The Distance

Lyn Hejinian's "The Distance"

Philosophy can be seen as the history of struggles over the definitions of certain words: not just "knowledge," "being," "value," "right," but more crucially "think," "I," "thing," "eye," and just as crucially "with," "in," "as," "from." And "music," "human," "some." Lyn Hejinian's "The Distance" (the second of two long pieces in her new book, Saga/Circus) adds the rarely-considered emotions and passions, regret, pathos, cowardice, enthusiasm, forgetfulness, understanding, shock, love. This addition isn't her major philosophical innovation. That comes with the ways in which she sets every idea, feeling, variety of situatedness into motion. Everything isdeployed, and what a concept is can no longer be a question of definition, but must instead be seen in the way it moves, happens, acts, its form of concretion in situated time. There's no general description of its motion; it's always what it is as a particular event, an event being a context thought of not as a "place" but as the whole structure of an occurrence (we are at sea, on a groundless ground).

I haven't mentioned that "The Distance" is the name of a ship, and that the poem takes place as an ocean voyage, without stated purpose or any end in sight.

We are passing through cascades of animation
And even that which is 'merely imaginary'
And that which is overlooked
Soak us. 
(138)

on the other hand,

We are surrounded by immobilized projections. 
(139)

There is the water, and there are icebergs and islands, frozen water and land at which it laps.

The emotions and concepts, so evanescent in themselves that they can barely be spoken of, let alone examined via direct observation, are deployed in "The Distance" via methods that are truer than definition and more radical than metaphor. Feelings and inclinations are bluntly personified, so that Pathos and Regret as animals simply do things, behaving in ways that aren't any less complex than real-life behavior, and therefore not reducible to allegories for the emotions that gave them names. Emotions are externalized through characters (Madoud, Feliz, Miroire, etc.) who don't embody them, but rather pass through them from varying directions. Or concepts are depolyed in propositions, but those propositions run into figures (the horizon, the wake, the dip and swell of the water beneath the boat, the sunrise, auditory and visual illusions) which take over the definitional aspect of the propositions and replace it (so that the push-forward and pull-back of a particular aquatic turbulence becomes the essential description of ambivalence--and not as a metaphor in the usual sense: ambivalence is, for the moment, nothing but that dynamic, and the water is still the water, not merely an object of comparison).

All these deployments and attempts at definition happen in and as context, and so they're transient and provisional. Once, however, a provisional statement has been made, it will always have been made--so that the essence of a concept or emotion is found in the aggregate of its provisional manifestations, in the dialectic between provisionality and always-having-been.

This is the kind of thinking that even the most far-out philosophical writing can't quite enact (Deleuze, writing brilliantly about thought in terms of speed and dynamics, coining slippery terms that are only defined by their contextualization throughout a text, still falls on the side of the propositional, and so his concepts always risk freezing into thingliness)--but art can.

Life can't be studied
As if it were the nonlife of something
Lived by someone studying. 
(141)

The sentences are beautiful.

...I pass the camera
To others so as to emancipate the point of view. Trade is relevant
Everywhere. We can't escape economy, economies.
As far as we can see the world
Is unsparing of things to see, reality
Is profligate, ubiquitous, vivid, prolix, it's all too much, vista
Without terrain, the "too much," the "neither given nor giveable"
World we can neither approach nor leave. We live
Then through. Then having lived, we will always have
Lived. The only immortality is absence. 
(118)

Where the colors driven by the wind
Apply, history returns, and so can I, having told myself these things
And keeping them in readiness to tell again. 
(120)

...I remember
Patches of my own adolescence as I catch glimpses
Of patches of turbulence the wind is picking up, tearing
At the surface of the sea
But in those days my imagination drew thick forests
Into which I would dash
Into a secret future
Between trees, walking the forest floor on the outer edges of my feet--
Silent, invisible, in an infinite process of disappearing.
(112-113)

Pursuing a vibration that we take for a grebe
(131)

I want to understand
What I have seen and understand
That nothing I have seen explains what I have seen. 
(131)

I can tell you
Everything we know about rats but I can't tell you what rats know
About themselves. 
(135)

The thinking here works in distances and at limits. Thoughts, words, things and unthingly phenomena call out to one another across them, need one another. 

...The northern waters are black as ink,
The southern waters are pale in contrast--but the contrast itself is nowhere
To be found. 
(146)

I know these words.
My thoughts are dead without them. 
(126)

...I feel all that I feel but there's nothing
There, nothing
Could be there: an emotion is held
In an absence together only
With the strength of an interior--anterior--presence.
But happily the world has poles
And they draw things out
Just as night draws
Bats from barns...
(144)

The bats are encountered, though (in the next lines), at dawn. While most of Hejinian's recent work has been "night work," full of sleep and dreams, this is a day poem, full of waking, sunrise, the coming into visibility of things.

...There is nothing here
But exposure. Every wave, even as it curls over the light, produces exposure,
Every thought is crossed by its own frame of illimitable
Transient foam...
...The sun
Is always prejudiced in favor of appearances--change, eventfulness
And destination. 
(142)

A journey with a beginning and no end. Saga flowing into the beginning of history. Exposure of prison, war. Music, the interdependence of what it does and doesn't say, bringing the latter to light.

I'm again struck by the positivity of Hejinian's thought as a writer, her light courage to do and think, to help inquisitive enthusiasm carry itself out. It makes possible a 37-section take on the "life is a journey" figure that gives that figure more life than it may have ever had.

So much of her recent work is concerned with the border, distance, limit as productive, as the source of possibility--of splits and rifts as the production of more individuals, and thus more relationships, crossings, contexts. In "The Distance" there's always the split between past and future, thought and word, feeling and object, body and soul, visible and invisible. The voyage is in and across these distances, giving life to what waits on either side.

Some Notes on Lyn Hejinian's 'The Distance'"

In the opening lines (in the first number’d section) of “The Distance”—in Lyn Hejinian’s two-poem book Saga / Circus (Omnidawn, 2008)—is an implicit nod to William Carlos Williams’s “no ideas but in things” follow’d by an emphatic (and rather uncharacteristically petulant (a foot-stomp for Hejinian)) dismissal of the powers of metaphor:
Knowledge grows  But it has to be connected to things. That connection is usually best achieved  So they say Through perceiving similarities. No way!
Why, then, is the poem chock’d full of figure? Nigh immediately one encounters “forbidding clouds of hemlock and pine, a forest that was / Like a terrestrial sky.” If the story is a particularly gender’d one of a woman “Banned from ships as if I were fate / Herself”—note the personification in the opening lines—for whom “it came about / That the ban to my surprise was lifted / Suddenly one fall / And I went to sea after all,” is something being suggest’d regarding the gendering of perception? And what exactly is it?  2. I start’d with “The Distance.” (I’d read—and heard Hejinian read—some parts of “Lola”—the “Circus” part of Saga / Circus in the Belladonna-print’d chapbook of that title. It—the look of it—is Williamsesque, too: the Williams of the jumbled chapters of the experimental prose works, Spring and All or Kora in Hell or The Great American Novel.)  3. Is it “merely accidental” that “The Distance” comprised thirty-seven number’d sections? Hejinian’sMy Life in its first (Burning Deck) version contain’d thirty-seven chapters (each of thirty-seven sentences). 4. Hejinian makes it plain in “The Distance”’s second part that if—in the new found world of the ship (the ship, too, named The Distance)—things seem knowable with a kind of animated immediacy (“The planet seems young—raucous, ravenous, quick, and wet. The planet exists / With gusto. Things fall to it and sink, things are rooted in it / And rise,” it is the emotions (“Obscure emotions”) that remain beyond the epistemological horizon, veil’d, undefinable. Hejinian:
                It’s impossible  To clear the way and come within  Sight of my subject. Obscure  Emotions cling to it—obscuring emotions. The analytical imagination Naturally undertakes analysis of the imagination  While the emotional imagination does what, emote? I’ve tried to give emotions  The slip By attributing them to other people  Named Felix, Sasha, Nils, Miroire, and when a new one  Rises I will call it Sam  Or Angelique, an iffy strategy  At best.
5. Is the problem one of knowing one’s emotions, or of knowing oneself (and the world) without the emotions interceding, without the emotional “pull” that deflects (and contorts) the knowing?  6. Late in the poem—in the thirty-sixth section—there’s a rather disturbing reply to the “iffy strategy” of naming (and mustn’t it, too, “apply” to metaphorical larking, knowing things by similarity?) Emotion, in Hejinian’s terms, comes to seem a void:
There’s only an inside to an emotion, there’s nothing On it to grasp, nothing To be seen of it, it’s nothing But a structure without a form, a structure incapable of producing  A form, I feel all that I feel but there’s nothing  There, nothing  Could be there: an emotion is held In an absence together only With the strength of an interior—anterior—presence.
I hear Cordelia / Lear in the repeat’d “nothing”—both Lear’s “Nothing will come of nothing” andCordelia’s “I cannot heave / My heart into my mouth.” There is, too, something of the same thrillingintegrity to Hejinian’s lines (here and elsewhere), thrilling in a poetry world of Gonerils and Regans.  7. Too, I hear John Ashbery (particularly the Ashbery of “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”). Think of lines like these:
                                and the thoughts That peel off and fly away at breathless speeds Like the last stubborn leaves ripped From wet branches? I see in this only the chaos Of your round mirror which organizes everything Around the polestar of your eyes which are empty, Know nothing, dream but reveal nothing. I feel the carousel starting slowly And going faster and faster: desk, papers, books, Photographs of friends, the window and the trees Merging in one neutral band that surrounds Me on all sides, everywhere I look. And I cannot explain the action of leveling, Why it should all boil down to one Uniform substance, a magma of interiors.
Put that next to, say, these lines of Hejinian (out of section XXIV):
We are a tilted species  Dipping and lunging forward, swinging our baskets Of eggs, stuck to our shadows Which gravity in turn sticks to life Throughout the long days that night disarrays. The fog is taking shape, it is forming Gulls and longshoremen, dolphins and cities  It sweeps from a sliding circle Whose circumference lies beyond the edges of the field  Of vision by which we are engulfed. It leaps From under a sheet and mumbles a sound that might have been a word— It was probably not.
8. Hejinian’s working a terrific line, one that’s willing to go “out” to magnificent ends, or stop short, break off, entirely, blissfully flexible. I want to call it a glacial line—it picks up everything in its path (and’s capable of eventually depositing it anywhere). Never compell’d before to attend to the line-breaks: here, the highly enjamb’d lines work up ambiguity, irony, wonder, by turns. “But I am throwing off conviction, bound / To regard the sea.”  9. Troubling, still, the workings of metaphor. If Hejinian (presumably attempting to plumb an emotional state, or identify with it) writes—in a whole slew of quick-outing “feelings” (disbelief, ambivalence, scorn) in section X—of:
               thinking of the hateful Regret rescued from a log somewhere  Off Tierra del Fuego three years ago and now Confined to a stinking cage Which she (Jane thinks she’s female) filthies (she even shits  In her water dish) and into which I stare Without being able to discover any grounds at all For affinity.
And it continues, later—“we are stuck / With Regret”—and I want to ask how that’s any different from, say, John Bunyan’s Christian allegory Pilgrim’s Progress with Hypocrisy (companion of Formalist) or Timorous (companion of Mistrust) or Pliable trying to avoid the Slough of Despond?