Issue #134 Lola the Interpreter: Book One

Lola the Interpreter: Book One

Lyn Hejinian

Misha Dutkova, Untitled, Naarm, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

Issue #134
March 2023

Shut up! Favete linguis! This is about to begin!
Horace, Odes

Let this begin, precipitously disturbed. There: its only alternative now is to continue, which is to say: there’s no real alternative at all. Skepticism—doubt: it can prove liberating: SKEPTICISM, says the motto, WILL KEEP YOU FREE. But it can lead to a sense of hopelessness, impossibility; it can seem to promise nothing but dead ends and fatigue: SKEPTICISM WILL EXHAUST YOU. Ergo, says the logician, freedom is exhausting.

With a change to my name would come a change to the things people want from me and a change of people wanting them, but needs and demands are not the product of a name, though it produces effects, they are, as it were, causeless, like the semi-invisibility (semi-transparency) of the Pleiades: explicable, therefore to some degree logical, though without cause. From across the small table Cyrus Ratad leans toward me: “Do you believe in freedom?” he asks. “That’s a simple yes or no question!” he adds, jabbing his right forefinger in my direction. “Are you asking if I believe people live in freedom or if I believe they should?” “Simple yes or no question: do you believe in freedom?” He is sitting taller in his chair—elevated by his ideology. “I’m not free now,” I say, aware that I had agreed to meet him entirely out of a sense of obligation.

There it is: a fit of deviltry, then a fit of patience—or is it skepticism or disdain or a flash of irrelevant tranquility?

But fictions are the problem at hand: the fictions we are told, and especially the narratives we tell ourselves, limiting the possibility of human freedom. So let’s consider human understanding rather than freedom. A play of words invites an act of understanding. Then reason outdoes itself. Understanding shrivels in the embrace of reason, atrophies in the cage of narratives’ systems.

Say one bluntly states, “I’ve had a terrible day”: do we wonder who or what is to blame or do we cast the blame at the heels of fate as it runs ahead? One never sees fate’s approach, only what remains after its departure. Happiness is never fashionable and always indescribable, but this can’t be why we doubt happiness but never doubt unhappiness. Circumstances are conditional, everything is interconnected, we live in a medium of interpretation, etc. We know that a stone responds: the sunlight falls on it, it warms, its atoms vibrate more quickly, perhaps a tiny fissure opens somewhere on its surface. But we assume that it can’t act of its own will; indeed it cannot will, and therefore it isn’t free. Facts are said to be true but not to be free.

Okay, but nonetheless I’ll continue, “bargaining,” as Lauren Berlant puts it, “with what is overwhelming about the present.” In the kitchen, that theater of domestic life, a spoon eligible for a real superlative, a lettuce wilted through no fault of its own, worry of the kind that afflicts even infants, cream that the heat of the moment has curdled, a slow diminution of the shadows cast by a tree through the windows as storm clouds pass in front of the indifferent moon, gather. But I dream on, obviously, bound to the endless task of interpretation. In the dream, an overcoming man is like a female trucking elephant that’s like a fallen pine tree to which he condescends or which he fells. The mind, lacking centripetal force, whirls and its thoughts are cast. Understanding is the mind’s intended prey. Mind? I ask those who prefer to call it an absurdity. One puts a period at the end of the sentence. The sentenced is identified by that mark as a stretch of significant time, a time that has fulfilled a purpose, however small, a time that has fulfilled an obligation (the thought has completed its sentence).

In “micro pigment ink for waterproof and fade proof fine lines,” a sentence introduces Milly Margaret Willis, a retired child welfare attorney: “The place on her arm that Milly Margaret Willis accidentally smashed against a doorknob yesterday when moving a heavy chair hasn’t recorded the event with a bruise.” The sentence doesn’t guarantee everlasting existence, and besides, Milly Margaret Willis is a mere literary character, she’s not real. That’s one thing that defies human understanding: nothing. Nothing prevented Milly Margaret Willis from banging the side of her right arm against a doorknob. There’s a widespread belief that crossing one’s legs, right over left or left over right, will bring some action to a halt. Perhaps this is why many men spread their legs when traveling, whether by horse, bus, train, car, or plane, or when talking. When conversation suddenly pauses some say an angel has just passed overhead but others say someone has crossed their legs—they, not he or she, because they is the pronoun of the unknown and that is something they we have to admit, however much we may doubt its cogency. If there’s to be skepticism, then there has to be a skeptical mode of subjective response to things in the world. This might assume the presence of a subject capable of, or susceptible to, skepticism, but if there is such a subject it would only be present at a moment and in one of its moods, while the cat it is sleeps or the shrub it is shrugs in the wind. This is the only present, the moment at which a combination is achieved, right here. Oops, gone! Hui!—another! Why would a poet, or indeed any writer, turn toward something close to fiction, you might ask, why invent characters, and one possible answer is that humans know nothing other than fiction, fictions are what thinking makes, fictions are the artifacts of synthesis, analysis, explanation, critique, interpretation. It’s “where all could be justified and no one is just.”


On the eighth day of a calendar year I sit indoors reading with the cat on my lap. You could doubt the truth of that statement on multiple grounds, but let’s stick to the overt untruth of it: I claim in the sentence to be reading but the sentence is written in the present tense, so I can’t be reading: I’m writing. This problem can be remedied, and I’ll fix it: I sat reading with the cat on my lap. There: I have cast it into the narrative past tense. I could continue; I could perhaps say (write) something about my sensations as the cat purrs (purred), or I might describe the street sounds audible through the open window (bus accelerating from the stop sign at the corner of the street as it crosses the intersection of Higher Flat Ave. and Rusty Street, heading south toward Oakland), or I could (though perhaps I shouldn’t) acknowledge some source of anxiety or some object of inappropriate desire, I could draw the reader in with the narrative past tense as it begins to spread its fiction like fog over the present scene.

In one narrative, more historically credible than more, Lola poses a question and the question persists: Why does a poet insert characters into an essay? The answer is obvious: characters are everywhere, just look around. The human is a creature that cognition can’t codify and understanding can’t close. Though no field failure, here’s the human goose worm hornet that nibbles the sky and lives as a rock in the forested sea. Or to put it otherwise, there’s confusion. Interpretation then mobilizes diverse modes of arrangement. The character we know as Lola plays the stranger as she crosses a street so as to move away from the self-evident.

I first met Lola shortly after her birth, no more than two or three hours had passed, I had taken off my shoes. Nothing had yet begun, reality was as yet unpopulated, the cast of the world comedy had yet to arrive. “The natural result of any investigation is that the investigators either discover the object of search or deny that it is discoverable and confess it to be inapprehensible or persist in their search”—thus begins Sextus Empiricus’s Outlines of Pyrrhonism. It’s not inappropriate that the dates of a major propounder of classical skepticism are “uncertain”: Wikipedia logs those of Sextus Empiricus this way: “c. 160 – c. 210 CE, dates uncertain.” It is less uncertain, however, that he lived; though dying may undo the will to live, death can’t undo living. I leave the date of Lola’s birth unspecified—in effect, uncertain. Meanwhile, don’t ask who I am.

It’s in remembering my childhood and youth (but there’s no remembering here, only storytelling) that I most forcefully encounter the impossibility of understanding my understanding, it disappears into the maw of infinite regress that devours being as it devours understanding. I’m not forgetting that individual being is as irrelevant as human expectation—human hope, worry, anticipation. The triviality of human concerns is pathetic—passionate. But, though irrelevance generates anxiety, frustration, and ennui, all of which make it almost impossible to continue, passion prompts us to begin. Mounting the bold carousel horse, awaiting the decision (which she is powerless to make) as to when it will set forth on its travels, does the child imagine a destination? The child can take the risk because she doesn’t know what she’s risking, she can enjoy the thrill of adventure and even of danger without feeling fear or fear of fear. The music begins—brass and drums, tuba, piccolo, accordion—and the horse heaves forward, there’s no version of the story that doesn’t have war somewhere in its far reaches or close proximity, distantly recent, the horse turns away and faces it: war is always in the wings. In the bas relief of vulnerability—the sculpting forth of being from the stagnant flat wet negativity of exposed clay—the vibrant hysteria of the artist (take, for example, the work of Julia Xanthe Jones) comes into view and is immobilized. The war horse bounds forward, charging in advance of the love plot circling the music in the middle of the field. But imagine the interpreter’s shock to discover that the long affirmation she sustained in her childish enthusiasm couldn’t nullify nullity, nonexistence, lack of being: the interpreter herself is a fiction. Some say that a human is a plant inhabited by a ghost, others that it’s a stream of words on a course it can’t gloss. Internal contradictions are everywhere; whether or not you find them intolerable is yet to be determined. Nonetheless, either really or not, here I sit, an occupant of an overcast chill damp silver January midmorning in a jumbled sequence of days glimpsing in the sky unidentifiable meandering details only peripherally perceptible whose drift I try to follow; it’s like watching through a microscope the floaters in my eye. David Hume had it right: “Nothing is more free than the imagination of man; and though it cannot exceed that original stock of ideas, furnished by the internal and external senses, it has an unlimited power of mixing, compounding, separating, and dividing these ideas, in all the varieties of fiction and vision.”

Every stone is a faceted fact, a 3-D quiddity, a thing. But a stone isn’t a simple thing: for starters there’s the gravity that holds it and the fire in which it was forged. It is gray and mottled green—like a frog and its setting shadow. Voilà: to see that one thing is not another is an extreme perception, producing an extreme experience. Cat and third-grade teacher, jargon and compass, boeuf bourguignon and screw driver, womanhood and surrealism—manifold differences in a fabric of associations. To set out to live the life you want to have led—that is the Nietzschean challenge—without a single detail changed, ready to live it again: stung by bees and stinging back. But all too swiftly we become habituated and blind to differences, or we become hostile to those things from which we differ; in either case, eventually a great continuity occurs, a dismal indifference.

The ancient Greek thinkers pondered over justice but thought little about freedom in our sense of it. Freedom in our sense of it? East of the city lie populated hills, under the city creeks are buried, between the hills are canyons, and rumor has it that each canyon harbors its own mountain lion, but at any given moment this is unlikely to be true. Things come into existence and depart from it “according to necessity,” as Anaximander put it, paying “retribution” as they go “for their injustice according to the assessment of Time.” Believing that the course of one’s life was determined by the gods, the ancient Greeks could not value freedom; there was too little of it. Perhaps all that could be said of it is that to be free is to belong where one is, while the streets through the city are traveled by nomads. But things acquire their definition not on their own, autonomously, but from what’s around them; they are given by their associations and held to them. Our sensations proliferate, fated to support another’s panorama. But how can one characterize freedom as a condition of inseparability?

Ulysses Theo Upton declares one evening that for him the supreme value is reason. Why then is he a scholar of poetry? We are in a bar on a side street five blocks from the plaza where, moving three pretzel loops from a small bowl on the table between us, I ask him that question. “I believe in reason,” he says, “but I don’t believe in poetry.” The pretzels are as pure as cactus. The former are the material made by mortals, the latter mortal material, but mere aesthetic playfulness no longer satisfies the old critic. Montaigne says that “philosophy is but sophisticated poetry”; in other words, poetry is the skeptic’s philosophy. On the table lie seven daffodils, they are bound at the ankles—sold this way by the florist as if this were compatible with Western aesthetic values while reminding purchasers that prisoners, if they dance at all, dance in their heads. With this, comedy lies on the brink of death.


So, what of it?—I’m gaining the greatest pleasure from my current secretarial tasks: the invention of order and distribution of disordered thoughts and useless (dysfunctional) desires over topographical undulations, rivulets, back alleys, and storm drains where they can thunder and burble and romp and prompt compassion here and fury there; perhaps such tasks are proper grounds for a politics. Lola would object that the things that surge past or tumble by are just quickly and peremptorily thought out whims, to which I’d retort: they are flapping from files and will pile into middens with architectural as well as columnar effect. Or I’d say they are barrels in a ring, a reference that makes her laugh since, at least for a moment, we acknowledge that while performing the role of a gadfly with the powers of an unmastered urchin, she is also a dauntless barrel racer. The fact is that Night has never yet unhorsed her. But let me return to my tasks, opening files to interpretation. Here’s a wishful prediction that Camus recorded in October 1940: “This wind cannot last if each and every one of us calmly affirms that the wind smells bad.” Let’s imagine Camus in an apostrophizing mood as, with “Mediterranean fatalism,” he poses a rhetorical question to the sky (or an outspread sheet of paper): O star, did you see the tide under the clouds? With such a sentence signaling a moment, calm is restored, then disturbed, and this, as Rosie Consuela Mahieddine would insist, justifies punctuation, or, at least, the comma. Written with a light hand, which is to say by applying a pen so that it makes only the gentlest of landings on a page, touching down only briefly and sporadically and hardly at all and with minimal to no calculation, commas appear, one after another just as stars appear as the night sky darkens.

With things I can see (like a pair of cowboy boots, a bicycle chained to a fence, a sprawl of nasturtium flowers, a plastic bowl, a child on a swing), as with things I cannot see (like time, suffering, knowledge, black holes, ennui), I’ll play the phenomenal world’s ongoing game of hide-and-seek. Carried forward by intuitions and curiosity, perception reaches the limits of logic and passes over them. Fort/da. We’re just overhearing a toddler at play (they say it’s Freud’s grandson Ernst, who has a toy attached to a string), repeatedly discovering the principle of return—but how “innocent” is the pleasure of discovery? Say a human (some specific fastidious one—let’s call it Luc-Antoinette Preston) thinks about what’s real in order to pull it, mold it, nurture it, pierce it, all the while assuming that every discernible phenomenon is unique and material, each manifestation just a scrap of launched particularized stuff. The conscious mind can have a strong impression of a blind window on a blank wall, or of an acidic sycamore on an urban street, or of a goldfish gasping in a glass of wine, or of a scrappy rat body scurrying, heaving, swaying through a city. Meanwhile, underlying consciousness lies the unconscious, lodged in the throat, perhaps, or pressing against the viscera or the genitals. So what is the mind, that something “appears” in it? And how very different from each other are water-borne insects, crepuscular rag rugs, and a fungus ring in a forest? What can a human understand, what empathies, what changes of mind or perspective can she or he or they or it embrace when surrounded by a reality imbued with what is unavailable—when, by being unavailable, things assert their alienation from human interests? Before I can deal with these such specious questions, a waking dream came to me of weakness buoyed by Cheerios; I am reproached, and fall back, to participate in the widespread laxity that we interpret as getting along by going nowhere immediately or almost. A human such as L-A Preston would say that to win a phenomenal game one must “invent interpretative strategies anew with every phenomenal form that one encounters.” The winner then will be what Nietzsche in “On Truth and Lies in the Nonmoral Sense” calls “that master of deception, the intellect.” If so, then so much for that great discontinuity Life.

As a teenager, Lola might have asked, if a tree falls, does it … etc., etc.—yes, of course, because there’s never “no one,” there’s always something, with the fall of trees reverberating even in winter beside a creek rising under heavy rainfall. Every event has its own sound form, its own thought stack, its own noise construction. One can feel the full thrill of the event of the fall’s irrelevance to the human world; it has dodged the prison house of human history. Coos from the pigeon fancier’s yard continue in full compliance with the gleaming steel sky. Why remember anything—the resulting stories mean nothing, they are empty of everything but musty odors, old shit. What time is it, you ask; it’s dissevered time, time split through the middle, time caught not quite on the dot but definitively on the line, half of now on one side and now’s other half on the other through the long now we never quit. That—or rather this—can’t be nullified.

Black sweater, black skirt, gray hair—I pass through Pug Blade Alley and, turning left onto Flagrant Street, I see a weave of shadows spread across an ochre façade. I am alive, part of the present, which is drawn out of the past: what in the past was in the future included me, making me also a presence, though not yet present, in the past. Or maybe not: as humans conceive of it, history (often occluded but also cruel, indifferent, destructive, stupid) doesn’t provide a home for every moment. Yet history, in so far as history is a term for all that has happened (fate might be another), exceeds human historiography and includes not only all that is remembered but all that is memorable, which is to say everything (including the sound of the falling tree and the moss, twigs, redwood sorrel, and ferns onto which it fell). Roland Barthes (in The Neutral) speaks of “Michelet’s ambition to give memory back to everything.” Does this mean that everything that exists would be remembered or that everything that exists would be remembering? And on the basis of what, or, since we should narrow our options lest we drift into an infinite expanse of possibility as featureless as the void, on the basis of experience or of simple perception?

One would have to have absolutely no sense of humor to imagine that humans have ever produced a “simple idea.” What John Locke meant by simple ideas were impressions or bits of information, passively received onto a tabula rasa, and thus made available for assimilation, combination, and development, but the tabula rasa hypothesis has been disproven. Perhaps what we begin with is indecision, grounded in its past, future, and the present’s near synonym: eternity. We’ve no choice yet other than to imagine Lola as an unfinished person with wide distribution, or perhaps it’s her rationality that’s widely distributed, but, since it’s buffeted by chance, the random, the trivial, the perpetual nagging of “the bitches of everyday life,” its effects get scattered as if in obeyance to some air-born algebra, playground gossip, or mycelial calculus. Mistrust, thirst, reluctance, ambition: these are the spare parts of reason. Proliferation, speed, struggle, victory—in the right circumstances these are values, but so too are contemplation, generosity, strolling, indifference. Interpretation is merely a quest for a slower chaos. It departs from the center, it takes place in the margins and on the peripheries. So how do we explain? But why explain? It is always the same words telling the same lies. And yet having said that, I can hardly concentrate on a particular poem at hand, so powerfully does it thrill me with the strangeness and ubiquity of life. The thrill is in the living, without possibility of certainty, without possibility of universal assent. “The thought is obscure, the syntax gasps for air.”

Let’s consider the condition of the unlonely. There are times when the unlonely feel irritated at interruptions to (or intrusions into) their unloneliness, their solitude. Solitude is a sphere of one’s own making, a sphere under one’s control. There is an aesthetics of unloneliness for those who exercise their faculties with doubt and experience, but where would a politics fit into that? There is always something to address in public but it may not always be necessary to do so publicly, it could also be done indirectly or, better, obscurely, say by poetry, prophecy, or divination.

Rambling thought on shall walk ambling shock: this is minimal but not meaningless, a small materialized cluster of elements, a point (or surge) of conjuncture that forms a perceivable object rather than a cognizable fact. As it happens, I objectively like it, and, in a completely amoral way, I am the better for it. But I don’t ask you to be better for it too, or wiser. Still, let’s have more of it. At least for the moment we can change rhythm, change pace, pace again. Page again. Thistle down loosens lock time while profligate hens drag duck straw.


If punctuation is scanty (or absent altogether) we can assume that what’s been written is poetry. The poet (some particularly interesting one) insists on developing linguistic syntax that can indicate the way in which the sentence is being used sufficiently on its own, without recourse to punctuation; to punctuate would be a form a cheating. But, you might point out, lack of punctuation can’t for that reason be categorically poetic (poetical?), since poetry is so often (and sometimes explicitly) engaged in cheating. And what we’re calling cheating might in fact be an act of freedom, one that takes the form of liberality and munificence. Restrictions are lifted; anything is allowed.

For Aristotle (should we want to take him for our authority—and I don’t see that we should) freedom is actualized by doing good and fulfilling one’s obligations, neither of which are possible without a social context; to be free is to bind oneself to social responsibility, to happy sociality per se. At that I entertain a fantasy scenario of protestors during a pandemic: holding slender six-foot-long poles known as “social wands” in each hand, with which they measure the distance between each other, hundreds of students and workers are on strike in front of city hall, chanting, shouting, cheering. The contemporary social world, at least prior to the coronavirus pandemic and the “social distancing” everyone is told to practice, is one in which people are caught up in circuits of social negotiation, requiring circumspection and, often, some degree of dishonesty practiced behind a façade. One outcome of this is a sense of social alienation; another is complicity with common values that one, in fact, doesn’t believe in. Those values cause certain kinds of behavior, shape that behavior, and, ultimately, bring about behavior’s failure—and loss of freedom.

All the while, everyday life is underway, with trees, trout, bedbugs, humans, sand, crows, dogs, weeds, bugs, microbes, rocks, buildings, shrubs, glaciers, rain, and so forth living it. A long mottled dog on a narrow red leash tied to a silver bike rack beside a gray faux classical building plaintively watches me as if hoping I’m the human it’s waiting for, but recognizing the dog I know who the expected human is and the dog whines. Sabrina Q. Wells, being consistently inconsistent, is predictable. She is animated, she veils strong opinions behind a pretense of confusion, she is snarky. Her friends call her “fiery”; others call her capricious or wacky. She now once again pretends not to see me, or does so until I approach the room she is exiting—then she vigorously pushes the door shut and walks away. We should have outgrown this shit long ago. But contemporary (early twenty-first century) social relations may be dismantling bourgeois values (like collegial friendliness) behind our back, so to speak. We participate in, and our subjectivities as well as our public and private living spaces are shaped by, a constant media flow, which is, above all else, a narrative flow. Many of these narratives are false. We inhabit narrative communities; we both generate and receive narratives; we choose from among them and, having chosen, we set up camp within the story’s bounds. Or we set up a tent in an Occupy zone in defiance of every story. The distinction between freedom for (choice, commitment, engagement) and freedom from (sheer freedom, mere freedom, the “abyss of freedom” of which Kierkegaard and, later, Sartre speak) is conceptually interesting but it may be only that and of little practical value. Freedom is a practice, ultimately, and as such, it exists in situ, in process, in uncertainty, and without definition.

For all practical purposes, one understands how things in the social world work. If x happens, y will follow. But if the name for x—the name by which we know it—changes, our understanding of the social world has to change, too; the social world, if named differently, would work differently. Day after day Phillip Kilmartin sits curbside facing the door of the corner café, impassive, saying little and only when someone speaks to him, holding an empty paper cup, with a homemade hand-lettered cardboard sign behind him: “Need money for Rent by the 15th of the Month, Hungry, No Sugar.” I am patient and pathetic, he thinks; I am persistent, but what’s the necessity for understanding? “We don’t know much about him,” says Bonnie Rose Roberts, “except that he’s here.” She provides him with a chair from the café and, occasionally, a cup of coffee. All that’s needed now are bits of information; when we have those we can slip shadows and story inside the outlines.

The imagination, disordered and murmuring or scrupulous and willful as it may be, by definition (qua imagination) either generates or receives images.

Aren’t the eyes, too, instruments of imagination then, and the ears? As the sound of a “barking dog” reaches one’s ears, isn’t the “barking dog” an image, something imagined? And the dog itself?—some would say it’s apparent, rather than real, but if that were the case, and if we were to characterize it therefore as a product of the imagination, it would have to be the product of either a collective imagination of vast dimensions or a concoction presented by whimsical gods or a 3-D quadruped mirage produced by some confluence of natural forces. The barking dog would not, in any case, be sitting, trotting, or on watch along what Parmenides called (according to the evidence in the extant fragments) the “Path of Truth.” And yet it was Parmenides who said, “It needs must be that what can be spoken and thought is; for it is possible for it to be, and it is not possible for what is nothing to be.” Worrying about the difference (if there is one) between appearance and reality is too metaphysical; more lively and immediate is the difference (and there seems indeed to be one) between reason and irrationality. Lola interprets—or judges—art in practical, rational terms, and she finds it puzzling—entirely lacking in practical value, outside the realm of efficiency, too much bound to either immediate (temporary) pleasure or to materialism (the buying and selling of works of art), and irrational. “Okay,” she says, “maybe it’s rational to paint a landscape or a portrait of somebody, though doing either seems pretty useless.” Lola is never insouciant but she is also never sullen when she spots a stupid thought. “Writing a love poem that impresses the person it’s for could be useful, I suppose—or a poem that stirs up political feelings,” says Lola. From her perspective, it’s all irrelevant. “Arggh—how can you take art so seriously?” I say I’ll think about it and I raise my head and stare across the room at a wall hung with drawings, photographs, collages, small paintings above three bookcases set side by side and filled with books, their titles indiscernible from where I’m sitting but I know what they are and know the books contain thoughts and in some cases stories, stories and thoughts: ghosts, dogs, passions, accounts of entomological and anthropological research, plots, and theories of the good, the universal laws of physics (sive natura), the turn to language, commodity fetishism, chaos. And all those thoughts and stories are exchanged and change from day to day or occur to humans as something entirely strange in their dreams.

Everything that exists is involved in perpetual processes of interpretation, simultaneously generating causes and effects. Perhaps an artist is a fantasy creature, author of a genuine inner life, but about whom, eventually, a police statement says that she or he died of weeping or, as some witnesses insist, of laughter. Moved by the pull and pulse of a long guitar solo audible through the speakers on the wall on either side of the bar and thus behaving little like the skeptic I claim to be, I flip my hand in time to a beat and protest, “Of course it’s possible to have an idea and not know it.” “The skull lit by eyelight,” Samantha Jane Jenkins remarks. Thinking, almost by definition, entails receptivity; it’s experiential. And each day is different from all others; chance takes its every advantage. “It was no longer the beginning that illumined and transfigured the everyday; it was the everyday that made the beginning intelligible, by supplying models for an understanding of how the world had been shaped and set in order.”


Everyday life assumes that lives are lived day by day, each quotidian life underway within a cultural sphere that’s structured by habits, assumptions, beliefs, individual propensities, social and personal expectations, socioeconomic structures and their requirements, material resources, and so forth. Which is to say that everyday life is underwritten to one extent or another by ideology. And ideology can take on the aspect of fate. There it is: belief, caught in the act of creating a fact. Will the fact make history? Or to rephrase that more capaciously, more variably, and more specifically: will that fact enter history, will the fact create history, will the fact fabricate history, will the fact alter history? The link between fate (everything that happens) and time (naked as a rat’s trailing tail) is obvious. How many everyday particulars—how much of the stuff and experiencing of everyday life—is experienced actively, consciously? People are conscious of things, but perhaps unconsciously conscious, as, for example, when negotiating a pathway around chairs and tables in a café or through pedestrians or traffic on an urban street. A pair of excited matched small dogs catches the attention of Jumi Brianna Stein, each excited dog secured by a yellow leash to a parking meter to the left of a man with a sign behind him: “Need money for Rent by the 15th of the Month, Hungry, No Sugar.” Jumi Brianna Stein automatically notes that he has diabetes, steps into the café, greets me with a nod, takes her wallet from her bag and pulls a dollar bill out of it, steps back outside and drops the dollar into the man’s paper cup, says “God bless you, too” to the man’s response, and joins me at a corner table. The everyday is absurdly authentic! At a circular table nearby, a woman whoops with delight and applauds the vertical chocolate swirl atop the storybook pastry that Reggie Clara Toss sets in front of her on the circular table. Like most distractions, this one provokes an unwanted act of consciousness, and the unwanted act of consciousness provokes irritation, animosity, anger: a recontextualization of the moment, the place, the experience—a change in the situation.

David Hume states, “The command of the mind over itself is limited, as well as its command over the body.” He goes on: “Our authority over our sentiments and passions is much weaker than that over our ideas.” I don’t disagree. I have little doubt that the brain crowns a system, though I don’t believe that thinking must always obey it. The system crowned by the brain carries out a myriad of functions, but it doesn’t construct narratives. The internet makes a clear (though perhaps suspect) distinction: “Brain is considered to be a physical thing, the mind is considered to be mental; the brain is composed of nerve cells and can be touched, whereas, the mind cannot be touched.” But does the internet have that right? Don’t we live by our senses in a tangible world, pushing thoughts aside, tossing ideas around, putting our mind to work on abstract problems or quotidian tasks? Metaphors—we cough metaphors, pant metaphors, sigh metaphors, and usually don’t think about metaphors, but let’s admit it: they’re great stuff.

Thoughts wander; we should go in hot pursuit of them, unarmed of course: there’s no utility, benefit, beauty, or intelligence in dead thoughts. That said, live thoughts are not always that great either, motoring us along without any sense of direction, until we chance on something of interest. Some experience takes place and we perceive it as an unassimilable whole, its temporality internal to itself rather than attuned to history, and then along comes art to poke a hole in it. The day loses its weapons, the small hole that a thumbtack makes in a wall comes to exemplify daily life. Consider the irreality of the hole: as the French say, “Into the shadows the hours go to hide.”

Return to Issue #134

Poet, essayist, editor, and translator Lyn Hejinian is also the author and coauthor of several books. Hejinian has been the coeditor of Poetics Journal since 1981, was editor of Tuumba Press, and is codirector of the literary project Atelos. Honors include a Writing Fellowship from the California Arts Council, a grant from the Poetry Fund, an NEA Translation Fellowship (for her Russian translations), and a fellowship from the Academy of American Poets for distinguished poetic achievement. She teaches at the University of California, Berkeley.


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