i had to think of this book this morning, for some reason, and so i’m going to share… this was actually homework for a class a few years ago, but since i really did enjoy this read, and since the actual book is safely tucked away in a cardboard box along with many other (book) treasures in a good friend’s garage in utah, awaiting my return next year (fingers crossed), i thought i would just post this rather than writing up a new review without the book on hand… ’tis the season for reading, so here’s another suggestion for your autumn afternoons.
Lyn Hejinian‘s poetic prose / prosaic poetry is a patchwork of experiences, thoughts, and tidbits of information that leads us from her childhood to adulthood. She makes use of repetition in many instances: Phrases and section titles reappear in later sections again and again.
Examples of this are: A pause, a rose, something on paper (which is the title of the first section), As for we who love to be astonished (title of section 2), Religion is a vague lowing (also a section title) and others. Objects that keep reoccurring include a stone egg / enormous egg / a rock shaped egg / alabaster teasers (used to replace real eggs), as well as snails and glass snails, artichokes and artichoke hearts, and roses in various contexts and states. (For example, roses appear as flowers, wallpaper and upholstery.)
It is this repetition that holds the sections together and gives this work a feeling of wholeness that is in stark contradiction with the fragmented nature of every section, sometimes even on the sentence-level. It can also be seen as one of the most basic necessities of a sense of self: The ability to remember past events, the repetition of behaviors and the reoccurrence of feelings, these are important elements that enable us to think of ourselves as a person. Without at least some constancy, there can be no self.
My Life is a delicate balance between constancy and fragmentation. A counterpart to the repetition of phrases and words are the frequently fragmented sentences, incomplete on their own and intelligible only in context with the preceding or following sentences.
One example is found in the fragment titled “No puppy or dog will ever be capable of this, and surely no parrot”:
Then the mud cracks and the tadpoles turn in the nick of time to frogs. At twilight, as the babies cry. In those days I had the mistaken notion that science was hostile to the imagination.
The speaker herself remarks on the fragmentary nature of experience when she says Life is hopelessly frayed, all loose ends. A pansy suddenly, a web, a trail remarkably’s a snail’s. (section 3)
Much like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (my favorite book of all times?!), Hejinian’s My Life is an anti-biography: All the elements typical of the biography genre are deliberately left out. Dates, place-names, names of parents, siblings and friends are not given. This suggests that Hejinian is making a point of the fact that life and the individual experience of one person simply cannot be accurately summarized, described or understood through “hard facts.”
Hejinian builds on Woolf’s experiment and takes it further by fragmenting not only the narrative but even the narrative’s syntactic sub-structure. “Hard facts” surface throughout the text, but usually in the form of almost random associations, such as Europeans shake hands more often than we do, here in America, or, a weasel eats twenty times as much as a lizard of the same size.
The self is absent in the choppy list of the few dates and accomplishments that make it onto the curriculum vitae. In the section “At the time, the perpetual Latin of love kept things hidden,” the speaker states I only want the facts. What are these facts? What follows is this:
It’s o.k. to have pancakes for dinner. Before a busy day, one wants to “get” a lot of sleep.
Clearly, she challenges the conventional idea of “hard facts” – but she does it by replacing “important” facts with “trivial” facts.
My Life is a celebration of the minute things, the living, breathing, overlooked details of daily life, more noticed by children than by busy grown-ups. There is a sense of wonder and fascination that permeates the text, and that is part of what makes this an enchanting read.
you can read some of hejinian’s poetry here:
thank you, poetry foundation!