stood at the window watching the only lights that were visible, circling over the darkened city in search of the hidden airport. Unhappily, time seems more normative than place. Whether breathing or holding the breath, it was the same thing, driving through the tunnel from one sun to the next under a hot brown hill. She sunned the baby for sixty seconds, leaving him naked except for a blue cotton sunbonnet. At night, to close off the windows from view of the street, my grandmother pulled down the window shades, never loosening the curtains, a gauze starched too stiff to hang properly down. I sat on the windowsill singing sunny lunny teena, ding-dang-dong. Out there is an aging magician who needs a tray of ice in order to turn his bristling breath into steam. He broke the radio silence. Why would anyone find astrology interesting when it is possible to learn about astronomy. What one passes in the Plymouth. It is the wind slamming the doors. All that is nearly incommunicable to my friends. Velocity and throat verisimilitude. Were we seeing a pattern or merely an appearance of small white sailboats on the bay, floating at such a distance from the hill that they appeared to be making no progress. And for once to a country that did not speak another language. To follow the progress of ideas, or that particular line of reasoning, so full of surprises and unexpected correlations, was somehow to take a vacation. Still, you had to wonder where they had gone, since you could speak of reappearance. A blue room is always dark. Everything on the boardwalk was shooting toward the sky. It was not specific to any year, but very early.
The first time I had the pleasure of hearing Lyn Hejinian was her lecture ‘The quest for knowledge in the western poem,' (free under the Naropa University Archive Project and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poets) which introduced me to her particularness about language.
The copy I have of Hejinian's My Life esteems both its wide readership by 'hundreds of colleges and university courses around the world', as well as status: a 'great work of contemporary literature.' Some are obviously convinced as to its merit, and searching the work's title reveals pleas from confused students who fail to discern its worth.
Yet, the more I read of My Life, the more I'm convinced it is a praiseworthy attempt at documenting the vagaries of memory, thought and nostalgia, which necessitates experimentation and a commitment to language. Hejinian talks about being 'in place', and the self awareness such a statement relies on. As an autobiography, the reader is allowed into much of Hejinian's personal life through these frank phrases, however one really only ends up with a small sense of her way of thinking, less tangible events, people or places.
Originally thirty-eight stanzas of thirty-eight lines—Hejinian’s age in 1980—the updated work is forty-five stanzas of forty-five lines. What I sense from this work is that perhaps to characterize a life by its beginning, middle and end, is to restrain the multiple possibilities of thought and action that occur every second and our ability to reference both past and future without reference to structure or according to entertainment value.
With that in mind, this poem as an autobiography works in a way that I could not have expected until reading it and seeking to understand the poet's purpose.
This week's Tuesday Poem editor, Bernadette Keating, has just completed a postgraduate diploma in art history at Victoria University. She also writes poetry and occasionally blogs about writing and art. Bernadette lives in Wellington, New Zealand.