Almost a dialogue with Lyn Hejinian: quotations and phantom limbs . . .

Lyn Hejinian, in a recent email written in response to a poem entitled “Insides”, which I had dedicated to her, asked: “Do you think poetry is physiological?” I’m still to reply in full – and maybe this is my answer. I dedicated the poem “Insides” to Lyn because many years earlier she’d told me about attending autopsies. Back then I’d written the following:

In the dissection

of the corpse of this poem

I recall Lyn Hejinian

telling me how she’d gone to watch

autopsies with Mike Patton,

the lead singer of Faith No More.

I wouldn’t have mentioned Mike but his music

has always interested me & if he hadn’t been

on world tour I’d have tried to solicit

material for the literary journal I edit.

Lyn said

that in this de-sensitized environment

(actually that’s my word, I can’t remember

what she said specifically but its effect

on me was to suggest this) the body

wasn’t that frightening.

I think she held a liver.

I asked if it was like a collection of artefacts

being removed carefully from a tomb.

I think she laughed.

But it might not have

been a comfortable laugh.

This is an extract from a long poem, “Nature Morte: Oh, Rhetoric”. The poem is a kind of poetics. An Ars Poetica? What is experienced is lost with words, but is also reinvented by words. Words make it a new, or at least different, experience. Words create a new kind of emotion, they negotiate the gaps between the moment itself and the vicarious “re-experiencing” that comes with the telling or the reading of the interpretation of that moment through poetry. I’m talking about poetry specifically. The compactness and intensity – capturing the unsayable, giving the reader space/latitude – or enough rope. But there’s something disingenuous in this. I’m constantly reiterating the death of the author, but not of the subject. But the word is its own subect. Yes, but the word is more than that. The body being dissected and disseminated by words, by both obfuscations of parataxis AND neat renderings – ironic or “sincere” – with metrics and rhyme, is not the body that was once living. It has been embalmed, preserved as something it wasn’t. The corpse has no emotions – we take (or leave) our emotions to an autopsy. They are not stored latent in the necrotic flesh, the functionless organs. I say this with suspicious certainty. Never trust the convinced . . . .?


Maybe this is what allows us to disassociate ourselves from the horror of the war or famine or epidemic the newspapers hands us. Media images become steadily more confronting, but so does our ability to receive these images. The girl burnt by napalm “falling” towards the camera – as if compelled, as if the camera were her destiny, as if it was always meant to be there; the officer shooting the prisoner through the temple, and any of the other “images that defined the time” that was the Vietnam era, when our “desensitisation” developed a life of its own. Shocking at first, and then part of our mental archives of what’s negotiable. Or how about the staged flag call of the US marines at Iwo Jima”? The propaganda image that lifted the morale of a nation. And the clinically terrifying images of “smart weapons” finding their targets in the “CNN wars”. No, we know about context and can take a step back. But this isn’t what deconstruction is supposed to do – it isn’t “supposed” to desensitise, but to make us aware.


Poetry, of course, isn’t like that . . . it actually sensitises . . . heightens awareness. Worked via the poem, words live multiple lives. They can’t be pinned down. Even the most formulaic poem lives outside its own conventions. But for me poems are above all else moral – they work through and against conventions, the are constantly grappling with responsibility and rebellion. They lust, they fear, they operate clinically and subjectively. They are Deleuze’s and Guattari’s bodies without organs, waiting to be filled by the reader. For the poet, they are his or her phantom limb or third eye. The gaps between the physical and perceived world are blurred. It’s a liminal space. Frames, borders, constraints, and yet elasticity. these are the things that aesthetically interest me. I might be talking of the body. I don’t need to quote Cixous or Kristeva here, but I will quote a stanza of a poem written for Elizabeth Grosz. It’s called “Body Snatching” and the quote is part of the poem:

”The phantom is an expression of nostalgia for the unity and wholeness of the body, its completion. It is a memorial to the missing limb, a physical delegate that stands in its place. There is thus not only a physical wound and a scar in the amputation or surgical intervention into any part of the body. The phantom limb is the narcissistic reassertion of the limb’s presence in the face of its manifest biological loss, an attempt to preserve the subject’s narcissistic sense of bodily wholeness (an image, as Lacan points out, developed through the mirror stage).”

Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies


Wearing her family tree like an extra limb

she made hay while the sun shone-

on the couch, in the face of disaster,

she sang lullabies, as if the world

were her baby. The group’s collective energy

shone like a halo and kept the Others out.

Birds erupted from her fingertips,

swamps dried out in her presence.

The ooze retreated somewhere between a rock and a hard place

vaporized in the slow undulations of the valley

as the supple orifices of planting steeled themselves against the seed-drill,

the pod, the vegetable body that replicates and moves on e-

motionless, like a trick of perpetuation mirrored and delegated

”family”, the genealogical quirk: she sensed an outerbody,

the shell of her grandmother, entrapment

of an earlier self: who can we trust

if not the doctors, our relatives?

I’m interested in collaborative writing. I’ve said enough about the defects of the “lyrical I” to revisit that denuded ground. The lyric is back, with a vengeance. Damaged eyes can be corrected by lasers now. They grow lens in pigs to replace lenses in human. They gene-search and delete genetic imperfections. My child’s child won’t be of my flesh. Paternity is not the poem, and never was. Back to the borders. To Hejinian. I did a virtual discussion project for the Bath Literature Festival recently – with John Burnside and George Szirtes. This is one of my commentaries:



Maybe I can pick up tangentially through mentioning a seminar Rod Mengham and I gave today on the poetry of Lyn Hejinian and Jennifer Moxley. Students presented excellent wide-ranging papers which we then discussed. I quoted a couple of paragraphs from Hejinian’s essay “La Faustienne” (Knowledge Poetics Journal, No. 10) with regard to the liminal:

“Current literary interest in knowledge – and its implicit questions with regard to both literary devices (details) and literary method (address from and to the world) – finds itself in what social theory might call a liminal period – at a threshold or, to enlarge the metaphorical landscape, along a border. The question of boundaries, of possible shifts or displacements along them, and the question of what is being bounded (or unbounded) are pre-eminent ones. If we are indeed in a liminal period, then the border is not out there somewhere at the edge of the frame but rather it is here, at zero degree, where the X and Y co-ordinates meet. It is a site of encounter, a point of transition. The marginal is all around. The transgressivity, sometimes overt, sometimes implicit, that motivates certain strategies in much current work, is meaningful only in liminal situations.”

The discussion opened out into considerations of “open structures” in verse, rejection of closure, questions of identity and “self”, the word itself, subjectivity and objectivity, the interaction and relationship between reader and writer, the poetry and The Poet, debate and discussion within poetry, working against the unified subject, and the nature of memory and event. It’s the changing nature of memory, the uncertain nature of past events, of their meanings in different “rememberings”, and shifts of appraisal that most interests me. Hejinian has a long history of collaborating with other poets. The antiphonal shifts between voice that are at once mediated by the word itself, and “persona”, identity or signature, provide a conversational tension. But I’m most interested where voice blurs, and identity of the individual author is lost to the collaborative piece. Where meaning exists on both sides of the border, and also is absent. Email and web collaborative projects abound. They are something that attract me. Quickfire interactions on discussion lists – projects with “the list” as author, which may consist of a couple of hundred people. Of course, collected for book publication, the editorial voice operates loudly, despite any claims to the contrary. An interesting example of this has been the Interactive Geographies projects on Poetryetc – basically the creation of a large prose poem on the notion of “place”. A spatial project, a mapping of virtual and “real” places. Here’s the guidelines issued for the first GEO project:

“ . . . like to invite Poetryetc participants to assist in the creation of a geo–text. The aim is to breakdown territories, boundaries, demarcation lines etc by creating an interactive regionalism. If people would send to the list responses to their immediate surroundings – responses to location, demographics, spiritual signifiers, gender, and so on – I’ll work the collective effort into a single text and publish it as a Salt pamphlet in a few weeks. Your responses should be without punctuation and in continuous text – no line breaks. You will be appropriated, altered and mixed. So, maybe Douglas could begin with “Paris”, or maybe it’s the Alberta Douglas, or maybe Alison in Melbourne, or someone who lives purely in cyberspace. Deserts, oceans, and the maps of circuit boards all welcome. Interact away!”

The possibility – no, the inevitability of crossover and encounter in what appear to be different geographies on the surface – proved fascinating. Be it different locations on the maps, or different states of mind – the mapping process linked the project together. The texts flowed through each other. Editing it became an exercise in cartography – reminding one of recent claims that the coast of Western Australia is a ripe location for orientating Gulliver’s Travels. The net forms its own tribal groupings. There are those who enter discussion lists with the sole intent of dismantling discussion and list integrity. On an experimental list they’ll post formal poems; on a formalist list, encrypt the villanelles of others. As long as it doesn’t get personal or abusive, I welcome this. It’s another face of hybridising. It’s a liminal process. At the end of the seminar course I mentioned above, we hope to take the students to Wicken Fen – a managed engagement with Nature, with the lyrical I, with the language of advertising brochures. Wicken has one of the oldest tower bird hides in England. A student joked today – “we’ll play I spy with my little eye . . . ”. We’d read Moxley’s poem on Wordsworth. What to do with Oedipal inheritance? What savings, what values are available to the poet outside the male canon . . . ? Ah, the anxiety of influence.

So, that’s what I have to say about my work. My body? Well, I could refer to a recent discussion on poetry etc about body–types and the repetitions of certain letters in names, but if people are interested they can search the poetryetc archives. I guess they’ll then need my body, or at least a picture of it. Or maybe they could read my poetry instead. Or somebody else’s. That would do fine. Yes, as they say, maybe I’m present in absence. I do know that my state of health is directly linked to what I write. I know that the psychological and the physical are inseparable. I know the field of the page is the map of my body, of our bodies. As a kid I was fascinated by the plastic overlays of the body in the World Book Encyclopaedia – a weird pleasure not so easily replicated in the non–tactile (challenge this!) virtual world of the net. Anyway, this poem is about bodies – not mine. Everybody’s? Or just about the word “body” itself? Maybe . . .


for Lyn Hejinian

The layout . . . formatting

within the body cavity,

and how, if you think

about it, things will stop:

not quite adding up,

so vulnerable.

Taking the corpse

of a still–warm rabbit

and opening it:

skin peeled back

to bone–joint,

insides flicked

into a bucket, mixed

with the insides

of other rabbits – the bits

that made them work

now pig–feed. Or sheep

strung up, headless

sacks, guts gathered

in barrows below.

Fly–thick, dogs

frantic, pig–feed.

We can’t look at

each other like that . . .

so easily unravelled,

come unstuck.

Held close by a loved one,

nurturing and knowing;

plastic models in biology

class – the liver

fitting there

and the heart

locked up tight.

The plastic overlays

in encyclopaedias – this organ

on that, clear cut.

Forget about it –

it works even when

you sleep.