The Wide Road by Carla Harryman and Lyn Hejinian
(Belladonna, Brooklyn, N.Y., 2010)
Here we have a tome that asks a lot of key questions, has a lot of fun, prods us with voices that suggest embodied thoughts we can imagine as our own or those of our friends, and yet the book never quite gets truly satisfying—why? It seems to be made mostly of intellectualization that’s trying to be cool and at the same time hot, in the Levi-Straussian sense—of course.
Coupling in many senses is the main thematic in The Wide Road. I’m going to guess that the inverted reference to Basho’s travel journal The Narrow Road to the Deep North in the title is also part of this, and that the point might be that a man wrote a solo journey and this “we” is going to write something that is never solo, coupling to him and coupling as he didn’t. On page 122, the book declares “We can couple almost any one thing with another.” The particulars that get coupled, though, are what matters or (maybe I could say) “the matter.” The link to Basho, however negative or positive, is a kind of train car coupling to an engine. There are engines of form here too. The final section is written in two columns of separate but resonant voicings `a la Derrida’s Glas. It couples narrative and a poetic sense of auto-theorizing with commentary borrowed from film art, and it makes us feel as though we might be reading a critical plot summary from a catalog. Earlier sections read as an exchange of letters perhaps based in diaries. All sections before the last one imitate Basho in casting brief lyrics in a bed of poetic prose. There are also intermittent theoretical thrusts throughout the text:
One can see that from a certain point of view, a woman when it comes to sex is always on the outside.
But do you think that’s what it’s like to be a cup?
To what that are we referring, to what what, to what it?
There is a languid eros within a language eros.
These are sociological as well as literary, and therein lies the push. Whether we take these as just writing, writing that’s trying to be just, or truly sincere efforts to get a point across, they are so heavily self-reflective that they aren’t very much fun unless you start laughing at them. They are so seventies/eighties. What mostly gets coupled here are thoughts.
Even the sexy parts like
Spreading our legs we invited the stranger to enter and make himself comfortable.
only my shadow
will come to you
tonight to beg
for a little flesh
seem somehow weakened by theory, certainly weaker than the voluptuary poetry of India or Japan and less empowering of the womanly. In what seems like it might be a reference to the Kama Sutra, we have
Every poem is a posture we have tried:
leafy froth of toe
we bite in circles
topples time our flick
we wrestle wrists
This imagistic slide resonates with porn. Dream narrative is also used to present erotic energies. Many angles are used, but their failure seems too to be part of the book’s concept.
On page 49 in a “letter” beginning “Dear Lyn” implying that it might have been written by Harryman, we get
The difficult aspects of sex or sexuality may have to do with the way the fragmented form has evolved to this point. In addition to our eagerness to work in the most obvious genre that traveling used to suggest, the letter, a correspondence, might give us more thoughts about the fragmentation that thus far has constituted our excursion. Might I consider this insertion erotic?
The trouble with reading this is the “thoughts” and the desire for more of them. The intellectualization here is ponderous. Reading is certainly erotic, and so writing is too, but jeez when it’s all about dragging authors in by the hair it gets tedious. Despite all this thinking about things, the assertion is made that passion is central; one writer or the other asks “It is a passionate world, though—why?”
That is the question. It is worth a try at answering or even just standing with and mulling. When the passion swings as wide as the almost enchanting children’s stories and the Lorca-esque beauty of a longer poem with his green horse in it, or on to the challenges to Basho and Rousseau for how they treated their kids, this book shows passion.
When this book reflects on itself and strings together claims like
To live in a disenchanted world is to live at a dead-end. In The Wide Road “we” finds enchantments. The work may be an allegory about artists and the role of art-making. It is certainly a work about creative sexuality, and about sportive mindful animality.
and then doesn’t live up to them, it flops. A sentence like
Play is a medium in which the drive is encountered without significant threat to the subject.
is engaging if you want to step back and engage thoughts like “well, then sport is not play because it’s about threat barely contained by rules,” but the engagement is elsewhere. There are compensatory bits of self-reflection in this text of “we”:
The lonely woman of our profession has written her way into a romance, and she floats away in a wisp of thought leaving us holding our hands on the wide road.
I can’t help but take that image in a few directions: one, a little creepy, sees two women on a dirt road holding detached hands in their hands; another sees a romancer like our belovéd Jane Austen flying away while two women holding each other with both hands to both hands dance in the road; another sees the wide wide road as the central figure with two women on it and the thought of writing as its evaporative element. It was fun for me to read that sentence. All three of these parsimoniously principled readings say something about this project and what it was like to read it.
The penultimate taste I’ll leave you with is an address to “Dear Reader” near the end:
…if you’ve had too much languor, or language, if it bores you now, skip over this part or take a break.
There are, however, purely embodied moments in this thinking language project like this one from a letter that starts “Dear Carla”:
Sometimes in crowds I have an overwhelming impulse to stroke people’s skin or hair, in exactly the way I would like to touch a giraffe’s neck or an ostrich’s wing—out of sentient curiosity.
That shows the enchanting corporeal open thought that arises in this book’s best bits, cool as a myth and hot as political progress.
T.C. Marshall is busy occupying his life, seriously supporting movement actions on the Cabrillo College campus where he teaches and in the S.F. and Monterey Bay areas where he lives. He has been writing and publishing poetry since first grade, literary criticism since his college days in the U.S. and Canada, and nature writing here and there. His latest publications include online essays and reviews as well as poems online and on paper in magazines. His next project is a set of poems incorporating photos to be published on a blog, all of which were originally posted on FaceBook. They are called Post Language.