Hejinian offers a different form of witnessing experience in Writing Is an Aid to Memory. Of course, authoring texts in the twentieth century is an altogether different matter. Given the advancements and discoveries in time and space, energy and the mind, over one hundred years marks a significant shift in the affects of these discoveries on thinking about perception and authorial point of view.
Hejinian writes: “writing constitutes the mind of the/ theorist in the mind” (no. 23) recalling Gertrude Stein’s later work on identity and autobiography. Stein concluded: “At any moment when you are you you are you without the memory of yourself because if you remember yourself while you are you you are not for the purposes of creating you.” Both Hejinian and Stein are discussing the critical apparatus of authoring the self. Thus, an author in the midst of “creating” the self cannot “be” the self. It is a self who has passed. And likewise, the writing exists within this head space—the authorship of the self which is not and can never “be” the self at the time it is written. Autobiography, then, always follows after the self and represents, as such, memory of the self. This is not far off from the nineteenth century version of perception that Wordsworth offers. Writing is always “composed”: a composition in both time and space, when brought into metre and little rooms of verse and stanza. Hejinian openly admits what Wordsworth did not: that writing is the space of the mind. It is not life; it is the life of the imagination; it can represent that and only that. Surreptitiously, she reminds: “memory is a trick of coincidence/ which overturned has invisibly legible/ use” (no. 21). The writing is an epistemological pursuit as it reveals the mind constructed in layers of its own architecture.
A long poem composed of forty-two discrete, numbered poems, Writing Is an Aid to Memory develops through events interrupted by other events. Epiphany materializes in the text as inexplicably as words are truncated into phoneme and morpheme, reminding the reader that not only is the text a construction, but also that language is a use-form, a ready made that can be cut for effect as much as it can also be lost. Word sounds toss about like singer’s scat: “like think which time links with” (no. 23) creating an incomprehensible sound pattern which in turn becomes a sound event that may recur through the series. A representative passage:
euphoria block chapter and hence go
later at a distance by writing
made possible is well indefinite
an association really consists of an activity
lection blue paper two pennies
cut random of an activity
Her language mimics the loss of language that occurs in memory production, its power to resurface after-the-fact, which extricates the mind of the present experience and as a result, the speaker’s grasp on language. Notice the lack of cohesion between lines, the first line being a sound event that destabilizes any seeming textual coherence. Following, a synthesis of meaning between lines appears at the moment of “writing” or the consideration of writing. In this, the “association” to which she refers is that of associated memories; however as the verse begins to “collect” them, the nominal representation of that “collection” is violated and lopped off into “lection,” or one must assume so due to the traces of meaning that surround the word form. “Lection” could as easily be read as selection, reflection, recollection or any variant of the word ending. Following down this proverbial rabbit hole appears to lead only to further distance from meaning. For what do the “blue paper” and “two pennies” have to do with memory and identity unless as a distraction from philosophizing as mommy-hood pulls the poet away from her work? Like the rhyming dictionary, searching for end rhymes is no more natural than crafting a poem out of refrigerator magnets—one writes to what is available, as Charles Olsen indicated in The Maximus Poems—“limits are what we are all inside of.” Rather, this passage illustrates language events: that words are abstractions formed in time, which like the abstraction of time, may be cut, and even in their altered forms, they still inform and shape meaning.
The self-authored biography at the back of the book helps to pull the concerns of poem out of their obscurity and reads as a Derridian construction:
Lyn Hejinian was born in 1941 in San Francisco. She spent her high school and
college years in New England, and returned to California in 1968. She is married to composer-musician Larry Ochs and has two children. Earlier books were published by Burning Deck and by Tuumba Press.
Why narrativize this particular trajectory of experience? Why mention the husband, the fact that she is a mother? And the former presses? For the simple fact that these themes enter the poem, which she has self-published. The poem grapples with time in a musical sense, with motherhood, and with the complications that arise with merging such interruptions with serious authorship and theoretical investigation.
The poem number sixteen in the series illustrates her autobiographical theme through a trope of weaving silk and wool to the ends that poetry, a gilt product, gets produced not only through mental fortitude and concentration, but also through digression, interruptions, and byways.
holidays come on a Monday and will frequently go
on the tramp of which are placed ballads
cribed cloths to scribble it
Thursday per week
spinning children sented to the reducing
wheel to her work rather runs backwards
The “spinning children,” “holidays,” and scribblings on scrap paper are woven into and become part of the process of creating verse. In linear thought as in linear narrative, forward progression is the privileged direction, though in this passage, the movement both backwards and forward is necessary to create the silken thread and the woven picture. In a metaphoric sense, the poet is loom to the verse. Hejinian approaches her method with mixed certainty of its value:
fill up of and sentimental trickle
look foolish and know my prima golden weary
suitable for a mental might
of sentimental weep for into more
tickle little confess
the more regretted cozy paradise
the nature of my thirty-seven of whom
my own astonished sequel
In her thirty-seventh year of age, she fears that she this method is more sentimental than rational, Though appearing foolish, it is, in fact, astonishing.