Saga and Circus

Lyn Hejinian’s latest poetry collection sets two different moods.

By Joyelle McSweeney
Poetry Media Service

Saga/Circus, by Lyn Hejinian. Omnidawn, $15.95

In Lyn Hejinian’s latest book, two long poems (but they hardly feel long) make short work of narrative and dismantle genre with an alert and damaging wit. First comes “Circus” or “Lola.” This prose piece, with its attention to rings, battles, payers and players, moves characters through a tightening, finally dismaying cycle of events. Next comes “Saga,” also titled “The Distance,” which applies pressure to two figures of continuity: the first–person speaker and the sea voyage. Together, these texts form a contrast of cyclicality and stasis and test the limits of writing as vehicle and vessel of both violence and knowledge.

“Lola” begins as a pitch–perfect homage to the work of Gertrude Stein, advancing in short prose sections from “Chapter One” to “Chapter Two,” titles she repeats until we do not know where we are. Eventually, we arrive at “Chapter If It’s True,” “Chapter Between Two and Three,” “Chapter Supplied,” “Chapter To View.” This recalls Stein’s delighted, flattening disregard for textual hierarchy, which produces the incandescent waywardness of such works as Four Saints in Three Acts. By the second page of “Lola,” chapters seem literally to have come loose from the structural framework of narrative: “chapters in a mood, mid–air, in plumes.”

Such recklessness is potentially hazardous for the characters who people “Lola,” characters inasmuch as they recur and have proper names.

The sisters Hertha!



Abdul Tommy Ahmed!

Trish O’Reilly!

Kurt Krakauer!

Ludmilla Kaipa!

And Sue!

It is not just with that final “Sue,” but in the very peopledness of these lines, that we hear Stein’s “Susie Asado” et al. The first sentence marshals its many nouns like a marching band around the goal posts “are” and “are.” The declarative energy of that nominative “players” is undone by the duplicity of the word itself, referring as it does to those who act with agency, seriously; those who act in a drama, falsely; those who play games, literally; and those who play games figuratively, bending the rules like Hejinian and Stein.

Thanks to its writerliness (and its writer), many delightful, unabashed set pieces grace “Lola,” including epigrams, metaphors, and extended images. These are often serious and dubious at the same time, such as “one wants to visit a town before buying a house there or burning it down,” or, of greyhounds and, by implication, the Wal–Mart employees who allegedly own them, “they don’t run from tyrants but for them.” In an unexpectedly comic turn, “Lyn Hejinian” enters the text and is disparaged as a minor writer; a paper on her work is given a “C.”

Where “Lola” most pointedly departs from its Steinian model is the entrance of violence into this merry, convivial text. At this point the cyclicality of the text appears less marvelous and more like a trap for its characters, who are victim to whatever fusillade or battle enters the sentences and who cannot escape violence except by disappearance from the text. The prose turns tense, then gloomy: “The chapters do but are never done;” “Grief takes time, they say—it takes it all.” Hejinian’s sentences, and her characters, cannot help but be interested in violence. It is 2009 already, and, as the truism goes, you may not be interested in violence, but violence is interested in you.

If there is one ultra–narrative (and ultraviolent) poetic genre, it is the saga, the Northern European form given to armed struggle, sea voyage, and obsessive genealogical accounting. As its title suggests, the mood of Hejinian’s saga, “The Distance,” is not one of action but of meditative stasis. Unlike a conventional saga, there is no historical or geographical GPS at work here; the speaking voice is simply at sea, shipbound, in motion but adrift.

. . . I won’t pretend

To be an historian, how could I, when I
have no idea

Of today’s date. Though I know we
embarked one morning early

In May, I have no idea how long ago that

And I don’t care. I breathe, I twist my
hair. I watch

The sea. At times it resembles an eye

But it isn’t watching me.

Lineageless, battleless, the female speaker shrugs off the patriarchal requirements of saga even while her free verse is gathered up in a rhythmic, graceful full rhyme (“me,” “sea”), which stands in for ancient, songlike sound structures. As with “Lola,” here genre itself is at once medium, material, and subject, the pliant, immersive sea in which craft sails. In “The Distance,” genre’s mutability and capacity is figured by the literal sea. The impossible relationship of writing to knowledge spurs the quest, but it is a quest of betweenness, not of arrival or departure. The same theme is restated elsewhere: “I want to understand / What I have seen and understand / That nothing I have seen explains what I have seen. Like that.” In this version, that gestural “Like that” underscores language’s excess to its own project, the way it adds to and even doubles the world it would describe, thereby constantly extending its own task.

“The Distance” is so busy with ars poetica that it is implicitly a more optimistic work than “Lola.” Like My Life, which the author is constantly reworking and (happily) extending, the possibilities within Hejinian’s ouevre are inexhaustible, her working and reworking of writing’s generic and epistemological potentials and capabilities is unending.

Joyelle McSweeney’s poetry collections include The Commandrine and Other Poems and The Red Bird, and her reviews appears widely. She is co-editor of Action Books and a professor of English at the University of Notre Dame. This article first appeared in the Boston Review. Learn more about Lyn Hejinian, and her poetry, at

© 2009 by Joyelle McSweeney. All rights reserved.


~ by ericedits on October 13, 2009.

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