Directionality, Dialogue, Doubling:
Taking The Wide Road with Lyn and Carla
I am an American traveler sitting on a southern European beach, with a copy of The Wide Road, by Carla Harryman and Lyn Hejinian, at my side.
I am an American traveler on this cool winter beach, and I am using my tourist camera to digitally record three children playing on the rock and sand against a radiant late-day sea light.
Two are small children, a boy and a girl. The other – an older girl – could be a big sister, or perhaps a young mother, very slight. Together the children's moving figuration appears like the theatre des ombres that once delighted French audiences of the 18th-century stage.
The mobile yet shadowy images continuously reconstitute a collective image in ensemble-like embodied poses. These children, who I do not know, come to my lens as slender curves cutting the backdrop array of the luminous ocean surface.
As their silhouettes entice and also distort my vision, partializing my view of the sea and making it this "backdrop" formation, the figures continuously come together then break apart. I am contemplating the distilled traveler's vista that is one of the subjects of The Wide Road (published by Belladonna in 2011). Like these human bodies who act at once both as a differential / individual and a collective / multiple spatial representation, The Wide Road recreates – through its poetic trajectory following along in three sections – a looking-glass phenomena of the alienated and yet fascinated tourist gaze. As a traveler / reader, the poetry reflects my own doubled look, in and out of the "time" that is a particularly female subject's performance journey.
North by Northwest
Just as the road on which one expects to go east branches, one arm to the north east and the other to the southeast, so a traveler's appetite and the means of satisfying it frequently fail to coincide.
-- The Wide Road, "Preface"
I am imagining this "female" sojourner as having arms and legs sprawling hither and yon, like an octopus under the sea crest that surely lays before my ocean gaze. We may think that as sojourners these days engaged in air and other mechanized transport that we might move "directly" and simply forward, from Point A to B, through 3D space. But if the 3rd Dimension is, as some theoretical physicists are suggesting, a holographic mirror of a mirror of a representation, directionality is a curious event – without origins or telos or end. And since "outside" is but a non-original mirror of "inside," the legs and arms crawl along a basin whose sprawled and continuously unraveling viewpoint rests "within" – limiting and also entertaining our own perspectival warp.
So are my figures of children's shadowy presences in these tourist photographs digital amalgamations of my internal witness? I may not know which way to turn, which pathway to take, off this winter beach to further contemplate such phenomenal problems. But I know I am in France with this poetry book under my arm. I take it like one would take a friend -- to a French café. Perhaps I order a tilleul infusion with miel. Or, better yet, an aged Calvados may be required for the density of my thought here as Reader. It is still a luminous afternoon. Yet the shades of light that quickly begin to play at a distance to the beach, where the sun will strike the horizon at 5 o'clock sharp and dissipate into cold-wet air, lead me to consider the way in which The Wide Road is more, perhaps, than a postmodern take-off on all literary tales of travel. I am reading the "Preface" now and enjoying it heartily. It features the travel-subject's wandering and the language of picaresque displacement. The Wide Road "takes off" – as in taking its cue but also its trailhead source --- from the particular travelogue called The Narrow Road to the Deep North, poet Matsuo Basho's seventeenth-century account of a walking tour to the remote mountain regions of northern Japan – to the land of Oku, the "Within." Yet one need not read Basho – or Marco Polo or even Jack Kerouac – to appreciate the new turns it makes in the relationship between scenery and subjectivity and sex. I read sipping this lovely apple brandy, and I move down an increasingly widening – fertilely opening and provocatively sweeping – path. If The Wide Road tracks like a ginger young hiker, it also performatively plays -- like the children before my camera's lens – with the literary prerogatives of the travelogue that inevitably inform the sojourner's / reader's identity, "within."
By often imitating the representation we call "space, " this first section in The Wide Road manages to both be "the journey described" and a humorous rendition of how language acts as a series of stagings and performances. Judith Butler and others have told us that identity and its gender is a performance cut from the tools that are words and their cultural points of view. In these prose-poem lines, the traveler's journey is never dissociated from the pen that writes it: "we wrote those lines with inconsolable dispatch, after leaving the apartment in which we had spent our first night. WELCOME was the official instruction hanging from its door." This subject's journey is not only performatively textual but sexual. As she / we strangely plod and float in the poetry's directionless and mobile stance, textual sexuality is ignited:
"Spreading our legs ... we invited the stranger to enter."
Like the sea that forms the background to my children's images in front of and within my photographic lens, language floats -- on its own watery rhythms. On this linguistic canvas we look at "midday meadows, ears buzzing with corn." Yet it is not in this text that we will discover "the temple of certainty." Instead, brief and picaresque encounters with sexual partners and other sexed apertures and body-like hybrid parts haunt our wanderings and mutterings. We climb over the next lyric hill or horizon to discover:
"Our fisherman is standing just behind and above us on the slope. He embraces us from behind, passing his fingers over our breasts; then he reaches between our legs: he has us in the palm of his hand."
Such luscious and sexy soft-porn is blatantly heterosexual. And it is a female driven desire. Women rarely have opportunities to record their fascination with and fantasies about men. If the subject here is how women view men as sexual objects, words are the actual sexual partner. Words are placing us "'in the presence of things to come to terms with' as we float back to a yet more familiar sky." Ritualized or mainstream-cultural heterosexuality is displaced by this particular "female" vantage point, creating hardened tools and probes out of words, weirdly twisted into visual shapes within "a space in the proximity of a retrievable object."
It is the logos of proximity that "floats" – uncannily drifts -- through this text. Such nearness and yet distance is the slight edge of difference that is the woman traveler's, the étrangère's, relation to "the look."
Female sexuality is tenuously described, in slippery lines like: "Masturbation is equivalent to a pamphlet." (Is it? We must think about that.) And an explicitly female-sexual commentary alludes to the double experience women have in heterosexual love matches, in men's failure often towards them as women but also in men's seductive appeal: "Our theory is that women barely tolerate men. We meditate on this notion while we pull off the anchorman's socks and shoes and suck his toes." Sex in this text provides not only a directionality, a way up and out – through a miasma of visually incomplete images and fragmented phrases -- but "an incitement, urging us to elapse ... It is the passage of time that allows us to become moral..." (43).
In a further comment on "the passage of time," we read the lyric line, "whether durant or pendant." Here are two French words scarcely different in semantic meaning if not usage vying for the image of a sex-filled "while," without time. There perhaps is no difference and every difference at once in the usage, context, and sound of each of these words, "durant" to "pendant." The time of this language that "floats" is hot with desire. It is a language of desire that is always splitting into alternative multiples, many forking paths.
The poetics of these "splittings" are displacements, which leave the reader everywhere and nowhere as she moves along. We move north by northwest – which is nowhere in particular. But every traveler – every writer / reader – knows that jumping off that point and dissolving into erotic love (jumping from Mount Rushmore like Cary Grant?) can be dangerous. I am reflecting upon these uneasy conclusions as my French waiter asks me if I want another Calvados. ("Mais, no...no, merci.")
Epistolary Pas de Deux
"It seems to me that this may be the right moment to start a correspondence."
-- The Wide Road, middle part
The second or mid-section of The Wide Road steps – or jumps – into an epistolary correspondence, without titles and labeled only by days of the month (without year). This correspondence allegedly is on-going between two fictive voices whose letters are signed "Carla" and "Lyn," somewhat suspiciously. Corinna Copp's interview in The Poetry Project Newsletter with Hejinian and Harryman Winter 2011 had already alerted me that the writing process of The Wide Road had been diffuse and multi-layered, involving nearly two decades of letter exchanges finally ending in a cabin retreat on the California seacoast that scarcely resolved that tension. Such a process created not only the polymorphous "Prologue" but now the series of letter exchanges that discuss topics like sexual violence, "dark sex," and contemporary Haitian political violence. What might these themes have to do with the themes of representational "direction," performance identity, and the pleasures of female desire we've just encountered, I wonder? (I an glad I had decided not to imbibe a second brandy.)
As "Lyn" evocatively reminds us in one of her letters, "sidestepping" the "question" might lead to an actual generative starting position. All points of departure must be established, no matter how fictive. We are in the language of double-speak, and double-step, as we roam from subjects of human violence to animal instincts, and to a discussion about how to read – get this! – a children's photograph!
I am stunned as I read "Carla's" brilliant discussion of a representation of "a photograph of an 18th century drawing of two children ... standing so close together that it is difficult to discern if they are joined in any other part of the body." I touch my photographic equipment laying beside me along my seat in the café -- to make sure the French thieves haven't yet gotten it, they always hit on travelers like myself – and then to scroll through my own digital images of children's shadowy poses just snapped. I am wondering what allure photographs of children have for the voyeuristic artist / traveler-perceiver. And is this infatuation we all seem to have a coincidence? Like my photographs, I note in "Carla's" description of the portrait representation "one child offer[ing] the viewer a profile and the other a semi-frontal view." Angles of representation and the directional views of the spectator provided here seem to exchange and re- perform what otherwise might only be a static image:
"Though one of the children does not seem to be looking up, her head, along with her outstretched arms, gestures upward. The other child in an oppositional pose, gestures toward the ground."
It is depending on how the viewing subject looks at this combination of gestures, gazes and postures that inform how she might interpret meaning in the 18th century portrait – one that is a photograph of a representation, a double. The image of the two children, an "allegory of mimesis," reveals the "distinction, individuality, and separateness" at the heart of every artistic figure, poetic or photographic or otherwise, according to "Carla." A double to the double-form of the dual correspondence in this section of The Wide Road, the 18th-century children's portrait initiates "Carla's" analysis of mimetic duplicity, within the conceptual context of "contingency" and "discontinuity" that forms the epistolary conversation. Are not all human languages and intellectual debates -- like the one here between two female "friends" – a pictorial nightmare? How does the language seemingly attempt to account for resolvable ideas but, in the process, only bind and tighten more that thin-wire trajectory called "the death drive"? As Freud would have it, the child's "fort-da play" is a projection as well as a forestalling of (and prefiguring of) the subject's (self-) negation. "Lyn" remarks: "We are born with a death wish. Or we invent one." "Carla" responds: "within the field of play, the drive is shattered and figured ... transformed into objects with plastic qualities."
Our longing for doubles and death may create the irresolute binding that is intensified within the female-friendship dialogue. In the final part of the book, a double exposure endures less a binding than a "bifurcating" process. It is less a "twinning" effect, like that of the photographs of the 18th-century children, than a further destabilization within the "female" erotic text. The page literally splits into two visual columns, titled "Foray" and "Array." These terms for order and yet adventure -- often used in distinctively military contexts -- are the product of the dialogical sparing and mental "octopus"-like roadmap that the epistolary correspondence in the middle of the book has set up. (A foray is "to make inroads" but also to "make a raid" as in pillage for the spoils of war; an "array" is "a regular and imposing arrangement" that also can refer to a "battle array" or also a display, say, an "array of jewels," or the "array of images" before me sitting in my café post or in this sexy text.)
The two columns of poetic commentary running vertically stand as their own "independent" or separate representation(s): of poetry language, and "desire and perception" (Foray). But while their separateness has split the text into separate elements, they are conjoined and continguous. This book is about making doubles of itself -- then, blending them.
Has this "wide road" wound itself out? What is its subject?
I go back to the traveloque genre that The Wide Road reconsiders and challenges. In its multiplicity of both loci and subjectivities, female "identity" like the traveler's singular narrative account becomes an impossibility. Non-exclusive, inviting the audience "within," as co-wander, co-meaning-making and love-maker, The Wide Road dismantles any romantic individualism associated with the travel literature convention and that sets its solopsistic author-adventurer apart. Time for me to go back to the United States. -- LH