The Wide Road
by Carla Harryman and Lyn Hejinian

Reviewed by Len Gutkin


Published by Belladonna, 2011   |   92 pages

The second quarter of The Wide Road, Carla Harryman and Lyn Hejinian’s strange, charming, picaresque “novel,” consists of epistolary correspondence between the book’s authors. These letters comment on the work we are reading, even as they evoke an enviably intelligent creative partnership. “We seem,” writes Hejinian to Harryman, “to be particularly given to unlikely linkages, to exciting mismatches, to the creative (playful, powerful, funny, mournful) co-existence of live incommensurabilities.” This is as good a gloss on a prominent tendency within the Language poetry movement generally (of which Hejinian and Harryman are founding members) as it is on The Wide Road itself. The Wide Road locates in the genres of travel-writing and of the picaresque happily fertile ground for such “live incommensurabilities”: “There is no analogous flattened happiness to that of curious and receptive travelers. Indeed, the morning bowed informally to us from the wide road which was filled with things to be coupled and compared.” And our narrators are off, “succeed[ing] within our skin where cars have failed with their tires.” Similar strategies of creative disjunction are, of course, by now a basic idiom of contemporary English-language poetry, due not only to the broad influence of the Language group but also to the preeminence of John Ashbery, subtlest practitioner of the combination that sounds right but is wrong, or sounds wrong but is right.

These disjunctions can be funny, they can be grotesque, and they can be beautiful. Here is one of the loveliest:

Just as the tips of bare magnolia twigs make little ovals in the wind, just as the eyes of a frog can see in every direction, just as common gossip wavers this way or that, just as mothers in their sleep hear their babies’ crying from all sides and come awake in an instant, just as a horse may be taken to represent certain forms of meditation, and just as desire provides its own genesis and sex its own explication, just so we sprawl in the flickering sunlight.

It is tempting to label such systematic “mismatches” surrealism, but Hejinian has warned us to resist that particular literary-historical affiliation. In a 1995 essay called “Barbarism,” she lists as one of Language writing’s “premises” that “It is not surrealism to compare apples to oranges.” A major difference, one assumes, between historical surrealism and Language writing lies in the former’s commitment to the expression of the Freudian unconscious; Hejinian and company, rather, follow Lacan in locating the unconscious outside the subject, in the operations of language—the unconscious thus becomes irreducibly social. Influenced by this argument, the Language group polemically rejects lyric subjectivity in favor of a de-centered poetic mode marked by quotation, radical parataxis, and fragmentation. It’s hard not to feel that “lyric subjectivity” can become something of a simplified straw-man in the Language group’s polemics—but such straw-men are, after all, perennially useful to the rejuvenating energies of the avant-garde.

In what is perhaps an affectionately self-parodic (though not unserious) take on Language writing’s commitment to de-centering the lyric subject, The Wide Road’s narrating picaro is represented throughout as a kind of dual-minded “monster” (a word that crops up frequently across the text) whose uncertain grammatical number reflects Hejinian and Harryman’s joint authorship. “We walk in a vaporous valley with our bovine heads bent toward the plain where it is said it is possible to measure desire,” our narrator announces early on; note that the plural first person subject has, appropriately, “heads.” But later: “Our vagina approaches but it is still far away.” And the instability is not simply between one head or two, a vagina more or less. “The whole body is built of heads, and every head has its face.” This monster contains multitudes:

Our mortal bones are made up of a hundred minds and a multitude of orifices. These we now apply to our adventures. Every pock in the ground, every blade erected in it, every soft coursing of an animal, every shadow affixed to the daylight, the color of the grit between shoe and foot, the slips of tongue as we prematurely mumble the elements that stimulate future conversations, a shift of balance from left shoulder to right, and the wide but bounded stretch of our audible route fill our senses, so that we were compelled to write:

the sun presses against the ground
look! at our tongues
like separate birds they fly
into a shifting shadow

Echoes of Whitman here, with “every blade” of grass opening onto an ever-expanding subjective topography. The Whitmanian fantasy of amassment—“I loosen myself, pass freely, am at the mother’s breast with the little child, / Swim with the swimmers, wrestle with the wrestlers, march in line with the firemen, and pause, listen, count”—becomes Harryman and Hejinian’s “mortal bones…made up of a hundred minds and a multitude of orifices.” But the sublime absorptivity of the poet is also, in The Wide Road, a joke: “Now, with every increment of motion within, her desire to expel the inhaled universe into an explosion of song sliding down the strings of a viola through the coal-ridden creases of earth rocketing back out in flame and river-lashing liquid became exaggerated. He was as surprised as she by this.” This is a good place to mention that, like much of its authors’ other work, The Wide Road is frequently very funny.

There are gloomy patches, though, in the shifting shadows. As Hejinian notes in the epistolary section, “animal exhaustion (death)” is one of this novel’s “guiding concepts.” As in Whitman, the grass may be the hair of the buried. The animality, or even minerality, of the human recurs throughout. Hejinian writes to Harryman, “I have at hand (looking at my hand) the amazing possibility of being intimate with my own otherness, which is an animal.” Ultimately, this thematic thread links up with the book’s exploration of the formal practice of disjunct linkages. In the final section, double-columned in the manner of Derrida’s Glas or Ashbery’s “Litany,” we get this formulation: “We can couple body and soul, and a loquacious forest with a postal annex. We can couple almost any one thing with another.” “Body and soul” as the originary combination that sounds right but is wrong—“This,” as the same column has it a little further on, “is the monstrous baby.”

Len Gutkin lives in New Haven, CT, where he is studying for his PhD at Yale.

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