Men Keep Giving Me Lyn Heijinian Books to Read
Which is Ironic Given that She Writes Feminist Language Poetry
Bed is the place to write about Positions of the Sun, a starkly domestic, at times quite cozy, book. Domestic tasks, including folding laundry and cleaning the bathtub, are, in Positions of the Sun, of “pressing and relentless importance.” I climbed into bed, and then I began to read.
Lyn Hejinian, a poet, essayist and translator, applies poetic logic to her sprawling works of prose. A man in his mid-30s, who I was dating when I was an 18-year-old, introduced me to her landmark book My Life (1980). He had a prized copy on his bookshelf. During Hurricane Sandy, the most destructive storm of the 2012 hurricane season, I found myself stuck in his Williamsburg, Brooklyn, apartment, the electricity and water having been wiped out in my Manhattan dormitory. My then-boyfriend thought that My Life was an important tome to add to my nubile avant-garde canon.
I tore through the book, lying face down on his bed, not yet knowing the word poetics, but admiring hers. The way she touched memory in short, stiff sentences gave me a feeling of permission in prose. I recall its back cover description claiming that many readers counted it as their favorite book, and I wanted the honor of being among their number. I handed the book back to him. I’d cracked its spine, which had, prior to the lending, been pristine. This upset him, and he said so. I was an unwanted, filthy imposition on his avant-garde literature collection.
Hejinian was a founding figure of the 1970s Language poetry movement, a school of writing that emphasized the idea that language dictates denotation, rather than the other way around. This idea has influenced my approach to my own artistic practice, in which the sonic value of speech often comes before its meaning. The Language poetry movement is often takes leftist political organizing as its subject, a common practice of Hejinian’s. Her work sits at the intersection of poetry, prose, and philosophy, often veering towards the transparently autobiographical, an approach that appeals to my desire for confession and intimacy.
She began writing Positions of the Sun during the 2008 recession, when the University of California used the crisis as a justification to lay off many of its faculty and staff. Political organizing, spurred by solidarity between labor unions and students, was soon underway, the likes of which the University’s campuses had never seen before. In the book, Hejinian ties this surge of political activity to avant-garde literary and artistic movements: activism, she claims, defines itself as contrary to capitalism, and thus depends on capitalism for its survival. Similarly, the avant garde defines itself as contrary to the mainstream, and is thus dependent on the mainstream for its continuance. Activists, artists and writers live under a sun which casts their shadow on the pavement of a city—in this case, the city of Berkeley, where Hejinian lives.
Living under this sun “requires receptivity and considerable frustration.” The sun “emits a continuous roar, but from such a distance that it doesn’t seem it can possibly be addressing any of us.” Positions of the Sun is a treatise on the intertwining of activism and art with everyday life, which includes, I would like to think, my midday bed lying. Its characters, in addition to planning political actions and discussing literature, get dressed, answer phones, reheat pea soup.
I got out of bed, I ate, I went back to sleep again. Hours later I woke up slowly, rolled over and read from a pdf of Positions of the Sun on my computer. I found a leftover beer from the night before and poured the remainder into a glass. It was flat. I drank it anyway, and then I began to write.