poem index

Some Thoughts on Lyn Hejinian's Happily

Written by

Claudia Rankine
Contributor Page

Year

2006

Driving around London with my friend Ruth on what some might call a brilliant day, we found ourselves locked in traffic on Waterloo Bridge. This stopped time allowed yet another long look at the London Eye, the 410-foot high, 1,600-ton Ferris wheel built on the South Bank in celebration of the millennium. Ruth used the occasion to say again what a waste of money that contraption was when there were homeless people and failing school systems all over London. How does one dispute fact? And yet, looking at the monumental, circling, steel toy built for our amusement for the year 2000 and, well, some of us will have arrived in the new year to wake hung-over and pleased nonetheless, I thought it civilly necessary to quote Lyn Hejinian: "And more is left than usefulness/ It's this that happiness achieves."

Lyn Hejinian's Happily, in which the above lines appear, is a series of aphoristic statements interrogating "hap" or, more prosaically, one's lot in life, one's fortune. This notion of chance as it is expressed through its root form, as in to happen, happenstance, happenings, haphazard, hapless, happenchance, happily, and happy happiness, becomes the generator that enlivens this ontological exploration of language's relationship to experience.

As one of the founding members of the language writing movement, Lyn Hejinian has always been concerned with the referential possibilities inherent in language. In "The Rejection of Closure" she writes, "Language itself is never in a state of rest. And the experience of using it, which includes the experience of understanding it, either as speech or as writing, is inevitably active. I mean both intellectually and emotionally active."

In the world Hejinian unfolds, context, our surround sound, can exist for itself alone. Accident, chance, lawlessness or uselessness are equal to reason, logic, knowledge, fair play, etc., in terms of their ability "to happen," "occur," "be." In Happily Hejinian presents life as untempered. We can reason our way onto a path of expectancy, but given nature's oblivion such reasoning, she argues, is fantastically imprecise. The role of language (as employed by writers like Hejinian) is to reintroduce the chance that habit, tradition, protocol or reason can factor out, block from view.

For an appearance not to seem the result of chance it has to seem
    (appear) to have been what one was waiting for
But this would demand a pitiless sequestration
And we don't want a reason that plows to authority
There really is something to try over
To the air to draw sentence forms and to hang in suspense no further than
this no more than need be
Reason offers
Reason in sentences covers kindness—doorways, bridges, floorboards
Reason opens approaches
Reason describes an artificial (there is no other) paradise and succumbs to
lethargy, indifference, the world changing, unchanging, and it is, it comes
    with a musical shock Perhaps it is the role of art to provide us with this chance that is
Perhaps it is the role of art to put us in complicity with things as they happen
Dropped points and falling notes to situation baffling to context
Launched?
Nothing is not so

This passage embraces possibility and is pointed, it seems to me, towards a future that allows anything to happen, including 1,600-ton Ferris wheels (if only because "to happen" and "happenings" "as they happen" suggest spontaneity and chance.) Similar to the expansive and humanist sensibility we encountered in Hejinian's earlier classic, My Life, here again in Happily experience is gathered up in non-linear, monumental time to form a mosaic of specifics that relate to Being. This notion that knowledge and usefulness (even if they turn out to be a byproduct of experience) can be bypassed for "context" and "reason" is inclusive of the idea that chance can contribute to what cannot be known beforehand. As she states in Happily we exist within " a life he or she couldn't know how to refuse ."

This insistence that the whole self be brought forward into experience is one of the seductive elements of this piece. Life always wins. I personally find this engaged point of view encouraging. In Some Notes toward a Poetics Hejinian writes, "What matters must be concerned with what will come to matter: the future." In order to insure continuity and perseverance the very phrase "this is happening" has written into it its own immunity. "Hap" my O.E.D. informs me, also means to "cover; esp. cover with bed clothes or extra clothing, wrap up warmly." Consequently, as one finds one's " body growing continually colder " chance might volunteer a blanket. Hejinian, splitting the bed from its clothes, writes in Happily: Launched, I need either clothes or a bed and a blanket to protect my nature from nature's pranks .

It occurs to me here that if a word, its world, contains within its layers of meaning its own protection (in this case fortune's blanket), this self-preservation allows for an infinite number of new beginnings, the true definition of open-endedness. Perhaps this is what good luck means. In our humanness we will be weakened, caught out, but then as if by mere chance a bed will rest and wrestle us back into the downpour: "In a downpour we don't count drops as no harm is done…. "

Despite its hardy point of view, its optimism, always in the back of the mind of Happily, however, is the oldest and nearest question: Does death sever us from all that is happening finitude . Is there a moment when chance runs out? Is there a time when context dissolves? Is there a limit to be reached? Is that limit that which we refer to as death? This question of our own exposure to time is especially timely, obviously, in these the final hours of this century. And it is fitting that the question be posed by one of this half of the century's most limit-defying, avant-garde writers.

Hejinian's Happily begs the question of whether or not "death" is the one word referential possibilities cannot keep in play? What if after the orgasms (the little deaths) are over, this is the signifier that actually reaches its signified destination? Does, in the end, "this is happening" for all its regenerative powers stand mutely alongside " Does death sever us from all that is happening finitude"? Is this the end of the line for "Hap" (bed, blanket and Ferris wheel in tow)?

Perhaps, by way of an answer to her own question, Hejinian writes, "Sure a terrible thing whistling at the end of the rope is a poor way of laughing." (A line which itself makes me laugh; though I couldn't say why.) Happily's shadow is the nasty chill, the cold, that whistling wind, or, in other words, the failure of the body to survive inclement conditions and triumph over its own mortality. In the end, for all of us, the time will come, will occur, will happen, and the happening will happen to: persons will be affected. The future is itself the limit. Happily steps into the space between the future and the beginning of the term "human" and thinks itself through: "I am among them thinking thought through the thinking thought to no / conclusion." It seeks to give substance and sustenance to the hope that links the time between our birth and our future.

I was going to speak of doom eager to resume consecutive events
    plowing through the space surrounding them to something now,
    no ellipsis, just mouth open in astonishment or closed to suck
    quid and quod, that and what
Not proving but pointing not disappointed boldly taking aim obliged
    to acknowledge I admit to being sometimes afraid of the effort
    required for judgment, afraid of the judgment required

Imprisoned as we are with that which we chew upon, "suck(ing) quid and quod," at its core, I would argue, Happily embodies a mind in conversation with its context, its ambient circumstances. This is happening: thoughts are relating in part to the limit of thought—a limit approached when the body asserts its physicality over the ever-present existence of the self in thought, in sensation. In the moment when the mind and the body become fixed and the body supersedes the mind by asserting its stasis, its mortality, the ever-expanding power of thought and sensation can no longer propel us forward—but this happens only once. In the meantime, "The fear of death is residue…."

That something exists at all is its nakedness we could term fate
    and rising curves fate
That it should succeed already has been determined
And we have only to add on to it everything and
    everyone associated with it from beginning to end sustaining acts
One is stung by a bee and it is noticeable that the whole body is involved
Why isolate part of the field?
Say we look on a mountain scene changing colors, the walls
    of a room vividly experienced from inside it
Why speak as if there were some incompatibility
Of what would it consist

Existence by its very nature cannot be incompatible with experience. Happily presents us with a world that allows the breath between "this is" and "happening" to govern, thereby privileging above all else consciousness and experience. In Some Notes toward a Poetics, Hejinian writes, "Poetry takes as its premise that language (all language) is a medium for experiencing experience. It provides us with the consciousness of consciousness. To experience is to go through or over the limit (the word comes from the Greek peras (term, limit)); or, to experience is to go beyond where one is, which is to say to be beyond where one was…." Hence Happily is the experience of the mind's flourishing toward a life that remains larger than our reason can imbue or imbrue.

Unlike each detail happiness comes to no end, no good but that
    of something like the mouth in the windblown treetops shaping
    a sound and I experience the experiencing effect of it as
    an acknowledgement is discovered to begin that
There is no better correspondence

As to the future of the London Eye, a taxi driver informs me that it has already been bought by the Americans.