Writing One’s Self through Another
Lynn Jenner’s Dear Sweet Harry is a weave of timelines that I find terribly exciting in arrangement. Harry Houdini, Mata Hari, Katherine Mansfied, Lynn Jenner herself and her family all feature in this shifting work of prose, letters, poetry and train whistle codes. Jenner makes no attempt to smooth its surface over — the edges of each historical event charted, and thus the distances between them, are apparent, an invitation for the reader to participate in their re-arrangement. It reminds me of a more accessible Susan Howe project, one in which each piece is allowed self-sufficiency despite the ambiguity in its connection with all the others. Jenner never makes these connections explicit, and at the beginning of each successive piece a space opens up for the reader to figure out just who is speaking or who is being spoken of. It is in this space that Dear Sweet Harry is potent, is literally potential, because it gives the reader room to endlessly make connections between the pieces. The arrangement of the book and its fragmented surface also make no attempt to disguise its process. In fact, the process of the book’s composition is continually indicated in its form, and sometimes even explicitly:
About this time I remember wondering whether this obsession had chosen me or I had chosen it, how large it would become and whether there would be any natural limits on its growth.
At some point I became indifferent to its magnitude and relished instead its minor notes.
The conversation or relationship between limit and freedom is returned to constantly. Its most obvious manifestation is in Houdini’s escape act:
Suspended by my ankles
in a strait-jacket
from some high building,
I extricate myself
in mid air.
I can see each piece in the book as a kind of suspension or strait-jacket from which the reader must escape in the process of reading, reading as an act of synthesis, the writing of connections. Jenner seems to suggest, on the one hand, that limits are not really limits, that limits are a condition of growth in their transcendence, and, on the other hand, that freedom in itself is an illusion, that there is only freedom from some given limit: ‘I reach up my back / and fumble the back / buckles loose. / Then I am entirely free.’ The book itself is simultaneously strait-jacketed and excessive. Jenner seems dissatisfied with any one mode of representation — letter, prose or poem. By running through and between them constantly, Jenner alludes to their limits as well as eludes them in their very juxtaposition. Their juxtaposition bears such generative potential for meaning. The book as a whole exceeds and resists any kind of authorial closure or epiphany while being grounded in the particularity and specificity of each of its parts. And this is something I’ve been struggling with in my own work, especially in my last folio, The moon’s children, in which I think the inverse is happening. Each piece lacks that particularity, because I think I was more concerned with their integration as a whole work. There goes my totalizing mind, again. Dear Sweet Harryencourages me to think, now, that if each piece is well-enough grounded the whole need not be worried about too much at all. And if I’ve ‘suffered’ from this tendency in the writing of the sequence I’m sure it’s something that happens also within each individual piece. How quickly does my rational, totalizing mind catch up with my writing hand and ear to murder the poem or sequence? Each poem must be a movement of pure speculation. I’ll have to remember that, stand by it.
Prior to my encounter with Jenner’s book, its apparent messiness and non-linearity, I’d struggled with the possibility of writing through another’s life. I’d been thinking about writing through Robin Hyde (aka Iris Wilkinson). She grew up only a few minutes away from where I live now, 92 Northland Road. I’ve felt increasingly alienated from Wellington this year, maybe in part due to the intellectual and emotional solitude of this MA project. Writing through the eyes of another Wellingtonian might revive my enthusiasm for the city, and also give me an excuse to explore it, something I’d never tire from. Robin Hyde stands out to me for various reasons. Her struggles with mental and physical illness, drug addiction and institutionalization. These are not things that I have experienced myself to the same intensity, but my fascination for them has been compounded in and by some of the people around me. Further, she travelled, almost accidentally, through Hong Kong and into China, and finding oneself a new place and a new culture is an experience very near to me. Her experience of the war in China would be illuminating against the background of my experience in the military. It was ultimately my desire for neatness that put me off trying. It would be a massive project, trying to determine exactly where our lives might or should intersect.
But, after reading Dear Sweet Harry, I regained some faith in messiness. Jenner never forces intersections between her life and Houdini’s. She leaves them as potentials for the reader to actualise or activate. She doesn’t hesitate to skip from voice to voice, or persona to persona — the book has so many. And my desire to preserve a single voice or tone (again part of that neatness thing) has been limiting in my own work. Ah! There is so much for me to learn from this. It also worries me, because now I have little excuse not to pursue the Hyde project. Perhaps, in the echo of Jenner, I should become ‘indifferent to magnitude and [relish] instead its minor notes.’
Interruptions and Departures
The first section of Aleksandra Lane’s Birds of Clay, ‘War Inter-rupted,’ reminds me a little of Myung Mi Kim’s Penury — a landscape ravaged by violence, the memory of it, its traces. The left-hand side of each page features poems in more conventional lyric form, while the right-hand side bears fragmented utterances, distanced by ellipses (calling into mind also Chelsey Minnis’ Zirconia). The ellipses themselves are fragments or clusters, like morse code, stuttering and breaking up the utterances, a static hum standing in for/as absence. The notion of interruptions thus speaks both to the form and content of the section. In the mobilization and production of death that is war, civilians are torn out of their everyday context. If you were worried about the success or failure of your business before, now you are worried that you and your family won’t have any food (‘Three kilos in your hand / bag beet / sugar not / cane walking’), now you are worried about the particular dialect you speak because lines are being drawn ‘through the living room,’ in order to determine who you are, who you should be fighting for and thus where you should be.
In the middle of the night, a siren would go off, the signal to draw arms and assemble in full battle gear within three minutes. When we reached the parade square, we would be told to empty out everything in our packs for inspection (‘is everything you have enough?’). Punishment was routine, we were told, in order to emphasise the unpredicability and indeterminacy of war, in order to ensure our readiness for what we could never be ready for. Everything out (remove everything from your pack and from your equipment webbing; lay everything out in the standardised way you were taught). Everything in (you’re too slow; your one minute started thirty seconds ago). Everything out. Everything in.
Lane never discloses what might be the instigating or originating event. The reader, like the civilians affected, is left to piece together the traces, as after the explosion ‘our words were cosmic spit / landing on soft / streets.’ The absence of proper names, as in Kim’s Penury, serves to universalise the condition of war while retaining the particularity of the historical event: ‘in the .. dark / electricity / was power.’ The emphasis on survival and the reduction of a human’s existence to bare life accentuates simple moments — that might seem banal in a more peaceful context — with endless significance: ‘You plant the / petunias back / in the window box. / They seem to be thriving / in pots on the balcony across / the road.’ The possibility of growth is never more treasured in surroundings that resonate with the possibility of death, ‘Blood and bone / fighting the jasmine / scent from a playground nearby.’
On a jungle survival course in Brunei, each of us was left completely alone for five days as part of the eleven day training package. Inserted along a river whose water was the colour of ovaltine, we were made to build shelters out of saplings and vine. The roofs were thatched with whatever broad leaves we could find. I had many blisters on my hands from gripping the machete. While during the day the air was saturated with tropical moisture and heat, we could not take off our uniforms because of the mosquitos and centipedes. We had very little food. I dug up some roots that reminded me of yam. They hurt my mouth — something about their alkaline levels — even after I’d boiled them. I had to eat them anyway. Night was terrifying. During the day the jungle was largely free of rain. Every night I prayed that it wouldn’t rain. It would rain, every night. Sometime during these five days I stopped believing in God. I started believing in food, shelter and clothing. I thought most often about my family, and fried chicken.
Cultural identity is another issue at stake that Lane alludes to: ‘They say your / neighbour / puts on a strange accent / behind your back.’ The issue of an accent or dialect is fascinating, hinting simultaneously at origin and the distance elapsed. Fear of misidentification, or perhaps any identification at all, undercuts the plain, almost detached, tone of Lane’s lines: ‘Whose children are those? Draw a line / through the living room and ask them / where they belong.’ Borders are constantly drawn, erased and transcended, as the speaker in ‘The Refugee’ readies ‘to kiss / the ground / on the other side.’ What is belonging? What does one have to do in order to belong? And is one finally safe, when they can be said to belong? As I recounted in my reflection on Kim’s Penury, I find myself unable to return to the places I’ve departed from. Are you American? But you have such good English. Why do you speak like that? How long were you in New Zealand for? How long have you been in New Zealand for? Do you think you’re better than us? Come here, Kiwi. The refugee is essentially nomadic, in a displacement that cannot ever be reversed. Some of those who have constantly been displaced can no longer help constantly displacing themselves in the hope that they might actually belong in the next place, or the next. Perhaps, as Lane seems to suggest, here as well as in the sections to follow this one, there is always hope to be found on the other side of every interruption:
The sides of her mouth are blackened
with fear but she is also pouting
getting ready to kiss
on the other side.