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"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Poetry Chronicles, Part 1-Lyn Hejinian's "Letters Not About Love"

Perhaps the chief problem in writing a blog, at least for me, is how to keep it going, how to supply new material. This is one of the reasons I put off starting one for so long. There are certain obligations attached with this enterprise, after all. So far, I've managed to post, on average, about once a week. But since invention all too often fails one -- and since I have no desire to post about events in my life; this is a blog about the life of the mind, thank you -- I think I have hit upon a solution, gentle readers.

Starting with this post, I will be putting up from time to time items that generally fit the description of "Poetry Chronicles." The chronicles will consist largely of things I've already written -- reports on readings, introductions of readers at Naropa, and so forth. In some cases, these will be items I posted to the Buffalo Poetics Listserv before The Fall, when it became a moderated list in the wake of the Flame Wars. My hope is that these stop-gaps will still hold some interest, either historically, or for what is said about the work itself.

Now read on ...

Friday, May 1, Rachel Levitsky and I drove down to the University of Denver to hear Lyn Hejinian show a film, give a talk, and read some poems. We also gorged ourselves on mussels and bouillabaise at a very nice French restaurant -- but that’s another story.

Present at one or both portions of the event: moderator Cole Swensen, Bin Ramke, Rikki Ducornet, Beth Nugent, Jack Collom, Jennifer Heath, Michael Friedman, Anselm Hollo, Andrew Schelling, Bobbie Hawkins, Laura Mullen, Cedar Sigo and Jeni Olin. And a host of grad students.

The film -- “Letters Not About Love” -- is remarkable. Directed by Jacki Ochs (incidentally, sister to Hejinian’s husband Larry Ochs, who himself provided a very powerful and haunting jazz score), it concerns itself with an exchange of letters between Hejinian and Russian poet Arkadii Dragomoschenko from 1988-1993. Ochs asked the poets to shape their correspondence around a set of words -- Home, Grandmother, Neighbor, Poverty, Book, Work, Violence, Window -- which she gave them. The results form a sustained dialogue/meditation on two cultures, two idioms, and ultimately, the nature of dialogue and language itself.

As the poets’ conversation progresses, it underscores the way language both encodes against loss, in a very daily and personal way -- the loss of a sense of place, the loss of memory, of the quotidian -- and is vulnerable to that very same loss and slippage. The letter figures both as a method of communication that creates its own self-contained and ongoing continuum and a form of expression anxious about its existence, about the sense of dislocation, physical and emotional, that the act of writing letters has always sought to overcome.

Throughout, the richness of Jacki Ochs’ stream of visual images, combined with the music of Larry Ochs, provides a continual counterpoint, adding additional layers of “language” to the spoken words (read by the actress Lili Taylor -- Lyn said that Jacki thought her voice too “girlish” - and dialect coach Viktor Hurd).

Afterwards, some of the discussion of the film (both public and private) focused on the erotics of letter writing: on the subtle tensions that pre-inhabit the word and guide it; on the richness and power of letter-writing as a genre, a genre too often relegated to the ghettoized status of “women’s writing.” Hejinian spoke about “negotiating the gulf between words and things -- not to fill it [that gulf] -- but to enter it, as a realm of possibility -- a poetics of possibility...” An old White Russian woman who first read Arkadii’s letters for her warned her that he was a demon and wanted to possess her soul. And Lyn quoted Shklovsky: “the role of art is to kill pessimism.”

“Letters Not About Love” is, of course, precisely and ironically about love -- about the eros of logos. And the logos of eros. It has been screened at a number of film festivals, received at least one award, but at present lacks a distributor. Lyn remarked that exhibitors were nervous about its “lack of an ending.” (Haven’t they read “The Rejection of Closure”?).

After a break for dinner, Hejinian gave a reading, beginning with a selection of twelve poems from “Oxhota” -- the section based on expatriate jazz musician Steve Lacy’s list of the 12 components of the Russian soul: Betrayal, Death, Conspiracy, Truth, etc., which Lyn says got a good laugh from her Russian friends.

This was followed by new work -- an appropriately sprightly and altogether enchanting poem called “Happily,” a meditation on chance, sequence and agency:

“Is happiness the name for our involuntary complicity with chance?”

She closed the evening with a long portion from “A Border Comedy” (forthcoming soon from Sun & Moon). She described the genesis of this work as having arisen from her collaboration with Jack Collom in “Wicker,” which having enjoyed so much she attempted to try on her own -- a kind of self-collaboration where a line would be written, then put away to undergo some form of effacement -- and then added on to as if written by another.

“However lively the imagination it still benefits from contact with reality.”

“But a man doesn’t dump his mother in a horsepond just because it starts to rain.”

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