Friday, June 20, 2008

STL #72: Shut partly in

On Larry Eigner's "Open"

Even though I know very little about Larry Eigner's life, there is one biographical fact that can't be escaped when reading his work. As he puts it in his biographical note in the NAP, "I'm a 'shut-in,' partly." What this means, to snip from Wikipedia, is "Eigner suffered from severe Cerebral palsy among other physical disabilities, and his parents believed that he was incapable of language until he taught himself to use a typewriter in his teens. The physical act of writing took more effort for him, and the physicality of each line is something that Silliman has remarked on repeatedly on his widely read poetry weblog." Now, there's some kind of New Critical 'heresy' in reading poetry through the facts of the author's life, but that in Eigner's case how can you not? (By the reading rules I've set up, his biographical note, beginning with the specifics of the institutions he was born into (the hospital in Lynn, MA) and schooled in (correspondence course with the U of Chicago) and describes him as a "shut in, partly" is admissible as 'text.' ) The "partly" modification is fascinating, since the rest of his note describes how he "bumped into Cid Corman reading Yeats, on the radio... from Boston." The part shut-in "bumped into" Corman "on the radio." The ensuing correspondence continued and one gathers supplanted his University education, converting him from a "non-declamatory way of reciting" and was the means by which he "got introduced to things." The last phrase of the biographical note is "the ice broke considerably," which I think means not only the friendship of Eigner and Corman, but Eigner's seclusion. He entered into the Black Mountain 'company' of poetry and continued as an elder statesmen for Silliman's cohort of Language poets. Through poetry, he was in the world, though physically he was largely shut out of it.

There is a poetry interview site that has been dormant for a while called "Here Comes Everybody" that asked an array of poets the same 10 questions. The tenth question always seemed strained to me, but it is provocative in thinking about Eigner: "What is the relationship between the text and the body in your writing?" A full answer to that question on behalf of Einger might be contentious and theory-laden, and would have to respond to his later work, which is dominated by concrete nouns and largely devoid of conventional syntax. This earlier work is more conventional, but still indicates a physical relation to the world found nowhere else I know in poetry. The obvious marker of the relation of language to body is the word "I," a word manipulated in a fascinating way in "Open." The poem begin in the lyric standard Romantic sublime: "They [flowers] nod at me and I at stems." As in the Romantics, nature seems to mirror the psychological interior, "me," as "I" fully engages in a relation to nature, but not all is as it seems. After two more uses of "I" which demonstrate imaginative engagement with nature ("I flower myself" and "As, I pass on the air"), the personal pronoun morphs into the lower case "i," a letter which stands for an imaginary number. This marker appears four times in the poem, replacing the mask of "I" with "As i, pause / As i dream" and finally "o i walk i walk." The "pause" not only sonically mirrors the "pass" of the preceding line but marks a literal pause during which the Romantic I becomes an imaginative 'i' cognizant of and bound by reality. The only other time the upper-case I intercedes is between "i dream" and "i walk": "I have been on all sides / my face and my back." There is an i that dreams and walks, and there is an I constrained by the limitations of his body and by the conventions of language.

To read: areas lights heights, Writings 1954-1989