Lyn Hejinian and Leslie Scalapino's Sight
Not invent—just answer—all
That verse attempts.
That we can somehow add each to each other?
—George Oppen, “Blood from the Stone”
May 28, 2011 is the anniversary of Leslie Scalapino’s passing. Last summer, I read Lyn Hejinian’s eulogy “Leslie Scalapino Remembered” and, with many, mourned the loss of an original and radical poet. In her eulogy, Hejinian talks about Scalapino’s deep connection to Buddhism and their collaborative work; together, they were writing what Hejinian describes as “a foray into sensation,” a work composed of “five dialogues, one on each of the senses” (np). Of these, they were only able to complete Sight. When I read Sight in 1999, the thrilling repartee going on between these two poets generated a kind of kinetic kenosis that seemed out of the purview of most single-authored works. Because it is co-written by two major poets committed to what Hejinian has called “the radical fringe of the avant-garde,” the book continues to be timely. Now, with the passing of Leslie Scalapino, it has also become timeless. I offer the following review as a way to keep vigil on this anniversary. I wrote the first part of the review in 1999 when the book came out; the second part is a reflection on the book in light of Hejinian’s eulogy and the decade that has passed since its publication.
Part 1: Conversing Visions and Converging Versions, Iowa City, 1999
Lyn Hejinian and Leslie Scalapino's collaborative work, Sight, begins with a brief introduction by each. Appropriately, these remarks seem directed more toward each other than the reader; they are written more like epistles than apologies. While Scalapino begins by explaining how she and Hejinian "agreed that the form of [their] collaboration was to be in doubles, pairs," she quickly shifts modes:
Friendship would have to be not just 'being liked.' That one has to be likable, accommodating. One would have to 'like' also—i.e. like the other—and I think only by being oneself. Not accommodating. My need for argument in it is that you tend to view reality as wholesome; when I'm suffering you tend to alleviate to bring suffering into the currency of the 'social,' the realm that is convivial—whereas I'm saying it's (also) apprehension itself when it's occurring.
There is a sense of privacy to Scalapino’s introduction as she describes to herself as well as to Hejinian what she "sees" in the whole they have created. Hejinian takes a similar tack in her opening remarks, beginning generally to a general audience about how she and Scalapino "embarked on this collaboration with a very general project in mind" (np). But soon, "turning toward (things between us)," Hejinian states, "There isn't very much here that could be described as exposition” (np). Hejinian addresses Scalapino and leaves the reader outside the parenthesis to listen in. The introductions are personal and set the pattern for a poem that uses swatches of language to weave a relationship through the constant activity of seeing.
Our most evolved and adaptive sense, sight is in many ways synonymous with human experience and can attach synesthetically to any or all of the other senses with relative ease. So the formal limitation Scalapino and Hejinian put on each other by limiting the text to what is seen may seem at first glance like no limitation at all. But looking more closely, the demand of the poem’s form reveals a structure that is intricate and, while capable of containing multitudes, reflective and reflexive.
The disjunctive exposition, the poetic interplay, the internal arguments sometimes abandoned for other associative strains of images can occasionally make a reader feel outside a private dialogue, which contributes to the book’s sense of intimacy. But the tension between the reader and the two writers also feels necessary. Hejinian and Scalapino neither rely on perception to corroborate nor narrative to correlate their experience. Rather, as the implicit structure of Sight demands, they must "see" words just like the world, as a vortex of objects whose relationships are ever-changing and whose meaning is unstable. Bringing the lessons of poststructuralism to bear on their writing is part of what the Language poets helped define for American poetry and this sensibility toward language has almost become commonplace in experimental work. Yet, for some readers this will still pose a difficulty.
Nevertheless, Sight decentralizes the texts "meaning" because it privileges relationship over authorship. This "dialogic work," as Hejinian calls it, extends outward from self to other, and then from personal relationship to larger social interaction:
We can experience anything—but we don't, because we set
to work (committed to a 'social' action). (22)
As a work of seeing as well as writing, Sight makes us aware of the complexity of those things we depend on most to connect us, our senses and our language. Sight contains belief, metaphor, and narrative as they exist in our interactions, in our discussions, in our points of view. Images are often extraordinary and aware of themselves, such as when Hejinian writes,
A thousand yellow birds flew out of my eyes when I looked
at the trees. (7)
There's an inflammation, an iris, between them
Amerigo Vespucci couples a deer. Collaboration is calm. (48)
Both Hejinian and Scalapino have long trusted the motion of the intellect and the emotion in a thought, allowing for shifting tones, vacillating diction, and transitions between kinds of language that seem incompatible in lesser work.
Sightovertly testifies to the importance of community to produce great art as well as to the necessity of relationship for self-understanding. Hejinian and Scalapino create a language that is both common and particular enough to suspend the world in front of us so that we can see it with fresh eyes:
a hummingbird in the morning flies right up to me at the
door and stays in the air (LH, 97)
Amongst them crouching is the face of one, bitten—a scar
on it like a pond, the bitten face is held under water—There's only
continuity in two (LS, 80)
The decision to initial each swatch of writing is a great visual for what happens in this book. An uncanny accident, the sameness and difference in the initials is the sameness and difference that must occur and be constantly balanced in anyone's relationship to anything else. The independent identity is preserved but given over to a larger pattern, a larger continuity:
From introduction to denomination, description, and
distraction to conclusion (LH, 112)
But, of course, continuity does not conclude but continues:
They are dismantled—
Then (LS, 112)
Part 2: Sight in Hindsight, Southold, NY 2010
What do you see when you look out with your language?
—Clark Coolidge, The Crystal Text
I’m sitting on a small set of bleachers in a small brick room with scuffed linoleum floors under fluorescent light reading Sight. It’s 8:00 in the morning. It’s summer. My nine-year-old son, Leif, is taking a piano lesson. My five-year-old son, Frey, is next to me coloring. Frey shows me a picture of four dinosaurs. He wants me to identify the two that are identical. At first, they all appear to be the same; then I see a squiggle missing on one, the elbow missing on another. The other two are the identical ones. Frey goes about circling the two that are identical while I read:
Accumulating images—long houses in Brunei, the red veins of chard, the depressed town of Clear Lake, the fat fishing boy’s sudden smile, an irascible child plunging into the supermarket freezer—glimmer in the cold light
These elements are active
Other images—icebergs, terns with pianos—are active but non-existent. (19)
I hear the slow fluid scale up the piano. Context organizes images in one way; the mind organizes them in entirely another. When one repeats, “out of sight, out of mind” while thinking about Buddhism’s idea of “no mind,” for example, it takes on a different meaning. So what does it mean to be “unseen” or to be “non-existent” in terms of Sight? Leif is playing “My Invention” while the teacher says, “Don’t rush it” and Frey, fidgeting, stops listening as he looks around for something to look at. Neither of them was born when I first read this book in my hand.
In her eulogy, Hejinian describes Sight as “an investigation of shared time,” and in light of Hejinian’s phrase, the book appears as a poignant reminder that we must actively work to achieve a present tense in our poetry if we are to make things continuously appear. Looking at the book now, the title to the introduction, “Experience / ‘On’ Sight,” holds multiple puns. It is about sight but also about being in sight (being seen as well as being able to see). Of course, this also suggests “insight” and the way seeing can be turned inward. It is “on-sight,” suggesting that the object of sight is locatable and in place, even while the activity of seeing never is. Because seeing must travel between subject and object, “sight” can be construed as passage. In the book, “passage” is another productive and elastic pun and, as both “travel” and “written entry,” is a word around which images and ideas constellate. “Passage” brings together the idea of motion and inertia—the connection and the separation—that underlies the dynamics between the two poets’ exchange. As written entries, the passages are just that: attempts to enter, not only into the scene of what is being seen but also into an interpersonal engagement, each time in a new or different way. This constant interactivity between the poets cannily shows how seeing gets held in place by another’s seeing being seen. The book fosters a kind of vigilance that attends to another’s insights and wellbeing.
In her introduction to Sight, Scalapino says that the book was to be in “doubles.” Perhaps this is one reason for the preponderance of puns. But more than that, the doubling means that the book functions the way eyes do and perhaps by extension the way “I”s do when they are confronted with another “I” and become at once subject and object. This slip between “eye” and “I” is probably the deepest and most abiding pun in the book because it attaches to the underlying friendship that motivates the writing. As Scalapino describes it, “Crossing ‘across’ observation, ‘argument’ which is mode of extension—we tend to stay on our own ‘sides’ in regard to the ‘subject’ ‘experience’” (np). Given Scalapino’s affinity with Buddhism, her explanation recalls the Zen dialogue, “Kyōzan’s Roar of Laughter,” cited by Nishitani Keiji in “The I-Thou Relation in Zen Buddhism”:
Kyōzan Ejaku asked Sanshō Enen, “What is your name?”
Sanshō said, “Ejaku!”
“Ejaku!” replied Kyōzan, “that’s my name.”
“Well then,” said Sanshō, “my name is Enen.”
Kyōzan roared with laughter. (40)
In this dialogue, as in Scalapino’s definition of friendship, there exists the need to crossover and apprehend another, even to become the other by identifying: to empathize, to see with the other’s eyes. And yet, since identification tends to obliterate individual integrity, the one who is apprehended must also be reaffirmed as both autonomous and free from the activity of apprehension: there must be another separate from oneself if there is to be someone with whom to relate. The form if not also the content of Sight consistently addresses this dialectical struggle.
In Keiji’s essay, a poem by Daitō Kokushi follows Kyōzan’s roar of laughter and responds to it:
Daitō Kokushi comments on the passage: Where does it go?
The sun shines warmly, the spring snow clears;
The jaws of the plum and the face of the willow vie
with their fragrant freshness.
The occasion for poetry and spiritual divertissement
holds boundless meaning.
Permitted only to the man who wanders in the fields
and arduously composes poetry. (40)
In Sight, Hejinian and Scalapino come up with a similar way of dealing with the dialogic tensions emerging from their interaction. The boundaries between identification and affirmation partly dissolve in the interactivity of their seeing and writing, although they also stay discreet as initialed passages. This formal dynamism serves as “the occasion for poetry and spiritual divertissement” by requiring each poet to see and then see again in light of what the other one writes. Through an ardor for this type of arduous composition, Scalapino and Hejinian register both the constant change and boundless meaning that underlie the particulars of what we see and how it transmogrifies into what we say and so leads to what we call “sight.”
Hejinian, Lyn. “Leslie Scalapino Remembered.” Poets.Org, Academy of American Poets. 1 March 2011. Web.
Hejinian, Lyn and Leslie Scalapino. Sight. Washington D.C.: Edge Books, 1999. Print.
Keiji, Nishitani. “The I-Thou Relation in Zen Buddhism,” trans. N. A. Waddell, The Eastern Buddhist II/2 (1969): 71-87. Print.
Tim Wood is an assistant professor of English at SUNY Nassau Community College in Garden City, New York. He is co-editor of The Hip Hop Reader (Longman, 2008) and author of the book of poems Otherwise Known as Home (BlazeVOX 2010).
Lyn Hejinian and Leslie Scalpino
Edge Books, 1999
$15.00 paperback, ISBN: 1890311065