John Cage’s Dublin, Lyn Hejinian’s Leningrad:

Poetic Cities as Cyberspaces

by Marjorie Perloff

for Festschrift for OB Hardison, Delaware University Press

In Chapter 5 of Ulysses, Leopold Bloom sets out from home to begin his circuitous voyage through Dublin. We read:

By lorries along Sir John Rogerson’s Quay Mr. Bloom walked soberly, past Windmill lane, Leask’s the linseed crusher’s, the postal telegraph
office. Could have given that address too. And past the sailors’ home. He turned from the morning noises of the quayside and walked through Lime street.

By Brady’s cottages a boy for the skins lolled, his bucket of offal linked, smoking a chewed fagbutt. A smaller girl with scars of eczema on her forehead
eyed him, listessly holding her battered caskhoop. Tell him if he smokes he won’t grow. O let him! His life isn’t such a bed of roses! Waiting outside
pubs to bring da home. Come home to ma, da, Slack hour: won’t be many there. He crossed Townsend street, passed the frowning face of Bethel. El, yes:
house of: Aleph, Beth. And past Nichols’ the undertaker’s. At eleven it is. Time enough. Daresay Corny Kelleher bagged that job at O’Neill’s. Singing
with his eyes shut. Corny. Met her once in the park. In the dark. What a lark. Police tout. Her name and address she then told with my tooraloom
tooraloom tay. O, surely he begged it. Bury him cheap in a whatyoumaycall. With my tooraloom, tooraloom, tooraloom, tooraloom. [1]

Here is a classic Modernist treatment of the city. At one level, Joyce’s fictional mode is one of scrupulous documentary realism: we know exactly where Bloom walks and what shops and buildings he passes; these are, moreover, actual sites, whose existence in 1904, the time of the novel, can be verified. Indeed, the map of Dublin provides Joyce with a basic geometric grid: the central area, approximately two square miles, is encircled by the canal and divided neatly into quarters. The river Liffey, running from west to east, bisects the city, and Sackville Street, running north and south, crosses the Liffey at O’Connell Bridge. “Lotus Eaters” is set in the southeast quadrant (from Westland Row and past Trinity College to the baths); the northeast quadrant contains the slum and dock areas (“Circe,””Eumaeus”); the southwest is the business district centering around the castle (“Wandering Rocks”), and the northwest features the Ormond Hotel (“Sirens”) and Kiernan’s pub (“Cyclops). The center of town, from Nelson’s Pillar down Sackville Street, across O’Connell Bridge, and through the shopping district, can be traced almost step by step in “Lestrygonians,” when Bloom wanders the streets on the way to lunch. And in the “Hades” chapter, the funeral carriage makes its way from the southeast, through the city center, and on to the northern outskirts. [2]

It is well known that Joyce mapped out his characters’ movements through the city with a slide rule and compass. At the same time, Dublin functions as symbolic locale: June 16 at 10 A.M., a hot sultry day in Dublin, is emblematic of the narcotic state of the Lotus Eaters, whose tale provides the mythic analogue for Joyce’s chapter. At this “slack hour,” the boy in front of Brady’s cottages “lolls” and smokes a “chewed fagbutt.” The “smaller girl” “eye[s] Bloom listlessly”; in the next paragraph, Bloom stops in front of the Oriental Tea Company, and daydreams about the exotic East. And further: Joyce has planted any number of metonymic images that prefigure what is to come: the “postal telegraph office” looks ahead to the Westland St. post office where Bloom picks up , under the pseudonym Henry Flower (again a lotus reference), the secret letter from his penpal Martha Clifford. The “sailors’ home” points toward the garrulous old mariner of “Eumaeus; “Lime street” is appropriately named for a chapter that centers on the longing for the Orient; “Bethel” points to Bloom’s Jewish heritage; “Nichols’ the undertaker” reminds him that at eleven, he is going to Paddy Dignam’s funeral where the undertaker will be Corny Kelleher.

But Joyce–and this is again characteristic of Modernism–uses his Symbolist urban setting as a stimulus that prompts Bloom’s very private stream of consciousness. “Tell him if he smokes he won’t grow,” he thinks watching the boy with his “chewed fagbutt,” and then, being a non-judgmental, kindly type, he thinks better of this reprimand: “O let him! His life isn’t such a bed of roses! Waiting outside pubs to bring da home. Come home to ma, da.” And that thought, in turn, foreshadows the image of young Dingham’s memory of his “da” in the Hades chapter. Toward the end of the paragraph, linguistic play begins to take over. “Met her once in the park. In the dark. What a lark.” And then, thinking of Corny Kelleher, the undertaker, Bloom declares playfully: “Bury him cheap in a whatyoumaycall. With my tooraloom, tooraloom, tooraloom, tooraloom.”

Joyce’s Dublin, Eliot’s London, Proust’s Paris, Thomas Mann’s Venice– these modernist cities are revealed to us through their architecture. Their materiality is palpable, the settings being startlingly real if not surreal (e.g. Eliot’s “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many/ I had not thought death had undone so many….”), their value is complexly symbolic (Dublin as image of urban paralysis and loneliness, Proust’s Paris as locus of classconflict and social climbing, Mann’s Venice as the exotic Other); they elicit a new language which is polyglot, sophisticated, intricate–and determined to Make It New. In architectural terms, the Modernist city is the metropolis, as George Simmel characterized it in 1903:

A man does not end with the boundaries of his body or the vicinity that he immediately fills with his activity, but only with the sum of effects
that extend from him in time and space: so too a city consists first in the totality of its effects that extend beyond its immediacy. [3]

The city thus exhibits a powerful agency: in Ulysses, its presence asserts a powerful and persistent control of the psyche. It is when he crosses Townsend Street, for example, that Bloom comes face to face with the undertaker: a reminder of Dignam’s funeral but, more important, his own mortality, his precarious existence. The Modernist city, in short, is characterized by its density (both real and symbolic), its specificity and depth. Even in Finnegans Wake, where space and time become much more fluid and indeterminate, the point de repère is metropolitan Dublin, that “Irish capitol city… of two syllables and six letters, with a deltic origin and a nuinous end,” which can boast of having “the most expansive peopling thoroughfare in the world,” Dublin, with its “blightblack workingstacks at twelvepins a dozen and the noobibusses sleighding along Safetyfirst Street and the derryjellybies snooping around Tell-No-Tailors’ Corner and the fumes and the hopes and the strupithump of his ville’s indigenous romekeepers, homesweepers, domecreepers … and all the uproor from all the aufroofs.” [4]

But what happens to this “uproor from all the aufroofs” in the elaborately condensed “writing through” of Finnegans Wake made by John Cage as a radio drama (Hörspiel ) called Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake“? Is Dublin still felt as a presence in this postmodern performance piece or is the urban code displaced by a new emphasis on what has been called liquid architecture? These are the questions I wish to address here.

The title Roaratorio, as Cage tells Klaus Schöning who produced the radio piece for IRCAM in Paris in 1979, comes from the Wake itself, in a passage where the subjects of King Saint Finnerty the Festive preparefor “this longawaited Messiagh of roaratorios” (FW 41). Cage calls it a “circus” because “there is not one center but … life itself is a plurality of centers.” [5] Roaratorio is designed to be “free of melody and free of harmony and free of counterpoint: free of musical theory.” Again, if an oratorio “is like a church-opera, in which the people don’t act, they simply stand there and sing … a ‘roaratorio’ is … out in the world. It’s not in the church.” (R 89). And so “roaring” is par for the course.

But what kind of “roaring”? An entry into this curious homage to Joyce’s Dublin may be found in a comment made by Schöning in the course of working with Cage:

A fugue is a more complicated genre; but it can be broken up by a single sound, say from a fire engine” (from Silence)

Paraphrase: Roaratorio is a more complicated genre; it cannot be broken up by a single sound, say from a fire engine. (R 19)

Another way of putting this is to say that Cage has dematerialized his chosen city and replaced it with what we now call cyberspace, “a parallel universe,” in Michael Benedikt’s words, “created and sustained by the world’s computers and communication lines,” whose “corridors form wherever electricity runs with intelligence.” [6] In the realm of cyberspace, writes Marcos Novak, “The notions of city, square, temple, institution, home, infrastructure are permanently extended. The city, traditionally the continuous city of physical proximity becomes the discontinuous city of cultural and intellectual community. Architecture, normally understood in the context of the first, conventional city, shifts to the structure of relationships, connections and associations that are webbed over and around the simple world of appearance and accomodations of commonplace functions.” [7]

The “structure of relationships, connections and associations” of Cage’s “dicontinuous city” is characterized by its elaborate layering. The verbal text, to begin with, was produced, as I have shown more fully in Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media, [8] by submitting Finnegans Wake to a series of chance-generated operations (derived from the I-Ching but adapted for the computer on a program called Mesolist), that yielded a 41-page mesostic text, using the string JAMES JOYCE. As Cage explains it:

A mesostic is like an acrostic; I used the name of JAMES JOYCE. And had I written acrostics the name would have gone don the margin, the left handside. But a mesostic is a road down the middle. So I would look for a word with J in it that didn’t have an A because the A belongs on the second line for JAMES. And then a word with A that didn’t have an M, and an M that didn’t have an E, and an E that didn’t have an S and in this way I made a path through the entire book…. [And further] I made the rule of not repeating a syllable that had already been used to express the J of James. So I kept an index, a card index … [and reduced Joyce’s 626-page text to] 41 pages. (R 75)

Thus, to take just one example, the first page of the Wake yields no more than the two short mesostics that open Roaratorio:

	wroth with twoone nathandJoe

				sOlid man
		   that the humptYhillhead of humself
		    is at the knoCk out
			    in thE park     (R 29)

The “knoCk out / in thE park” in those last two lines is a reference to Castle Knock, in the cemetery near the west gate of Phoenix Park in Dublin. But whereas in the Wake, Phoenix Park can be said to symbolize the Garden of Eden– the setting of H. C. Earwicker’s innocent youth as well as his “fall” (he was caught peeping at or exhibiting himself to a couple of girls), in Roaratorio, such locales function neither realistically nor symbolically; rather Dublin becomes a kind of informational city, a dematerialized space that nevertheless–and this is the paradox—is always identifiable as a city that is not New York, not London, not Paris, not Istanbul or Delhi or Tokyo, but quite clearly Dublin.

Let me explain. When Cage was invited to provide “musical accompaniment” for his Writing through Finnegans Wake, he used the following procedure. The 41-page text became a ruler for the one-hour Hörspiel. Now, as Cage explains, “places mentioned in the Wake are identified in Louis Mink’s book A Finnegans Wake Gazetteer … by page and line. And so a sound coming from Nagasaki, or from Canberra in Australia, or from a town in Ireland or a street in Dublin–could be identified by page and line and then put into this hour, where it belonged in relation to the page and line of Finnegans Wake.” (R 89). The number of places mentioned (2462) was reduced by chance operations to 626, a number arbitrarily chosen so as to match the 626 pages of the Wake in the Viking edition (R 95). About half of these were in Ireland and half of the Irish places in Dublin.

But how can “place” be represented in terms of sound on multitrack tape? Cage’s method was to go to the places in question (or send friends and colleagues to those he couldn’t reach himself) and then record the sounds actually heard on site. Here are his instructions to his fellow collectors:

“The recordings should be at least thirty seconds long and not longer than a few minutes. The sounds do not have to be chosen. Simply go to the place indicated … and make a recording of whatever sound is there when you arrive.”

“As I mentioned, I need a recording of ambient sound from your part of the world from …. It will be used in a piece of music I’m making to be called Roaratorio, based on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. It will be what could be called an Irish Circus. If you could send me a tape or cassette, preferably 1/4″ tape, stereo recording (any length between 30 seconds and five or ten minutes) made in …, I would be very grateful….. You can simply accept the sounds which are in the place you go to when you make the recording. If there is some question about where you should go, you could answer it by some chance operation, such as dropping a coin on a map.” (R 119)

It sounds, at first, like some sort of joke. What difference can it make, the reader may well ask, whether a baby’s cry or church bell or the bark of a dog or running water is recorded in Dublin or in Kansas City? When Klaus Schöning recalls that “Trieste,” mentioned in the Wake, enters the sound track in the course of a recording “seven thousand metres above Trieste and the Berlitz School of James Joyce,” made “on the flight from Lyon to Belgrade” (R 13), isn’t he pulling our leg? Obviously, whatever sound is recorded on such a flight can have nothing to do with Trieste. Again, when Cage explains to Schöning that collecting sounds in Ireland “meant getting up early in the morning and driving sometimes as late as ten o’clock in the evening…. We would go say 200 miles and record a sound say in Skibbereen and it would be say just a dog barking or a chicken crowing, whatever happened to be there when we arrived” (R 95), we may well wonder whether the one-minute recording made in Skibbereen was worth the effort.

Let’s suspend our disbelief for a moment and see how the sounds in question were placed on the “ruler.” Not only does the hour-long performance contain 626 sounds based on the places mentioned in the Wake, but simultaneous programs were made from the actual sounds mentioned in Joyce’s book as well as from “appropriate” music. First, a listing of the sounds cited in the Wake was made and again condensed by means of chance operations (see figure 3). These sounds were then classified into categories (e.g., thunderclaps, farts, musical instruments, bells, clocks, chimes, guns, animals and birds, water: see figure 4), and again transferred from their spatial position to a temporal one: for example, the reference to the “with what strong voice of false jiccup!” (FW 4, ll. 10-11) means that we hear a hiccup at the corresponding point in time (c. 1 minute) on the hour-long tape. But note–and this is very important– that at the point where we hear the hiccup, the spoken mesostic text has reached the point of “and she allCasually / ansars hElpers” (R 29), which has nothing to do with “Jiccup.” The information coming through the channel is thus multiform and layered: there is no dominant sound, no center.

And further: Cage has incorporated a variety of Irish musics into the piece. A friend told him that he should enlist the voice of Joe Heaney, “the king of Irish singers and one hundred per cent the real McCoy.” Cage took a special trip to England where Heaney was performing, and the latter instructed him in the kinds of Irish music to include: “the flute, the fiddle, the bodhran [a sheepskin drum] … and the Uillean pipes,” as played by Seamus Ennis. Again, recordings of songs and melodies (in performances by soloists or composed variations of such solos) were superimposed on a multitrack tape to make a “circus of relevant musics” (R 175). The “score” includes familiar Irish songs like “Dark is the colour of my true love’s hair” and “Little red fox,” but also various hornpipes, reels, bodhran duets, and improvised pieces.

All these sounds were then superimposed on one another by a series of mathematical operations, the collection of sixteen multitrack tapes being combined into one. “The material,” says Cage, “is then a plurality of forms”; it has “what Joyce called ‘soundsense'” (R 103). But doesn’t it matter, Schöning asks Cage, that the sound track often drowns out the reciter’s voice so that the words cannot be understood? From Cage’s perspective this is no problem, for “this is our experience in life every day. Wherever we are a larger amount of what we have to experience is being destroyed every instant. If for instance … you go to a museum where you would think that you have … peace and quiet as you are looking at the Mona Lisa someone passes in front of you or bumps into you from behind” (R 101-03). In keeping with the circus format, the sounds never coalesce or merge; they retain their individual identities. Nor can the sounds heard in any sense “accompany” the words or provide a musical setting. The separate strata remain separate. Here is short passage from the beginning

(play tape).

To what extent is Roaratorio what Cage calls an “Irish Circus”? Does its locale continue to be Joyce’s Dublin or is the new urban architecture amorphous? On the one hand, Cage wants to emphasize the work’s internationalism: he tells Schöning that “Ciaran McMathoona, the chief in radio of the traditional music for the Irish folklore and a charming man” was “delighted that Finnegans Wake an Irish work–that a hörspiel on it should be commissioned by a German radio station … and that it should be made by an American with John Fullemann who is Swiss and his wife, who is Swedish” (93). Schöning adds that “it’s a production of WDR Köln with KRO Hilversum and SDR Stuttgart”; and further, it was done in a French research studio. “The whole thing is international,” Cage explains. “It’s all the world” (R 93). On the other hand–and this is a characteristically Cagean paradox–there can be no doubt that the finished multitrack piece is designed to signify Irishness, even what we might call Dublinicity. Let us listen to the same passage again and try to describe its sound patterning: (play tape)

The sounds you have just heard were recorded in such places as Ballyhooly (town in Co. Cork), Swords (N. Co. Dublin), Kish Lightship (E. of Dublin Bay), and Enniskerry (Co. Wicklow); sounds made in Ireland predominate (about three to one), but recordings were also made in places as far afield as Damascus, Prague, Baghdad, Madras, Sydney, and Lima. In the first few minutes of the “roaratorio” proper (3.10 to 4.10 on the tape), I distinguish the following sounds:

water poured into a bucket laughter
car braking whistle
chruch bells fire engine
baby crying motor boat
cowbells orchestra
automobile traffic baby crying
rooster crowing fire alarm
church choir motorcycle
soprano singing waterfall

And all the while, Cage is reading from his Joyce mesostics, the dominant sound being the repeated J of James Joyce. [9]

The effect is to make us feel that we are in a particular space: Dublin, or at least Ireland, even as we can neither visualize that space nor make an architectural drawing of it, and even as the text is always opening up to the larger electronic world and admitting sounds from Buenos Aires or Canberra or Helsinki. In the same vein, Cage’s is a text to be heard that must also be read, for in reading Roaratorio , one comes across many features that are obscured by the oral presentation, beginning with the Wake‘s punctuation, which Cage has liberally spread around the page. Take the stanza :

In cyberspace, Marcos Novak explains, “the identity of objects does not have to be manifested physically; it can be hidden in a small difference in an attribute that is not displayed” (MBC 239). And again, “Cybserspace offers the opportunity of maximizing the benefits of separating data, information, and form ” (MBC 225). This seems to me precisely what occurs in Hejinian’s cyberversion of Leningrad. Forms are no longer symbolic, yielding such and such information and data; rather everything happens in an unspecifiable space/time realm of “minimal restriction” (234). “Being there,” as in the Roaratorio, is the special pleasure of this dematerialized universe, but where is there? We are just beginning, it seems, to understand how what I have called the “radical artifice” of these new texts operates.

	       explanatiOn was put  in loo of
		  lokil Calour and lucal odour
		  to havE

The oral performance hides the pun “loo”/ “lieu,” the phonetic spelling of “lokil Calour” (“local color”), with its play on the Norse God Loki and the Italian patriot Cavour,”
and the mesostic embedding of “Yes” in”eyes.” Neither speech nor writing has priority in this nice exemplar of a Derridean system of differences.

A system of differences, one might add, that curiously anticipates the “informational city,” as Manuel Castells has characterized it. A recent New York Times architectural column by Herbert Muschamp describes the offices of the financial trading firm of D. E. Shaw in midtown Manhattan as tapping into the “international network of electronic communications that keeps the global economy humming. The ‘streets’ of this city have no potholes. They are paved not with asphalt but with telephone lines and radio waves that stretch between cities and leap across national borders.” As for the offices themselves, they are open around the clock “though for much of that time the firm’s windowlwess hexagonal trading room is unattended by human hands. Machines hold down the fort. Silently, with lights flickering, batteries of computers go about their programmed business….These machines are the traffic lights of the informational city.” [10]

This description of the informational city helps us to make sense of Cage’s project in his Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake. Although the language of Roaratorio is entirely Joyce’s, that language, spliced, endowed with capitals where there should be none, and radically condensed by the process of lineation, is transformed into an electronic communications network, whose “streets” are telephone lines and radio waves that connect the many parts of the world where sounds have been collected: Joyce’s text, condensed, minimalized, fractured, fades in and out in what is a floating abstract realm or space flow. At one level, Cage’s seems to be the very model of the dematerialized city, “Dublin” as “realm of pure information … decontaminating the natural and urban landscapes, redeeming them, saving them from the chain-dragging bulldozers of the paper industry, from the diesel smoke of courier and post office trucks, from jet fuel fumes and clogged airports, from billboards … pollutions … and corruptions attendant to the process of moving information attached to things(MB 3).

But dispersal is only part of the story. In The Global City, Saskia Sassen has forcefully argued that “the territorial dispersal of economic activity at the national and world scale [paradoxically] creates a need for expanded central control and management”: the city becomes the “command point in the organization of the world economy,” the “key location and marketplace for leading industries.” New York, London, Frankfurt, Paris, Hong Kong, Sao Paolo: in all these “maximum population and resource dispersal” has led to new systems of economic order and agglomeration,” new systems of central control. [11] Just so, Cage’s seemingly “open” and “decentered” Circus is governed, whether overtly or not, by the “command point” of the artist: Cage, after all, is always in control. If the sounds seem fortuitous, let us remember that they must be accommodated to precisely the hour format, that they come at points chosen and charted by Cage himself, who has planned every single detail. Indeed, if Joyce’s geometric grid gives way to Cage’s cyberspace, that cyberspace has its own super-programmer. The use of chance operations, we should note, does not mean that anything is left to chance.

Can the art work or poetic composition avoid this degree of control? The “liquid architecture” of Roaratorio may be dematerialized; it may well be an architecture that, in Marcos Novak’s words, “is no longer satisfied with only space and form and light and all the aspects of the real world … an architecture of fluctuating relations between abstract elements” (MBC 251), but this is not to say that dematerialization ushers in a new kind of freedom. Cage’s Dublin may have “transcended” the boundaries of Joyce’s four-square grid, but that transcendence is, after all, produced by the individual figure of the poet, controlling the multitrack tape performance from behind the scenes.

I do not mean to imply that such artistic authority is a bad thing. Poetry is, after all, with rare exceptions like the Japanese renga , a form of individual production, and however much the author of the Roaratorio may have wanted to get rid of the ego, his stylistic signature remains highly individual, indeed uniquely Cagean. To take another, later example of this tension between the dematerialization of space and the specification of the poet’s language, I want to look at a long poem published in 1991: Lyn Hejinian’s 300-age Oxota, subtitled A Short Russian Novel This lyric novel is written in the fourteen-line rhyming stanza of Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin and its “story” consistently but very indirectly alludes to the love intrigues, social events, and nature descriptions of Pushkin’s great poem. His Petersburg becomes her Leningrad, the Leningrad visited over a two or three-year period by a poet whose familiarity with the Russian language is only sketchy, and who is totally captivated by Russia even as she finds she cannot understand it.

The “hunt” of the title refers, I think, to the poet’s hunt for meaning. Whereas Pushkin’s Tatyana is “hunted by love’s anguish”(Book 3, xx), Hejinian’s “describer-perceiver” hunts among words and sentences for clues and connections. But what Hejinian calls a “glass prose” (a transparency model, a window on reality) is no longer adequate. Narrative, in these circumstances, becomes a language game: as Hejinian put it in an essay called “The Rejection of Closure,” “The very idea of reference is spatial: over here is word, over there is thing at which the word is shooting amiable love-arrows,” and thus “the struggle between language and that which it claims to depict or express” is what determines the very shape narrative takes. “Language discovers what one might know, which in turn is always less than what language might say.”[12]

From Writing is an Aid to Memory (1978) and My Life (1980), to her recent long metaphysical poem “The Person,” Hejinian has refused all notions of the self as “some core reality at the heart of our sense of being,” the still dominant myth of the “artist’s ‘own voice,’ issuing from an inner, fundamental, sincere, essential, irreducible, consistent self, an identity which is unique and separable from all other human identities.” Rather, “The person … is a mobile (or mobilized) reference point; or to put it another way, subjectivity is not an entity by a dynamic.” “Certainly,” Hejinian concedes, “I have an experience of being in position, at a time and place, and of being conscious of this, but this position is temporary, and beyond that, I have no experience of being except in position.” Thus, “the experience of the self” is perceived “as a relationship rather than an existence.” [13]

Psychology, in this scheme of things, means, not self-revelation, as in a more traditional poetry, but, in Wallace Stevens’s words, “description without place.” Consider Chapter One, in which the narrator (“Lyn”) arrives in Leningrad to stay (as we know from later poems) with the Russian poet Arkadii Dragomoschenko, whom she is translating.

This time we are both

The old thaw is inert, everything set again in snow

At insomnia, at apathy

We must learn to endure the insecurity as we read

The felt need for a love intrigue

There is no person–he or she was appeased and withdrawn

There is relationship but it lacks simplicity

People are very aggressive and every week more so

The Soviet colonel appearing in such of our stories

He is sentimental and duckfooted

He is held fast, he is in his principles

But here is a small piece of the truth– I am glad to greet you

There, just with a few simple words it is possible to say the truth

It is so because often men and women have their sense of honor.

Where does this “scene” take place and what is its information channel? In good epic tradition, the poem opens in medias res with “This time,” the implication being that “this time” (arriving again in the Soviet Union) will be measured against another time which was somehow different. But “This time we are both” immediately displays Hejinian’s deceptive flatness: the language seems totally ordinary, and yet it throws out any number of plot lines. Perhaps it means that “We are both here,” but then who are “we”? And what is it we both are? Both poets, one American, one Russian, or one woman and one man? Both guests of the Soviet government? Both ready for a relationship? Or if “both” is construed, not as the predicate nominative but as the modifier of the predicative adjective(s), we might read it as “both tired and hungry, both frightened and elated, and so on.

Something, in any case, is about to happen “this time.” The “thaw” of line 2 may well refer to the brief political respite of the Khrushchev years as well as the actual weather conditions; soon “everything [is] set again in snow.” And just as Pushkin’s dedicatory stanza describes his poem as the product “of carefree hours, of fun, / of sleeplessness, faint inspirations,” Hejinian refers to “insomnia” and “apathy,” warning her reader even as she warns herself that “We must learn to endure the insecurity as we read / The felt need for a love intrigue / There is no person–he or she was appeased and withdrawn.” The “need for a love intrigue” refers, of course, to the Onegin-Tatyana romance which is Pushkin’s “subject”; in our own fractured world, such “love intrigue” seems to have given way to the diminished romance of “relationship,” and even then a relationship that “lacks simplicity.” Indeed, all sorts of sexual and familial relationships, all more or less complicated, will be presented for our inspection, and part of the fun of reading Oxota will be to figure out who is drawn to whom, for how long, and what the sexual and /or political dynamics are.

In the meantime, the stage is set for the unfolding of events: “People are very aggressive and every week more so.” The “duckfooted” colonel, who will appear and reappear throughout the narrative, an embodiment of “principles,” and “sentimental” old truths, is introduced and then, like a stock character in a cheap thriller, mysteriously disappears again. And now the stanza ends on a turn of phrase that is brilliantly deployed throughout Oxota, especially in the early chapters, where the poet records how it feels to be a linguistic alien in a country one wants so badly to understand. “Here is a small piece of the truth– I am glad to greet you” is the poet’s rendition of the way “polite” Russian hosts greet their American guests, the excessive formality of phrasing being a function of unfamiliarity rather than good manners.

Many of us have had the experience of meeting foreigners who seem extremely, if not excessively polite until we realize they are speaking a careful English based on the classroom model or grammar book. Translated into colloquial English, line 12 carries something like the locution, “Believe me, I am so glad to meet you.” But in bringing “the truth” into speech twice, and in concluding that “It is so because often men and women have their sense of honor,” we are immediately in a language world–and, in Wittgensteinian terms, the limits of my language are the limits of my world–that is largely alien to the American visitor. Accordingly, for the “we” who are “both,” assimilation will depend, not on finding out what the words mean, but how they are used, how to read the signs. And, as Hejinian wittily implies throughout, this is no easy matter. When someone says to us “There, just with a few simple words it is possible to say the truth,” we surmise the presence of a sensibility that may not be there at all.

But then words like “there” are always suspect in Hejinian’s scheme of things, origin and location, whether of speech or event, being all but impossible to define. The line, “People are very aggressive and every week more so,” for instance, sounds like a snatch of conversation overheard while waiting on line at the butcher shop. But it may also refer to something quoted from the newspaper or, for that matter, it may record Lyn’s own appraisal of her surroundings. Even the stilted Russian constructions of the English language cannot always be attributed to X or Y; often, they may be Hejinian’s own, as she tries to make herself understood to those who have schoolbook English. They may even be approximations of Russian syntax, as laboriously translated into English by the poet. The pattern is further complicated by the gaps between statements and/or lines, one perception thus failing to lead, as Charles Olson would have it, immediately (or even remotely) to a further perception.

It is important to notice here that, as in the case of Cage’s Roaratorio, disjunctiveness does not always accompany an imagistic or filmlike collage surface, or even with the free association of stream-of-consciousness. Language does not represent “thought”; on the contrary, linguistic artifice is emphasized by the embedding of images in a network of abstractions, as in “everything set again in snow,” or by the positioning of abstractions in unlikely grammatical constructions, as in the locution “At insomnia, at apathy,” on the model of “at school” or “at home.” The resulting poem-novel is, as Hejinian puts it in Chapter Two, “something neither invented nor constructed but moving through that time as I experienced it unable to take part personally in the hunting.” It is as if the text avoids the requisite distance between subject and object and lets “events” unfold so that the reader feels as if she has come in on a conversation whose participants cannot be located.