Deborah Mix"A vulnerable known not sure": Metonymy as/and Transformation

by Deborah M. Mix



In her essay "Strangeness," Lyn Hejinian looks to an aesthetic that she terms "a poetics of description" and distinguishes from "after-the-fact-realism, with its emphasis on the world described" and from "an organizing subjectivity (that of the perceiver-describer)" (32). Instead, this poetics aims "toward objectifying all that’s described and making it strange" through the use of metonymy (32). Where metaphor creates a kind of prison-house of language -- "If words matched their things we’d be imprisoned within walls of symmetry" (My Life 70) -- metonymy does just the opposite. "Metonymy moves attention from thing to thing; its principle is combination rather than selection. Compared to metaphor, which depends on code, metonym preserves context, foregrounds interrelationship" ("Strangeness" 38). Thus, rather than a straightforward comparison and congruence between elements, Hejinian creates a shifting and constantly restructuring relationship between elements. Such an operation is, she argues, "not definitive but transformative . . . . at once improvisational and purposive" ("Strangeness" 32).

This combination of "induction and deduction" ("Strangeness" 32) allows, in fact requires, a kind of participatory playfulness from both the readers and the author (who is herself a "reader" of her text). They must, therefore, acknowledge and remain conscious at all times of their own roles as constructors and makers of meaning -- both by interpreting the text and by creating its subject(s). By highlighting the readers’ power as constitutors of meaning(s), and by attending to the ways in which identity is provisional, dependent on myriad changeable elements of time, place, and reader, the metonymic text offers an alternative way for thinking about meaning and identity and thus about individual agency -- the power of reading itself is reconstructed as a way of intervening in the world beyond the text.

"Supposing a sentence to be clear whose is it" (148), Gertrude Stein muses in "Sentences." Peter Quartermain notes that a phrase like this one puts into question "the reader’s possession of meaning, for in rendering inaccessible to the reader the customary contract with the author as authority it undermines the reader’s sense of his/her own certainty as arbiter of the meaning of the text" (23). In this kind of writing, readers must attend to each individual word, to the cultural (hi)stories trailing along behind them, and, ultimately, as Rachel Blau DuPlessis explains, readers can choose either to "reaffirm the narrative(s) the word is telling or can try to break into by distorting or deforming, opening the storied words" (144).

Like Stein, Hejinian is also interested in "distorting or deforming, opening the storied words" to encourage a different way of reading and therefore thinking. In one of her earliest works, Writing Is an Aid to Memory, she muses on the power of authorial and readerly expectations, tracing some of the same pathways as Stein. "that sweet little block / the taste of a larger pattern" emerges from time to time, appearing only to disappear back into "tired mixed trace of chat bac" (this volume is not paginated). "the readymade is deceptively passing /its consent to time," she writes, "mass perhaps in a form against it / a cheap reading of what surrounds." Here Hejinian asks readers to reflect on their practices of reading, their desires for the "taste of a larger pattern." And while she seems respectful of that desire (in fact she admits to having it herself), she is also wary of it. Our "readymade" expectations are "deceptive." If we enter a text carelessly, without an awareness of our potential prejudices or proclivities, we’re likely to seize on those elements we seek, those that are already familiar to us, those that fit neatly into our own critical patterns, resulting in a "cheap reading of what surrounds."

An intimacy marks Hejinian’s work, a willingness to experiment with writing and reading that encourages a kind of faithfulness and commitment from reader and writer. Hejinian writes, "love writes our enjoyment in length / no more pretends to return to a simple utterance" (Writing). The kind of singularity of interpretation that Hejinian’s work elicits leads to a sense of intimacy, a sense that the reader is taking this text in a new and utterly unique direction. Like the discovery of a new lover’s body or mind, each reader creates the text anew. In fact, each reading creates the text anew. As I looked through Writing is an Aid to Memory again and again, I found myself making new links, noticing different resonances, puzzling over passages marked in earlier readings. Yet each new reading is inviting, exciting, awakening a "corner hope of smaller sharp faithfulness." Because the subject, the plot, the usual markers of the literary text are unavailable here, the reader cannot approach Hejinian from a distant point outside the text with her aim being to master that text. Instead, the text invites a lively and individual participation in its creation, making the reader an equal partner in the writing of the text. "I wish to make you do so for joy," Hejinian writes, calling attention to the intimate give and take of the text. As such, then, the reader subverts the kinds of hegemonic hierarchies that feminists and multiculturalist critics have worked to highlight and deconstruct. Hierarchies, which many critics have illustrated are built into language itself, are undone through the kinds of linguistic and formal strategies I have discussed. She even gently mocks these kinds of hierarchies: "written of perfection repeats / is bulky / maybe peanut butter would be better," suggesting instead that "pleasant mistakes are good to hear in romances," referring perhaps to the romance between writer and reader, reader and text, or some other grouping that allows for the kinds of risk-taking that Hejinian's work encourages. As an antidote of sorts to the push to perfection, to resolved readings, to hierarchical mastery, Hejinian offers what she calls "wicker grammar," "like a fillet extremely fine / nishment of finery / such ceived ket-weaving / rabbit in all / dust or gores shape be next than goes and grounds / whence wicker." As weavers of the text, Hejinian's and her readers create intricate patterns that are both sturdy and delicate, always calling attention to their own artifice, to their fragility, to their holes.

Throughout Writing Is an Aid to Memory, Hejinian gently pulls her readers away from "glue [that] is used on almost all occasions that are to be / joined / to draw tendencies into truths of such / a link" and directs them instead toward "a vulnerable known not sure" that "suits my suspicions." "a small wonder is an understanding," she says, seeming to recognize the ways in which a reader might approach her writing. Yet she turns that comment back on itself, asking whether the so-called understanding represents "recognizing patterns or pruning the truth?" As a reader moves through Hejinian’s texts, she will find numerous resonances. The reader who seeks a particular kind of resonance may not be disappointed, but that reader must, at the same time as she congratulates herself on finding a connection, consider her own role in constructing a pattern. As I thought of the potential relationships between Hejinian and Stein, for instance, I found lines such as "one glass the whole will grouping" and the promise that "the digressions is a tender essential" to remind me of Stein’s Tender Buttons and her "carafe that is a blind glass." Yet I was keenly aware that these were my connections predicated on my interests.

These patterns often hinge on repetitions in the texts, repeated words and phrases that appear again and again, in varying contexts. Rosemarie Waldrop notes that, while we often associate repetition with stasis, it can also work to "suggest change and growth" (220). Readers are encouraged to draw upon their own resources of memory and association to create meanings predicated on accretion and combination. Hejinian explains in her essay "The Rejection of Closure" that repetition necessarily creates recontextualization. "Since context is never the same and never stops, this device says that meaning is always in flux, always in the process of being created. Repetition, and the rewriting that repetition becomes, make a perpetual beginning, like Stein’s beginning again and again; they postpone completion indefinitely" (273).

Rather than representing hermetic, closed systems of meaning, repetition in Hejinian’s poetry recalls the concentric circles rippling out from a pebble dropped into a pond, ripples that alter the surfaces around them as, to borrow a phrase from Stein, their difference spreads (see Tender Buttons). Hejinian’s most well known work, My Life, provides an example of the way in which such ripples can move throughout a (reading of a) text. Each of the book’s sections includes a kind of epigraph, a short line like, "A pause, a rose, something on paper" (7). Each of these epigraphs reappears throughout the text, each new appearance creating a new set of "ripples." In the first section, for instance, the phrase seems to resonate with the line "Somewhere, in the background, rooms share a pattern of small roses" (7). This phrase might suggest an echo of Stein’s Tender Buttons, with its section of "Rooms"; one might think also (or instead) of a pattern of small roses on (wall)paper that one pauses to notice; one might wonder whether the "small pattern" (two mentions of roses so close together) will repeat (as in wallpaper) or whether the "small pattern" is illusory. As the phrase recurs throughout the text, however, the "small pattern" appears to grow, but without a clear repeat, offering a reminder to readers to ask themselves whether they are, to return to an aforementioned passage, "recognizing patterns or pruning the truth." "A pause, a rose, something on paper implicit in the fragmentary text" (41). "A pause, a rose, something on paper, of true organic spirals we have no lack" (65). Each repetition leads to a new disruption of meaning, a shift in the surface tension of the text. As individual words appear in different sentences ("The symbolism of the rose depends on its purity of color" [65]; "The symbolism of the rose depends on its thorns" [66]; "What is the gender on paper" [76]), readers begin to sense that "Long time lines trail behind every idea, object, person, pet, vehicle, and event" (7).

Through the recognition of such "time lines," recognition that both Hejinian and Stein encourage through their use of repetition and metonymic movement, reading as transformation becomes possible. If we choose to note the lateral movement of words, meaning, identity, then we can let go of a sense of "originary" status as primary, and thus relinquish the stasis of the "phallogocentric monumentality" (Hejinian, "Two" 132). Similarly, through the recognition that all kinds of nouns, from ideas to people to cars, bear trails, the construction of hierarchies becomes not just unnecessary but impossible. Hejinian explains, "To regard description -- or a page of writing -- as a container [is] to betray the nature of the thing described, the flow of its existence, and the flow of the consciousness perceiving it" ("Two" 133). It is, for both Stein and Hejinian, the recognition of such trails, rather than the codifying of them, that is important. The title Tender Buttons itself points toward this kind of fluid, lateral exchange of meaning as the "Buttons" might be taken to refer to traditional buttons (words as fasteners, making connections), sexual buttons (clitoral pleasure, physical/intellectual stimulation), or even buttons as a system of value (transferring meaning, "legal tender"); likewise "tender" might be an invocation of gentleness, exchange, significance. Stein writes in the first "poem" of Tender Buttons of "A Carafe, That Is A Blind Glass": "A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangment in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading" (461). Through repetition (infinite drops of liquid meaning), which, while suggesting homogeneity (an inseparable "mass" of wine) is actually always already different (heterogenous drops of wine), both Stein and Hejinian are pointing to "the possibility of a variation on . . . repetition," a potential "resignification and redeployment" that Judith Butler argues is the key to claiming agency (Butler 145). Metonymy and repetition, then, suggest a way in which both authors and readers might take charge of a transformative power inherent in "spectacle": the act of seeing and reading into, out of, through, beside, with.

The first sentence of Stein’s "Sentences" offers a way to understand what it is that Stein and Hejinian are offering to their readers: "A sentence is made by coupling meanwhile ride around to be a couple there makes grateful dubiety named atlas coin in a loan" (115). Each sentence is made not merely by a single author, not just by Stein or by Hejinian. Rather, the sentences are created through the coupling, the intimacy of author and reader as they "ride around" any piece of writing. This imagine of "riding around" on sentences marks not just the collaborative element of this reading practice but also its playfulness and antilinearity -- the reader is not just permitted but encouraged to wander, to circle back, to move in and out of the text. The text itself becomes "coin in a loan," a kind of material exchange of language. We don’t know who is loaning coin to whom here, suggesting that it is not to be kept permanently by any one person, but rather is a circulating text, moving back and forth across the atlas. And both writer and reader are free to act with "grateful dubiety," a pleasurable doubtfulness.

It is in this "opportunity to doubt," to doubt not only our own authority as critics but also Stein and Hejinian’s authority as writers, that we are freed to reenvision our practices of reading and writing and thus to reimagine the ways that we both read and write the world around us. Rather than try to fill those gaps, to quiet that dubiety, we are left with what Hejinian calls "Reluctance such that it can’t be filled" (Writing). Nor should it be since it is this reluctance, this self-awareness, that is so rich with possibility.


Works Cited

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. "Otherhow." The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Hejinian, Lyn. My Life. Rev. and Expanded ed. Los Angeles: Sun and Moon P, 1987.

---. "The Rejection of Closure." Writing/Talks. Ed. Bob Perelman. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1985. 270-91.

---. "Strangeness." Poetics Journal 8 (1989): 32-45.

---. "Two Stein Talks." Temblor 3 (1986): 128-39.

---. Writing Is an Aid to Memory. 1978. Los Angeles: Sun and Moon P, 1996.

Quartermain, Peter. "Syllable as Music: Lyn Hejinian’s Writing Is an Aid to Memory." Sagetrieb 11.3 (1992): 17-31.

Stein, Gertrude. "Sentences." How to Write. New York: Dover Books, 1975.

---. Tender Buttons. 1914. Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein. Ed. Carl Van Vechten. New York: Vintage, 1945. 459-509.

Waldrop, Rosemarie. "Chinese Windmills Turn Horizontally: On Lyn Hejinian." Temblor 10 (1989): 219-22.

BIO: Deborah M. Mix is a visiting assistant professor in the department of American Thought and Language at Michigan State University where she is completing a book project entitled "A Vocabulary of Thinking": Gertrude Stein and Contemporary American Women Experimentalists. Her essay "'An Erotics of Collaboration': Daphne Marlatt and Betsy Warland's Double Negative" will appear in the Summer 2000 issue of Contemporary Literature.


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