PERCEPTION IS ALMOST AN END IN ITSELF: Lyn Hejinian’s The Book of a Thousand Eyes

Lyn Hejinian The Book of a Thousand Eyes (Omnidawn, 2012)

by Calum Gardner

The Book of a Thousand Eyes is the culmination of two decades’ work for Lyn Hejinian, and it has been anticipated by some of her readers at least since the 1996 publication of A Little Book of a Thousand Eyes. This is what gives it the character of a compendium; slim volumes and large collaborative projects alike have been the rehearsal for this series of texts; indeed, it can be read as Hejinian’s magnum opus. Previously, the poet has been perhaps best known for her unique autobiographical and poetic prose text My Life as well as a body of challenging lyric poetry. The Book of a Thousand Eyes blends these two tendencies. While the dense and associative prose passages in which she describes dreams resemble snatches of My Life, often the texts are far less assimilable.

The volume ranges from quasi-nonsense texts such as “ipt” that resemble the zaum of Russian Futurism to poems like “constant change figures,” whose very grammar is indeterminate and polysemous, in a way that links it to modernist writing and especially to the radical praxis of the Language poets with whom Hejinian has long been associated. How we are to manage this hotch-potch of styles and concerns is the first puzzle a reader of this book must solve, which we do by learning to “manage the transition.” This recurring phrase encourages us not to try to see the “thousand eyes” as a single blazon governing the book, but to read each of the pieces as a different response to a stimulus, as a fresh pair of eyes.

The text is constantly figuring itself in this way, although not systematically; metaphors with the “thousand eyes” of the title as their source, yet with a wide range of referents, are scattered throughout. However, maybe the most direct, and the one Hejinian makes sure we have in hand when we begin the book, is from the epigraph by Francis William Bourdillon that tells us,

The night has a thousand eyes
The day but one.

What they are at night affirms the association with the one thousand and one tales of the Arabian Nights, and the book is dedicated, “In Homage to Scherezade,” the narrator of that text. Like Scherezade, buying yet another day of her life with each tale, Hejinian seems to buy herself time to speak by staying awake, keeping her eyes open, in all sense, even when this might be difficult. Many of the poems touch on the idea of sleep or lack thereof, and one is reminded of Hart Crane’s lines from “Porphyro in Akron”:

You ought, really, to try to sleep,
Even though, in this town, poetry’s a
Bedroom occupation.

Hejinian’s text is honest about the mode of its own composition: night by night, in the moments stolen from waking life. Many of the poems problematise Bourdillon’s opposition between the thousand eyes and “but one,” stars and the sun. Night, for Hejinian, seems to promote a proliferation of meanings, while day represents the tyranny of determinacy. Indeterminacy is a key value for The Book of a Thousand Eyes, beginning in that old saw of Language poetry, that the task of bringing out meaning from a work rests with the reader. Often the feeling we get from such texts that are not a cipher for the author but an indeterminate space is that they make us tease them out and refuse to meet our eyes. This book, meanwhile, feels like the reverse of that – meeting our eyes too much, since possible “subjects” in this book are as many as there are poems, if not more.

This is perhaps best represented in what may be the jewel of this collection, the poem which begins “constant change figures” (known by its first line, since all the pieces are untitled). This poem is what first brought the collection to my attention years before its publication, and it remains a singularly beguiling piece. The same ten lines are repeated at different points throughout the twenty-seven-line poem, but they are repeated in different relations to one another, giving them different grammar. Facilitating this is the lack of punctuation, letting the first line be an adjective, noun, and verb, or else adjective, modifying noun, and noun, so that the poem can be organised in many ways. It is reminiscent of projects of the Oulipo movement such as Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes, in which ten sonnets were written and the book arranged so that the lines could be swapped individually, leading to the potential for exactly one hundred trillion possible combinations (a book of a hundred trillion eyes?). Every time we read “constant change figures,” new arrangements suggest themselves, and it is true to say that

constant change figures
the time we sense

The experience of meaning’s “constant change” as we read the poem again and again is a metaphor, a “figure” for our “experience” (defined by one of the repeating lines as “that sense of many things”) of life over time. We think of our lives, our time, as one phenomenon when really they are characterised by change, something embodied by the oxymoronic headwords of the poem, “constant change.”

Another repeated term in that poem is “nature’s picture,” as in

we call nature’s picture


the time we sense
called nature’s picture.

This phrase is perhaps meant as a gesture of naturalism, but like “constant change,” “nature’s picture” is a curious oxymoron: we make pictures of nature, not the other way around, almost by definition. We often tell ourselves that a phenomenon, like an illness, is “nature’s way of” doing or saying something, and so it is here: memory, our sense of experience over time, is nature’s way of representing the world, or rather, we choose to see it that way. We choose to figure memory as a picture because it would otherwise be a profoundly baffling phenomenon. Hejinian does not shrink from that bafflement, however, a quality shared with, and perhaps partly derived from, Russian poet Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, whose work she translated. Hejinian’s 1978 collection Writing is an Aid to Memory proves her belief in both memory and language as compositional and thus combinatory practices. This belief is quite definitional for Dragomoshchenko, whose impassionedly poetic essay “Synopsis/Syntax”[1] tells us that “the I Ching is not a handbook on aleatorics but the first research into syntax” (Hejinian’s translation), which he sees as evidence that “language is an activity of society.” In other words, Dragomoshchenko reads the oracle as a laying-out of the combinatory mechanics of the social world, which allows it to be at the same time a guide for seeing-together and putting-together, the essay’s Russian title derived from the same Greek – syn-opsis, syn-tax.

Adopting this pattern, seeing and assembling in the figural world of The Book of a Thousand Eyes have a relation far more direct than in the literal world. The idea of “riveted” attention is played with in the poem “Optically riveted in a jamboree,” where the strange phrasing implies that the eye, or some eye-related apparatus, enforces the kind of linguistic play typical particularly of many of the briefer pieces like this one. At the other end of the lyric spectrum we find a poem which is tonally very similar to “Synopsis/Syntax,” halfway between essay and poem, although here lineated like a poem. Its first line tells us quite straightforwardly that “Philosophy should not be hostile to the eyes,” which “project variety of character and possess laws of organization that defy rigidity.” As in “Once there were seven clouds,” which evokes a folk belief that “the eyes themselves were suns […] to look at something was to illuminate it,” this figures perception as an active process, but it is more ambitious in its treatment of that notion and attempts to fill it out:

But every increment of time and space brings more light to the eyes
And this seems to be the source of the wild joy I feel now at being present and assertive.

With “every increment of time” we get older, and “space” might refer to the universe expanding, to travel in our lives, or the physical space of our bodies, getting older over time, if we construe “time and space” as a single phenomenon and not two sets of “increments.” This seems to fit with the next line, as the single phenomenon of more life and more experience illuminating the world with more “light” is the singular “source” of “joy,” because if this is how things are, age is not the slow unwinding of body from spirit of Theodore Roethke’s “Infirmity,” but an accumulation.

That accumulation, combination, even taxis, which is part of what Hejinian means by “that sense of many things” that “is called experience,” is the driving force of The Book of a Thousand Eyes. This is a book of stories, much like the Arabian Nights, “a story of stories, the hearing of which educates a ruler,” but while “[e]veryone learns from stories […] not everyone learns the same things.” These come from the prose passage “Today is ‘a day just like any other,’” a seemingly directionless meditation which one comes to feel may have a deeper structure, like the chapters of My Life. The passage evolves into an implicit critique of the notion that since “Tolstoy kept a diary all his life […] he came to understand the human soul” or that “diaries were all one needed to read,” because “not everyone learns the same things” even from life experience. The passage seems to veer off in unaccountable directions – after the sentence “Love always contains a note of hopelessness,” we go to the mundane and get a traffic and weather report, but then the first-person speaker of the poem speaks up, criticising the report: “Get him a window!” Here we question whether windows can be got; the absurdity of bringing someone a window is parallel to the idea of gaining an opening into the experience of another person – portability of fixture is the general structure the two ideas share. The stakes of Hejinian’s project are raised when we realise that it is difficult to see even one view that is not our own, never mind a thousand. The book is filled with options but refuses finally to conclude, for instance, what we need to read apart from diaries, what better ways there are to constitute experience and effect that portability of fixture.

Having an experience and putting it together – synopsis, syntax – is something Hejinian appears to consider interesting and useful because it prompts the re-evaluation of those experiences for which there are few pre-existing poetic codes. One of these is the invented metaphor of the “mule” for menopause, the speaker of “But” saying “I’m of mule age,” the mule infertile and also a half-breed. This speaker is going through a change, but with the sense of not yet having come out of one, the mule’s hybridity here being used as figure of an incomplete transformation. Mules are also stubborn, and she says “I live where I live,” resisting being moved out of life to make room for one younger. Even the poem’s lone first line and de facto title is stubborn: “But.” The speaker of the poem, and perhaps the poet too, makes a place for herself in an order not accustomed to the menopausal female poet-subject as it is to the stentorian male greybeard.

I’ll bulk graciously
– to zero

the poem predicts, an engaging but melancholy metaphor, her body changing as she “bulks,” becomes fatter and shorter, like the numeral “0,” until she dies, and becomes nothing, “to zero.”

That a compendium is best able to organise further elaborations on modes of being not authorised by poetic codes finds more support when in “Just as the events of the week absorb suspicion,” Hejinian talks about a person who is

transgendered, f-to-m, a sort of Hegel
if he were only alive to hear this
and could manage not only to love us but to show it.

Hejinian imagines a modern dialectician who might see an individual’s change in gender expression (”but who could know if we managed the transition?”) as a synthesis of self. This process is central to many lives and yet, like menopause, there is little poetic precedent for discussing it; Hejinian borrows the idea of dialectical synthesis from Hegel’s philosophy in order to do this, suggesting the magnitude of a life-changing process that is so often reduced to two letters in throwaway discussion. Letters are seemingly small and of little independent significance but their position as part of an alphabet/compendium makes them significant, as earlier in this poem: “the contents of the alphabet A / to Z […] must be taken literally as a fiction.” Like “constant change,” this is another oxymoron solved by looking at other readings of the sense, stretching the definition of “literally” to include “literarily,” that is, taken as literary fiction. The alphabet taken as a story, with the potential to yield up syntheses, processes, interpretations, eyes: and there are as many of these as there are readers of even a simple text. This use of the alphabet recurs when Hejinian talks about US street-naming conventions, saying that streets are often named after “numbers or trees or they’re given the names of prominent as well as lesser known citizens […] or the great letters of the alphabet from A to Z.” One reading of this is the “greatness” and significance that emerges from nonspecific and repeatable settings; this is the same movement from letter to letter, from one component of linguistic being (and thus consciousness) to another, seen in “Just as the events…” where f(emale) and m(ale) as identities of a single person entered a kind of dialectical relation. There too, Hejinian recognises the potential in “the present contents of the alphabet” which was to be taken as “fiction,” meant into two senses: both as “false,” and as literarily fictional, that is, in a position to give up the stories it contains.

We expect the organisation of letters, the writing process, to persuade the alphabet to resolve itself into “fictions,” understandable stories, but that resolution is vexed and untrusted in The Book of a Thousand Eyes, which is always conscious of that other sense of “fiction.” In “Written descriptions are no more than tickets to the game,” this scepticism is expressed by a speaker who is on the receiving end of the lack of literary and poetic representation of the ageing body, particularly the ageing female body, and the idea of age and sexual love.

view my wasting skin
And love alone can lend you loyalty

she says, commenting wryly that “It is here that a map would come in handy.” The notion of the new lover’s body as one to be mapped and explored is familiar in poetry going back to Donne (”O my America, my new-found land”) and further, but that the map be retained for the lover one has been with for years, that one still might need to know how to navigate familiar territory, now changed by time, is less so. The poem then quite suddenly gives way to images of war: without the map, chaos ensues – we are “[f]ascinated by and afraid of the horses” – and what quiets it is when, in the final line, “morning harden[s] on the wall,” and the confusion of the poem resolves itself into the determinate, one-eyed, “hard” daylight, the concerns of the imagination put off again.

At least until night comes back, that is, and then confusion and multiplicity set in again. The Book of a Thousand Eyes is not a linear collection but a constellation, as the title suggests. It is Hejinian herself who suggests, in an interview which can be found on the Omnidawn website, the term “compendium,” and I would venture to add “encyclopaedia,” for like Diderot, Hejinian is putting together a text that might augment the equipment of its reader for seeing the world, as truly meaningful literary works are wont to do. I believe that this encyclopaedic operation is what is described when Dragomoshchenko says that “Perception feeds the world […] Invention is selection – from the unidentifiable.” Likewise, Hejinian writes in “Once there were seven clouds” that “Perception is almost an end in itself.” The very act of seeing is enough to generate. In Diderot’s article “Encyclopédie” he speaks of how the definitions given in his encyclopaedia are “the germs of discovery”; so Hejinian speaks of how the twenty-year process of putting together this book generated other works, such as the complex narrative A Border Comedy – which by itself is longer than The Book of a Thousand Eyes. These eyes are generative, which is the theme of “This tale like many others happened,” a prose passage about four young girls caring for a fallen sparrow. He soon leaves the nest they build for him, however, and each of the girls sees a different part of the story and has a different viewpoint on what happens. By way of explanation, Hejinian says, keeping to the domestic domain and silly, light-hearted diction of this piece, that “[t]he history of the world depends on tales, which are like potatoes and the sky at night and have many eyes.” Potatoes’ “eyes” are the sites where they begin to sprout, and grow, because they are nothing else but nature’s way of storing energy. In the same way, the “tale” stores thought and imagination, which each teller or reader extracts from it her own way. “The eyes are like suns,” producing their own light, and nowhere in The Book of a Thousand Eyes is observation a passive process. Its reader is like the “scrapbookessa” of “She had it in mind to go up the fir tree,” hunting for her own eyes among the thousand in the book.

As such, the only way we can manage to “finish” this book is by closing it, knowing we will open it again. The cover is a collage made by the artist Chaffee Earl Hall Jr., Hejinian’s father, in 1967; it takes the form of an assemblage of shapes that seem to gesture towards portals, doorways, and arches. Perhaps I didn’t examine it closely enough, but it was not until after I had already read the whole book once and had gone back to revisit some passages that I closed it, glancing at the cover, and noticed in the midst of the collage a pair of eyes looking back at me.

[1] Most easily available in English in the anthology Third Wave: New Russian Poetry (University of Michigan Press, 1992).

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