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HOW RUSSIAN IS IT: LYN HEJINIAN'S OXOTA
by MARJORIE PERLOFF
--You will start with the third chapter, Arkadii said, and the first sentence must be attributed to Emmanuel Kant as follows: everything happens so often, that speaking of it makes no sense.
--Oxota, Book3, Chapter89
Arkadii, in the above passage, is Arkadii Dragomoschenko, the remarkable Russian poet Lyn Hejinian has been translating for the past decade or so, a poet she first met in 1983 when she accompanied her husband Larry Ochs and other members of the Rova Saxophone Quartet on a tour to Moscow and Leningrad. Few poetic journeys of our time have proved to be more fruitful. Dragomoschenko and Hejinian have collaborated on a film script, a theater piece, poems, and translations of each others' work; they also organized, in 1989, an international conference on avant-garde writers, the first such conference since the Russian Revolution. The four American poets who attended--Michael Davidson, Ron Silliman, Barrett Watten, and Hejinian herself--wrote a collaborative account of their trip called Leningrad (Mercury House, 1991), in which their four alternating voices run together, the individual poets "distinguished only by the icons used as a visual key to identify them: a formal element of the text as poem." The result makes for a fascinating collage travel-narrative, tracking as it does the rapid unravelling of the Soviet Union, as seen from a set of related, but quite different positions.
Hejinian's own narrative in Leningrad sets the stage for Oxota , subtitled A Short Russian Novel, a 3,780-line poem, written in the fourteen-line stanza of Pushkin's Evgeny Onegin and divided, like Onegin, into eight books. Oxota is not only one of the most ambitious long poems of the nineties; it is, I think, one of the very best--eloquent testimony that despite all the gloomy journalistic predictions about the death of poetry, and especially narrative poetry, in the Information Age, there are still important stories to be told. In My Life (first version 1980, second, 1987), Hejinian submitted her own "story" to a new kind of simultaneous vision, her girlhood experience intersecting that of "everygirl's" in a series of deliciously comic and moving permutations. In Oxota (the title means "the hunt"), the story broadens out to include a host of Russian and American characters, but its mysteries--what it doesn't tell us-- make even greater demands on the reader. As Hejinian, following her Russian Formalist mentors Viktor Shklovsky and Jurij Tinjanov, puts it, "The very idea of reference is spatial: over here is word, over there is thing at which the word is shooting amiable love-arrows," and thus "the struggle between language and that which it claims to depict or express" is what determines the very shape narrative takes. "Language discovers what one might know, which in turn is always less than what language might say."
But how, we might ask, do we reconcile the poetics of the language movement with the demands of narrative? If language games --paranomasia, paragram, epigraphy--and syntactic dislocations abound, if the reader can't even tell "what's going on," how can Oxota claim to be a novel? And how can Hejinian's ruminations on what she calls in Leningrad "juxtaposition, happenstance, double vision, vistas, and a flow of observations and expectations kept in suspense," bear comparison, parodic or otherwise, to the great Russian epic poem Evgeny Onegin?
As it happens, I brought along my copy of Oxota to India (my first visit), where much time was spent waiting in local airports, sitting in countless crowded lounges or waiting for take-off on small planes that were invariably delayed and often simply cancelled. Even in these distracting circumstances, I found, to my own surprise, that I couldn't put Oxota down, and not because I couldn't wait to see what happened next, for it is never clear, in this poem of dislocations, irruptions, and veiled allusions, what is actually happening. Rather, I read avidly because Hejinian's "short Russian novel" actively engages us in the poet's own "hunt" for meaning, for greater understanding of daily life in the Soviet Union, as that life is perceived by the uninitiated but not quite innocent American visitor. What game, for example, is the sinister colonel playing? Why are "they" hunting for Gavronsky and what crime, if any, did he commit? Is "Lyn" falling in love with Arkadii or is theirs primarily a literary friendship? How does Arkadii's wife Zina view the situation? Are specific events described "real" or experienced in dreams? What is it that "Lyn" learns about herself? And, on a more pedestrian level, does the terrible freeze ever let up? Are certain images signs of spring or just momentary changes in the weather? Each fourteen-line stanza seems to promise disclosure of these and other "realities" but the disclosure never quite comes, even though we notice a gradual transformation in phenomenology: something, we know, is changing, being digested, increasingly understood; some of the initial strangeness of the Russian world is gradually diminishing even if it never quite disappears.
What, asks John Bayley in his introduction to Charles Johnston's translation of Evgeny Onegin (Penguin Classics), did Pushkin mean by calling his poem "a free novel"? "Apparently a work of art which did not conform to the rules of a single genre, but which, as he put it in the stanza that opened the poem by way of a preface, offered 'a collection of parti-coloured chapters half-funny, half-sad, ideal and folk-simple' (prostonarodny)." And Bayley cites Shklovsky, who said that Pushkin's real subject was not the story of his lovers, Eugene and Tatyana, "but a game with this story." Like the Byron of Don Juan, Pushkin's "I" is the poem's central character, providing ironic commentary, judging his characters' behavior, and digressing on larger social and political themes. At the same time, the poem's playfulness is kept in check by the fixity of its stanza form: fourteen lines of octosyllabic verse, rhyming ababccddeffegg.
The appeal this particular equilibrium evidently held for Hejinian is spelled out most fully in chapters 192 and 193 of Oxota. The latter begins:
Evgeny Onegin is a novel of manners (Belinsky called it encyclopedic), a family saga, an autobiography, an aimless plot with the symmetry of time, an impression of philosophy, and Dead Souls is an epic, hopeful of resurrection
The epic, said Mikhail Kheraskov, will remember important, memorable, famous events occurring in this world to cause important change, or it will sing of events occurring in a certain state to glorify life, or occasion peace, or finally to provoke a transition to a different condition
Here is the paradox Hejinian embodies in Oxota. Dead Souls is written in prose but its domain is that of epic; Onegin is in verse, but it is more properly understood as a novel of manners or autobiography. One needn't choose one or the other ("Equally marvelous, as Gogol said, are the lenses that contemplate a star and those that study a bug"), but Hejinian's personal predilection is for the freedom of the Pushkin model: "Every fact could break through deterministic constraints," and moreover "Everyone has to eat and many eat potatoes, but some of those also eat pineapples."
How, then, to adapt such an outwardly formal model? "Once in Moscow," the poet recalls in chapter 149, "I was asked to recite and the man was antagonized," evidently by the absence of meter and rhyme in her poems. But "Even 'it' is irregular," she responds, referring both to Evgeny Onegin. and to the word "it," with its myriad uses. "There are irregularities for all that's permitted / Or I see it backward / Or it has its choice of contemporary resemblance." What such "contemporary resemblance" might look like is suggested in #192, which opens as follows:
But to return to the theme of the novel and poetry
That is, one theme
The time comes when each individual poem reveals not only its own internal connections but also spreads them out externally, anticipating the integrity each poem requires in order to explain obscure points, arbitrary elements, etc., which, if they were kept within the limits of the given text, would seem otherwise to be mere examples of the freedom of expression
If we read Oxota as a self-enclosed text, its "obscure points" and "arbitrary elements" will look like "mere examples of the freedom of expression." But if we pay attention, the poem "reveals not only its own internal connections but also spreads them out externally." For Pushkin's "irregularities" of story-telling, his countless digressions, observations, interruptions, Hejinian substitutes the "irregularity" of "free verse," but only within the limits of the temporal and spatial frames provided by the original: the fourteen-line stanza, the eight-book structure, the shift from Petersburg (Hejinian's Leningrad) to the pastoral setting of Tatyana's country house, and so on.
The resulting design resembles, as Hejinian herself notes, those picture books where little figures are buried inside the outlines of larger images, their detection presenting a challenging "quandary for children":
Things in the picture are hidden but once found one can never not see them though to someone's who's never looked they're still out of sight, lost in the lines (#209)
This is precisely what happens to the reader of Oxota. "Things... hidden," for example, the frequent references to Pushkin--his house, his tomb, his lovers and habits of writing--and the equally frequent allusions to the story motifs of Onegin -- Tatyana's sexually charged dream of meeting a bear in the snow, the insomnia she and Eugene alternately experience, the rivalry between Eugene and Lensky, and so on-- make Oxota a kind of roman à clef, though not in the usual sense of the word.
Consider the title Oxota (the hunt). The first overt explanation of its meaning comes near the end of the "novel" in chapter 259:
It's characteristic of a Russian novelist to reveal some lack of
confidence in the relationship between words and their things
A chair but not sure what sits and what will match it
Noon freezing on the spot we don't remember
Each action hangs, inconsequentially, over objects
How many alternatives there must be
How many patient comparisons await fulfilling
Unextracted paradoxes, breathless empty ice streets, anticipated catastrophes with
no one approaching, love not provided with intrigue
It was Zina who called it oxota
Here Hejinian refers obliquely to Roman Jakobson's famous distinction between the metaphoric and metonymic poles of language, the former (or figure of similarity) said to belong to poetry, the latter (or figure of contiguity), more properly to realistic prose fiction. Postmodern poetry has challenged and undermined this opposition; the metonymic mode Jakobson associated with Tolstoy's and Chekhov's fiction has become prominent in lyric as well. Then, too, theorists from Lacan and Genette on down have been at pains to show that Jakobson's sharp dichotomy between the two will not stand up to scrutiny. Metaphors can work metonymically and vice-versa; figures of similarity and contiguity are always intertwined.
Hejinian, in any case, adapts the Jakobson model to her own purposes. In a 1988 lecture to the Kootenay School of Poetics at Vancouver, she described her desire for a phenomenological "description" that would avoid both "after-the-fact realism, with its emphasis on the world described (the objects of description)" and the "organizing subjectivity (that of the perceiver-describer)." Description, she suggests, should be "a method of invention and of composition ... with a marked tendency toward effecting isolation and displacement, that is, toward objectifying all that's described and making it strange." And she adds:
If one posits descriptive language and, in a broader sense, poetic language as a language of inquiry, with analogies to the scientific methods of the explorers, then I anticipate that the principal trope will be the metonym, what Roman Jakobson calls "association by contiguity". . . . Metonymy moves attention from thing to thing; its principle is combination rather than selection. Compared to metaphor, which depends on code, metonym preserves context, foregrounds interrelationship. And again in comparison to metaphor which is based on similarity, and in which meanings are conserved and transferred from one thing to something said to be like it, the metonymic world is unstable. . . . Comparing apples to oranges is metonymic.
Here Hejinian stresses the instability rather than the supposed realism of the metonymic world. "How many patient comparisons await fulfilling," we read in chapter 259, "Unextracted paradoxes . . . anticipated catastrophes with no one approaching." And in chapter 258, "The hunter knows the resource / The hunter resorts / She doesn't think and then decide / She follows word to word in words' design." Whereas Pushkin's Tatyana is "hunted by love's anguish" (bk. 3, 20), Hejinian's "describer-perceiver" hunts among words and sentences for clues and connections. "A woman is hunting for sleep," we read in chapter153, "but she is sleeping to hunt." Book 5, from which these lines are taken, was published separately as The Hunt, and it abounds in images of pursuit and pursuers, a "hunt syntax" as it is called in chapter 248.
In "The Formative Properties of Words" (#135), Hejinian gives us some idea of what such a "hunt syntax" involves:
I cannot imagine a glass prose
But I was losing interest in the phenomenology of my dreams
Daylight was thicker than it seemed-- with augmentation,
Where are words changed?
If the language of transparency, (a "glass prose") is inadequate, "reality"
does make its demands on the poet: "Daylight was thicker than it seemed-- with augmentation, odor, air." And later in the stanza:
It's the principle of connection not that of causality which saves us from a bad infinity
The word hunt is not the shadow of an accident
The postmodern narrative poem, these lines imply, cannot adopt the language of transcendence ("a bad infinity"), nor can its incidents and events unfold according to the laws of "causality." Rather, the "principle of connection," of metonymic structuring that animates Oxota is designed to produce what Hejinian calls an "intervalic" or "unstable," form, in keeping with the poem's destabilization of identity.
From Writing is an Aid to Memory (1978) and the first version of My Life , to her recent long metaphysical poem "The Person," Hejinian has refused all notions of the self as "some core reality at the heart of our sense of being," the still dominant myth of the "artist's 'own voice,' issuing from an inner, fundamental, sincere, essential irreducible, consistent self, an identity which is unique and separable from all other human identities." In Russian, she points out, "the closest representation of my notion of the self occurs in (but only in) the reflexible pronoun sebya (oneself, myself), which never appears in the nominative case and is most frequently seen in form of the suffix sya at the end of reflexive verbs. This suggests that when speaking Russian a self is felt but has no proper name, or that the self occurs only in or as a context but is insufficiently stable to occur independently as a noun."
This explanation of Russian reflexive verb forms is somewhat fanciful: from Pushkin to Pasternak, after all, Russian poetry has displayed a very strong sense of personal identity, even if there is no single word that defines selfhood. Just the same, this particular peculiarity of Russian grammar helps Hejinian articulate her own view that "The person ... is a mobile (or mobilized) reference point; or to put it another way, subjectivity is not an entity but a dynamic" (PJ 167). "Certainly," Hejinian concedes, "I have an experience of being in position, at a time and place, and of being conscious of this, but this position is temporary, and beyond that, I have no experience of being except in position." And again, "[The] sense of contingency is ultimately intrinsic to my experience of the self, as a relationship rather than an existence" (PJ 167)
What this means in practice is that ideas, sensations, overheard remarks, and so on, are seen from a particular perspective but these perspectives never wholly cohere into anything like a fixed identity or self. We come to know the way Hejinian's language works--her stylistic choices are highly particularized -- but we learn little about the poet's past or present circumstances, and it would be difficult to say that she has such-and-such attributes and character traits, or to comment on her nature. Psychology, in this scheme of things, means, not self-revelation but, in Wallace Stevens's words, "description without place," the anchor being the buried but ever present analogy to Evgeny Onegin. Here is Chapter One:
This time we are both
The old thaw is inert, everything set again in snow
At insomnia, at apathy
We must learn to endure the insecurity as we read
The felt need for a love intrigue
There is no person-- he or she was appeased and withdrawn
There is relationship but it lacks simplicity
People are very aggressive and every week more so
The Soviet colonel appearing in such of our stories
He is sentimental and duckfooted
He is held fast, he is in his principles
But here is a small piece of the truth-- I am glad to greet you
There, just with a few simple words it is possible to say the truth
It is so because often men and women have their sense of honor
In good epic tradition, the poem opens in medias res with "This time," the implication being that "this time" (arriving again in the Soviet Union?) will be measured against another time which was somehow different. But "This time we are both" immediately displays Hejinian's deceptive flatness : the language seems totally ordinary, and yet it throws out any number of plot lines. Perhaps it means that "We are both here," but then who are "we"? And what is it we both are? Both poets, one American, one Russian, or one woman and one man? Both guests of the Soviet government? Both ready for a relationship? Or, if "both" is construed, not as the predicate nominative but as the modifier of the predicative adjective(s), we might read it as "both tired and hungry, both frightened and elated, and so on.
Something, in any case, is about to happen "this time." The "thaw" of line 2 may well refer to the brief political respite of the Khrushchev years as well as the actual weather conditions; soon "everything [is] set again in snow." And just as Pushkin's dedicatory stanza describes his poem as the product "of carefree hours, of fun, / of sleeplessness, faint inspirations," Hejinian refers to "insomnia" and "apathy," warning her reader even as she warns herself that "We must learn to endure the insecurity as we read / The felt need for a love intrigue / There is no person--he or she was appeased and withdrawn." The "need for a love intrigue" refers, of course, to the Onegin-Tatyana romance which is Pushkin's "subject"; in our own fractured world, such "love intrigue" seems to have given way to the diminished romance of "relationship," and even then a relationship that "lacks simplicity." Indeed, all sorts of sexual and familial relationships, all more or less complicated, will be presented for our inspection, and part of the fun of reading Oxota will be to figure out who is drawn to whom, for how long, and what the sexual and /or political dynamics are.
In the meantime, the stage is set for the unfolding of events: "People are very aggressive and every week more so," where the reference to "week" is a play on the standard complaint that "Things get worse every day!" The "duckfooted" colonel, who will appear and reappear throughout the narrative, an embodiment of "principles," and "sentimental" old truths, is introduced and then, like a stock character in a cheap thriller, mysteriously disappears again. And now the stanza ends on a turn of phrase that is brilliantly deployed throughout Oxota, especially in the early chapters, where the poet records how it feels to be a linguistic alien in a country one wants so badly understand. "Here is a small piece of the truth-- I am glad to greet you" is the poet's rendition of the way "polite" Russian hosts greet their American guests, the excessive formality of phrasing being a function of unfamiliarity rather than good manners.
Many of us have had the experience of meeting foreigners who seem extremely, if not excessively polite until we realize they are speaking a careful English based on the classroom model or grammar book. Translated into colloquial English, line 12 carries something like the locution, "Believe me, I am really happy to meet you." But in bringing "the truth" into speech twice, and in concluding that "It is so because often men and women have their sense of honor," we are immediately in a language world--and, in Wittgensteinian terms, the limits of my language are the limits of my world--that is largely alien to the American visitor. Accordingly, for the "we" who are "both," assimilation will depend, not on finding out what the words mean, but how they are used, how to read the signs. And, as Hejinian wittily implies throughout, this is no easy matter. When someone says to us "There, just with a few simple words it is possible to say the truth," we surmise the presence of a sensibility that may not be there at all.
But then words like "there" are always suspect in Hejinian's scheme of things, origin and location, whether of speech or event, being all but impossible to define. As in Ingeborg Bachmann's poetic novel Malina, individual phrases and sentences (whether thoughts or portions of dialogue) are often not assigned to a particular subject: a phrase like "People are very aggressive and every week more so," for instance, sounds like a snatch of conversation overheard while waiting on line at the butcher shop. But it may also refer to something quoted from the newspaper or, for that matter, it may record Lyn's own appraisal of her surroundings. Even the stilted Russian constructions of the English language cannot always be attributed to X or Y; often, they may be Hejinian's own, as she tries to make herself understood to those who have schoolbook English. They may even be approximations of Russian syntax, as laboriously translated into English by the poet. The pattern is further complicated by the gaps between statements and/or lines, one perception thus failing to lead, as Charles Olson would have it, immediately (or even remotely) to a further perception.
Yet Hejinian's disjunctiveness does not go together with an imagistic or filmlike verbal surface, or even with the free association of stream-of-consciousness. Language does not represent "thought"; on the contrary, linguistic artifice is emphasized by the embedding of images in a network of abstractions, as in "everything set again in snow," or by the positioning of abstractions in unlikely grammatical constructions, as in the locution "At insomnia, at apathy," on the model of "at school" or "at home." The resulting poem-novel is, as Hejinian puts it in Chapter Two, "something neither invented nor constructed but moving through that time as I experienced it unable to take part personally in the hunting." It is as if the text avoids the requisite distance between subject and object and lets "events" unfold so that the reader feels as if she has come in on a conversation whose participants cannot be located. There is nothing obscure about what's being said or thought, but we don't know who is doing the thinking or talking. Oxota is thus a "novel" in which we have any number of actions and events but can't quite tell who the actors are. We only know that there are many and that their lives sharply intersect Lyn's own.
Book I might be called, in oblique homage to Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons (about which Hejinian has written so interestingly in "Two Stein Talks"), "Rooms." The first preoccupation of the American guest is to become accustomed to her immediate surroundings. In chapter three:
Something hangs in the drawing room and it's green
A painted herring hung where it's harder to recognize
I slept there in a corner on the sofa called America
In a bed near the Vyborg by a crowbar with magpie-dog duo singing a ballad without the neighbor's shaking out his blanket
I dreamed I was walking somewhere in the Crimea with my mother when we met two soldiers and their man in handcuffs
He was a criminal of passion
The riddle depending on delayed recognition of a thing like a herring-Armenian
A maiden name
I answered the top man at the consulate and said the word was marital
Rubble--so you see that our people must squat in their ditch and speak of beauty
The enemy freezes to its trees
The old women who survived had to have been witches, said Misha
Bitches, said Arkadii Trofimovich--the crime of passion is our Soviet kindness
"Metonymy moves attention from thing to thing." The first few lines chart the poet's "night thoughts" as she tries to acclimate herself to her new sleeping quarters in Arkadii's drawing room, where she occupies "the sofa called America," so-called, no doubt, because it's where visiting Americans are put up. As she tries to make out the "something" hanging on the wall, which looks like a "painted herring," two comic riddles come to mind: the popular Jewish joke about the green herring, and the more personal "riddle depending on delayed recognition of a thing like a herring-Armenian"--a comic reference to the attempt, evidently by the Russian immigration officials, to pronounce the name "Hejinian," which, further and confusingly, is assumed by them to be "A maiden name." "I answered the top man at the consulate and said the word was marital." A name can be marital ("Hejinian" is the name of the poet's first husband) but an undesignated word can't, the phrasing pointing up the disparity between the two kinds of words. Then, too, "marital," followed as it is by the word "Rubble," becomes, by the merest reversal of its fourth and fifth letters (incidentally, a very common typographical error), martial, the word making perfect sense in the context of the language of war and imprisonment that dominates the stanza.
Such linguistic play is at the heart of what Hejinian calls "Description as a method of invention and of composition." The conventional autobiographical travel narrative, whether in verse or prose, would talk about alienation and the difficulty of communication. Oxota, by contrast, allows the language itself to generate the ideas. Thus, when Hejinian refers to the dream of "walking somewhere in the Crimea with my mother when we met two soldiers and their man in handcuffs," and concludes, "He was a criminal of passion," the reader is initially confused. People everywhere commit "crimes of passion" but what does it mean to be a "criminal of passion"? The mystery is partially cleared up when Arkadii refers, in the stanza's final line, to the Soviet practice of putting people in camps on trumped up charges of sexual offense:
The old women who survived had to have been witches, said Misha
Bitches, said Arkadii Trofimovich--the crime of passion is our Soviet kindness
It is the phrase "crime of passion" that haunts the narrator, reappearing in her dream as a visual image of a "man in handcuffs," who is identified, as if for life, as a "criminal of passion." The simple nominal shift from deed to doer serves to define the Soviet system more tellingly than might a didactic account of the camps. The word, for Hejinian thus plays a constructive rather than a representational role; it is itself the creator of the images we claim to "see."
What is it that we "see" in the course of the poem? The events depicted in Oxota are characterized by their dailiness: people shop, cook dinner, talk endlessly about their feelings and (since these are poets) about art and literature, make love, suffer from occasional insomnia, complain about the weather, try to inure themselves to daily economic and political upheavals, and so on. But "if "everything happens so often, that speaking of it makes no sense" (#89), the poet must find ways of re-presenting those happenings so that their actual feel, their texture is re-experienced. Take Hejinian's strategy of opening a "chapter" (stanza) with an aphorism or wise generalization:
Neither art nor life is opposite (#39)
All tender winds are foreseen tunes (#45)
Truth is not precision but evidence (#71)
Passion is the alienation that love provides (#75)
Metaphor hides the paranoia of writing (#103)
Divination by clouds must be renounced under a colorless sky (#135)
Does this last statement mean that if the sky were blue, "Divination by clouds" should be practiced? Does the relation of "truth" to "evidence" rather than "precision" mean that the truth mustn't be exact? These Dada versions of proverbial wisdom prefigure the narrator's overwhelming sense of difference, confronted by the Other which is Russia. "Dreams don't understand, they're what's being understood," begins Chapter Twenty-One, evidently playing on an earlier discussion of the power of dreams to interpret ("understand" in Russian-English speak) reality. The stanza continues:
A commentator in the kitchen on television gives the official explanation that the reason
there's no food in the stores is that people are eating too much
But the television is only a three-inch square
Rice with horseradish and bread
We had bought some daffodils and had taped the petals erect
Following Zina I had felt slightly exposed, but as a child does out of bed
She had previously enraged a group of the enormous courtyard crows
A face they heard. . . .
Here the comparison of apples and oranges Hejinian made in her lecture on "Strangeness" is apposite. The authority of the television is undercut by the absurd premise that its three-inch screen is too small to convey truth, much smaller, at any rate, than the reality that there is nothing for dinner but "Rice with horseradish and bread." And if there is not enough food there might as well, again by the logic of the absurd, be flowers, in this case daffodils, whose wilted petals need to be taped erect. The anger that should be directed at the economy that produces chronic food shortages is now vented on "a group of the enormous courtyard crows"; the "face they heard," is Zina's, her mouth evidently open in a scream. As for the "I" who witnesses these events, she recalls feeling "slightly exposed" (on the aggressive hunt for food in the markets), "but as a child does out of bed," which is to say a naughty child which has sneaked out of its room when it's supposed to be asleep. "Slightly exposed" perhaps also, in that Zina may suspect the malaise she feels in these hospitable but still wholly alien surroundings.
Throughout this chapter, indeed throughout Oxota, catachresis (e.g., "A face they heard") emphasizes the difficulties of perception, even as incorrect usage ("She had previously enraged a group of . . . crows") calls attention to the constructedness of this poetic discourse. Even repetition serves to point up difference: the spread at Misha's party (chapter 21, lines 12-14), for example, is as meatless as the dinner at Zina's, but this time "potatoes with mushrooms, two different cabbage salads ... bread" are enhanced by wine and vodka, so that the conversation proceeds enjoyably enough "in stages of anecdote," despite the "poor dog with pecked eyes" and, again, the crows.
The crows, like so many of the "characters" in Oxota, reappear frequently--in this case, as emblems of a loving but slightly squalid and even oppressive domesticity. In chapter 58, for example, the poet has evidently been taken ill and is being nursed by Zina and her son Ostap, while Arkadii attends a poetry meeting in a neighboring town. "Some possibilities take place on a plate," the stanza begins, the "possibilities" probably referring to something Lyn ate that has made her sick. Such food poisoning is "A process whose pace doesn't coincide with comprehension's pace." One can be told over and over again not to eat X or Y ("I remember the instructions") but when the plate of food actually appears, one forgets: "To see is such deferred." Someone, in any case (Ostap? Zina? Or maybe Lyn herself?) declares, "I am to interrupt myself tonight at exactly 8 and propose a toast to our colleagues who at this moment are reading verses in Tambov." And the toast is followed by the line "Both largeness and lozenge to collide." Now the scene shifts to the crows:
The crows voices in winter light like copper pliers
The reading an open word shutter
Only slats, and they faded into winter. . . .
Here constriction is the order of the day. To the feverish patient sucking on lozenges, the crows' voices "light" (i.e., "alight" but "light" can also be an adjective), grating on the ear "like copper pliers," but the poetry reading itself appears to her as "an open word shutter," a closure of something that should remain free. Meanwhile, she is confined in the apartment, the "slats," now of the window shutters, "fad[ing] into winter" as night comes on. In this landscape, Hejinian's crows, rather like Wallace Stevens's blackbirds, "mark the edge of one of many circles." Later, when the spring thaws come (chapter 64), the crows give way to the "mumbling as of wasps or sheep," and "I said that a fly had appeared in the operating room / It sat like a crystal of black salt on the bed."
Book I (Chapters One to Seventy) circles around these images and themes, the changes that take place, both seasonal and personal, being so gradual as to be almost imperceptible. Book 2 (71-80) has a different rhythm. For one thing, each of its ten poems has a title: in sequence, "Truth," "Nature," "Innocence," "Conspiracy," "Passion," "Design," "Suffering," "Betrayal," "Death," and "Redemption." All of these conceptul abstractions relate to the romance of Onegin and Tatyana, the initial passion the "innocent" girl living in the country conceives for him, Lensky's death in the duel, Onegin's betrayal, Tatyana's suffering, and then, in the stunning reversal, Onegin's own suffering, which looks ahead to death and perhaps redemption. Not only, then, does Pushkin provide Hejinian with a frame for this section; book 2also contains many references to him, to his house (now a museum), his tomb, his admirers, his mistresses, and to imaginary scenes in which Pushkin may be lying "naked in his room on the rug writing in solitude or visiting with friends."
But it is not just a matter of chapter titles or Pushkin references. The mood of book 2 is quite different from that of book 1. The parties, conversations, meals, and poetry debates give way to solitude in nature although the setting is not made clear. The weather has changed ("The frost falls from a tree"; "gray birches"), and although there are still occasional snowfalls, the air is warmer. The sequence opens with the line "Truth is not precision but evidence"; the body, it seems has its own truth
("Body and truth at the thought / Crazy who says no longer") and the poet, formerly so upbeat, so busily engaged in exploring her new territory, now appears (when she appears at all, for her identity is increasingly fractured), troubled and somehow guilty: "I was feeling an inferior weariness, an inability to acknowledge anything." At the middle of the sequence (Chapter Seventy-Five"), is the elliptical poem called "Passion":
Passion is the alienation that love provides
Drifting winter tinted where we lifted, plowed
Jealousy is a flake of a different passion
It was hungry to be plunging in disruption
The wobble and mattering the sensing muscles which combine
People are not joined in passion but divulged
They diverge--but that sight was unseen
But all is muffled in banalities, I said
It is not passion to nod in
It is passion for no one to listen
One with closed eyes and the other one's opened
The snowfall offered all the colors of apple
There was passion in its thud and exhileration
Patience itself pushes over--given a body for what
The language of this curious love poem is chaste in comparison to the earlier exuberant stanzas; sound repetition (the assonance, for example, of "Drifting winter tinted where we lifted") and the repetition of the word "passion" (it occurs five times in the space of fourteen lines) chiming with other nouns ending with the "-ion" suffix ("alienation," "disruption," "exhileration"), give the poem a formal air. At the same time, the sexual allusions ("Drifting," "lifted," "plowed," "plunging," "The wobble and mattering of the sensing muscles which combine") have a slightly histrionic tone--like bowdlerized Meredith or slightly souped-up Rossetti--so that one is not surprised to read "But all this is muffled in banalities, I said." Banalities like "The snowfall offered all the colors of apple," with its allusion to forbidden fruit.
We never know much more about the poem's "love intrigue" than this. The focus is not on the lovers as individuals but again on the feel or texture of "love." In Oxota, it seems to lead to frustration: "Suffering" (chapter 77) begins:
A stench left from cooking fish lay frenzied, fell inert
Or a yellow rose frustrated in the Summer Garden
And "Death" (chapter 79) ends on a note of regret: "Why not have waited." Only in the final chapter "Redemption," does the mood shift once more: a certain serenity now colors the atmosphere:
We were laughing at the Russian novel
We will say, the slower you go the farther you'll get and plain water is glad to get a crow
We will be redeemed, we will be rescued
We will believe everything we say
The image of the "crow," associated with the family scenes of Book I, marks a return to what is usually called "reason," a return at least to the desire for something different: "We will be redeemed, we will be rescued." And by the time we open Book III and read the pseudo-epic and punning lines, "Leningrad lies in the haze of its sides / It lies as a heroine" (chapter 81), we are back in a more public space, where the "I" functions as visiting poet and foreign observer.
"You will start with the third chapter, Arkadii said." In this opening stanza of the third book, Hejinian gives us what is perhaps the poem's clearest statement of poetics. After the opening gesture toward Leningrad, we read:
Now it is both
How not-- the not is sometimes impossible to reach
But then is the work of art not an act but an object of memory
Then from a great disturbance
The most delicate message accumulates
But you must know why you write a novel, said Vodonoy
It's not to displace anything
It has context and metronome
By insisting on a comprehension of every word I am free to signify place though not to represent it.
So I must oppose the opposition of poetry to prose
Just as we can only momentarily oppose control to
discontinuity, sex to organization, disorientation to domestic time and space, and glasnost (information) to the hunt
In the short compass of a single stanza, Hejinian traces her own response to Romanticism and its offshoot, the New Criticism. One's first poetic model, she posits, is the Faustian lyric of yearning, whose "not is sometimes impossible to reach," a model that easily gives way to the doctrine of the poem as formal artifact ("not an act but an object of memory"), together with the New Critical doctrine (made famous by I. A. Richards) of poetic tension and resolution: "Then from a great disturbance / The most delicate message accumulates." Perhaps Hejinian calls her poem a "novel" so as to avoid the heavy weight of lyric tradition. "It's not to displace anything," for of course her text isn't like a novel either: "It has context and metronome," a network of interrelated images and realistic settings together with a strong verse line that, if not guided by the metonome, is not innocent of rhythm and metrical tradition either: "Leningrad lies in the haze of its sides," for that matter, is a ten-syllable line having only four strong stresses in the tradition of Eliot's Waste Land or Four Quartets.
But it is the long twelfth line that is especially revealing:
By insisting on a comprehension of every word I am free to signify place though not to represent it
Once writing is no longer regarded as the vehicle that conveys an already present speech, every word, indeed every morpheme can be seen to carry meaning, to enter relationships with its neighbors. There are, in this scheme of things, no "fillers" or function words, and syntax is at least as important as the invention of striking images. And here the distinction between "signify[ing] place" and "represent[ing] it" becomes clear. The rejection of representation does not, as many readers have assumed, entail the loss of reference. A Hejinian stanza, that is to say, does not present us with a coherent picture of something external to it, a photograph of or picture of. But reference, whether to persons (Zina, Olga, Natasha, Vodonoy, Alexei, Arkadii, Gavronsky) or places (cities, rivers, streets, houses) is essential to the poem, the necessary peg upon which speculation can take place.
A frequent objection of mainstream poetry criticism is that, without some measure of representation-- the mirror held to nature, to social custom and the "march of events--the poetic text becomes meaningless. But it is reference, not representation, that we cannot do without: words, after all, must point to something, even if that something is only a small part of their structures of meaning. By the same argument, the conventional opposition of poetry to prose, an opposition still central to curricula, literary journals, and critical discourse, must itself be opposed. For the long poems consonant with our times, Hejinian suggests, cannot be pigeonholed; the four or five-line strophes of Oxota, for example, are always approaching the condition of prose, without ever quite becoming coherent sentences. To illustrate the perils of dichotomizing, Hejinian concludes the stanza by comparing that division to a series of others, by no means obviously analogous:
disorientation domestic time and space
glasnost (information) the hunt
This opposition would make much more sense if we could switch the items in the second pair: "discontinuity" would seem to go with poetry and sex, and certainly with "disorientation," whereas "control" belongs to "organization" and the order of prose. "Domestic time and space" goes here too because, for the woman poet, this is the space of "organization," where one takes care of others rather than oneself. As for the title noun, "the hunt," the reference is to the relentless power structure that pursues its recalcitrant victims, that forces the person to obey certain laws. If the information provided by the new glasnost seems to provide the necessary opening, such free inquiry may not be able to resist "the hunt"--Oxota.
At first the initiation into the Soviet order, an order softened by glasnost and sweetened by the presence of close friends and colleagues, provides amusement and pleasure; somewhat later, sexual love and perhaps jealousy comes into the picture to complicate matters. But after the recognition in book three (chapter 89) that "names are relationships with a remarkable economy while descriptions are profligate," a certain distancing occurs. "Rested by winter" (chapter108), the "describer-perceiver" can enjoy the coming of spring with equanimity:
And so in a truly magical manner it has come about in
apparently one continuous morning that I have become the possessor of multitudes of wide open windows and of sunlight tumbling into other minute fissures of an almost invisible brightness (chapter 109)
"Sex will begin again" (chapter 111), but it is now viewed with more detachment, with a greater sense of the absurd: "sex is all feature and has no destiny / an enormous toe, a dusty skin, breast hair.... At such an age the features fatten." When Lyn and Zina dawdle in the morning over their "Cuban grapefruit," they are "very relaxed with sophistication" (chapter121). More comfortable with the "person" she is becoming, Lyn is learning about the Russian avant-garde that is so central to Oxota:
Lyosha, I said, please
Explain to me, the two avant garde traditions after Mandelstam
With no indolence, he said (chapter 133)
Here is one of those phrases that deliciously mimic Russian speech trying to approximate English idiom. "With no indolence" means more or less "I'd be happy to." And Lyosha's explanation is rendered with similar humor:
But, for example--can one say that a huge sun is a damp whole in English
It would be very difficult, I said
For instance, I could not have said so before 1985
Unbirth and birth
Here Lyosha is making a case for the extravagant imagery of dada and surrealism, suppressed during the long years of socialist realism. But the irony is that the American poet says "It would be very difficult' to use such imagery in English as well, and the reference to 1985 refers not only to glasnost but quite possibly, as the stychomythia of the next lines suggests, to the situation of poetry in the U.S., it being unclear which of the two is speaking.
Despite the principle of indeterminacy that operates here and throughout, Oxota is nothing if not formally finished. Book 8 recycles the ten stanza titles of Book 2 ("Truth," "Nature," "Innocence" ... ), but the content is quite different. "Truth" (Book 2) begins with the line "Truth is not precision but evidence," "Truth" (Book 8) with the line, "Truth is not a likeness-- not of depicted sense." "Redemption" in Book Two concludes with the lines, "We will be redeemed, we will be rescued / We will believe everything we say," whereas "Redemption" (Book 8) is more resigned:
After something into somewhere--they await each other
Each is how bewildered and not only to the setting
Instigated, half out of spiral, split
We will not lead what we mean
Each time in obverse as perceived
Spring doesn't follow winter but it shadows it reversed
Morning, morning-- nothing less
It's real to the season-- the most passing
Just being there
And we will continue to acquire existence
And to confuse it
We are both
The last line brings us full circle to the opening of the poem, "This time we are both." "After something into somewhere"-- and much has happened--"they await each other." The "love intrigue" seems about to take place, but, for the moment, "Just being there" is enough. Hejinian's coda slyly alludes to Onegin's concluding stanzas. In book 8, chapter 49, Pushkin's narrator declares:
Whatever in this rough confection
you sought-- tumultuous recollection,
a rest from toil and all its aches,
or just grammatical mistakes,
a vivid brush, a witty rattle--
God grant that from this little book
For heart's delight, or fun, you took
for dreams, or journalistic battle,
God grant you took at least a grain.
This becomes, in Hejinian's counterstatement:
Say a name and someone appears, someone without the same name
Then it's quiet
We cross some distance in the pale pulverizations of the rosy marsh
Mist on dusts of orange light, partial preparations
We will find what we want
Describer's hunter, narrator's hunt
Half-visible, emerging, merged.....
Pushkin's "rough confection" reappears in Hejinian's "pale pulverizations," but whereas the Russian poet prays that "God grant you took at least a grain" from "this little book," Hejinian's narrator has fewer illusions: "We will find," she shrugs, "what we want." And that, I take it, is precisely the way Oxota works. Many readers, accustomed to the "glass prose" of more user-friendly poems, will find its contrived corridors impassable. Others like myself will enter the "Half-visible, emerging, merged" labyrinth which is Oxota and find that the absence of designated exits is itself a special pleasure.
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1. Lyn Hejinian, Oxota: A Short Russian Novel (Great Barrington, MA: The Figures, 1992). All subsequent references to this text are to this edition.
2. See my review of Leningrad in Sulfur, 29 (Fall 1991): 216-21.
3. "The title, Oxota, Hejinian explains, "is a transliteration of a Russian word which could be translated as the hunt or hunting. It comes from a friend's characterization of herself as "oxotnitsa," the huntress (one of Artemis's epithets); she was referring to the work of providing for daily life in conditions of worsening shortages of food and basic goods and to the spirit in which people have to hunt for them." See Hejinian, "On Oxota: A Short Russian Novel," headnote to extract from the poem in "Focus on the Long Poem," special issue, Pequod: 31 (1990): 67.
4. "The Rejection of Closure," Poetics Journal, 4 (May 1984): "Women & Language" Issue: 138-39.
5. In a letter to me (23 September 1992), Hejinian remarks how drawn she is to "the all-purpose, fluid, ambiguous, forever serviceable It.... I find this pronoun and its usage fascinating, because of its flexibility:
It's raining tonight. What is?
It's a question of being accurate. What is?
It's okay to be confused in a foreign country. What is it?"
6. "Strangeness," Poetics Journal, 8 (June 1989): 32, 38-39.
7. Lyn Hejinian, The Hunt (Tenerife, Canary Islands: Zasterle Press, 1991). Manuel Brito, the editor of Zasterle, regularly publishes experimental poetry from the U.S.
8. "The Person and Description," Symposium on "The Poetics of Everyday Life," Poetics Journal 9: "The Person" Issue (1991): 166-67.
9. See Hejinian, "Two Stein Talks: (1) language and Realism, (2) Grammar and Landscape," Temblor 3 (1986): 137.
10. The joke goes like this:
A: What's green, hangs on the wall, and whistles?
B. A herring.
A. But a herring isn't green.
B. You can paint it green
A. But a herring doesn't hang on the wall.
B. You can nail it to the wall.
A. But a herring doesn't whistle.
B. So it doesn't whistle.