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Patrick F. Durgin reviews

Page, by Hannah Weiner

Roof, 2002
This piece is 2,000 words or about five printed pages long.

Perhaps no one else but Hannah Weiner has written of the human psyche with such grace — written in it, by it, alongside it, through it, and persuasively as it. I would make this argument of Jackson Mac Low’s work as well. As Ron Silliman once remarked, Mac Low is in some sense the ‘first American poet to throw over the so-called Problem of the Subject, showing it to be a mere sum of the writing’ (40). But obviously this and more must be said;  the sum of the writing becomes a too-vague common denominator without an irreducible quality, one which Weiner extends to the page, a technique she called ‘large-sheet poetry’ (Weiner, quoted in Bernstein 187).
     Being less than roughly the same age, and being explicitly located in the New York avant-garde of the sixties and seventies, Mac Low and Weiner share, if nothing else, respective peculiarities the literary historian has yet to call to account. In this sense, so much for the sum of the writing. What has been so compelling about their respective works has been less a vindication of formalist critical terminology on either side of the procedural and processural divide, but rather the way these authors showed that divide to be opportune and even decisive.
     Although oft-cited, that various band of tendencies associated with what Dick Higgins called ‘intermedial’ or what I would call ‘indeterminate’ artists ranging from Claes Oldenburg, Morton Feldman, and Mac Low to Weiner herself is yet to be usefully given its due — specifically in the narrative that runs from Olson’s New American project directly, via deliberate rupture, to Language Poetry. This is the binge and purge cycle by which USAmerican avant-gardes are thus named. For those familiar with Weiner’s work, a tempting trajectory will be the one reinforced by John Perrault’s review of the 1978 publication of The Clairvoyant Journal in the St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter.

Many were trying to do it;  few could. For various reasons we wanted to get poetry off the page ... media crossover ... Off the page and into the dustbin of history. It was the 60s, so everything seemed possible. The poetry reading became the poetry event became the performance. And Hannah Weiner was in the middle of it ... And what is left of these works? Hannah Weiner burned all her documentation and became a clairvoyant poet. (8)

More recently, readings of Weiner’s clairvoyant writings have oscillated from brusquely limiting discussions of trauma (viz. the author’s supposed neurological condition) to unabashedly doctrinaire Derridian discourse — ultimately poised to recuperate an oeuvre that can hardly be said to have been lost in the first place (Damon, Goldman). It seems to me a good idea to return to Mac Low’s jacket blurb, on the back cover of my copy of the Clairvoyant Journal.

Hannah Weiner is the only clairvoyant I know, or that I’ve ever known, as far as I know. She is also the only person on record — or so she believes as a result of her extensive investigations into both medical & parapsychic literature — to have experienced the particular phenomenon this journal represents, that of being ‘spoken to’ by several persons, most of them seemingly external to herself, by means of printed words in various colors & sizes that appear both on other persons & objects & on her own forehead (in such a way that she can perceive them from within). Hers, however, might have been but a ‘remarkable case,’ were it not for the fact that she is an artist. Her achievement — & it is a considerable one — lies in her having developed a specific literary form through which to convey her remarkable experience.

Unless one registers the import of this statement, while refusing to reduce the page to the subject, and the subject to ‘a mere sum of the writing,’ Weiner’s ‘grace,’ as I see it, will be very much beside the point. But if that is the point, let’s get to it.

Twelve years after completion of a fair copy, and six years following her death, the publication of Weiner’s Page is opportune. Foremost, it is an opportunity for pleasure — the book is exemplary of a newer USAmerican lyricism that mobilizes the grace of the human psyche without entailing humanist predispositions that allow us to toss off phrases like ‘the lyric poem.’ This grace is specifically an aesthetic grace, as Mac Low points out, not a disingenuously transparent case-record of perverse pathological states. What is important here is, yes, a kind of craft. Weiner writes clairvoyantly. This is a procedural and a processural technique.
     She also writes ‘large-sheet poetry’ which, one can now see, may in fact have been, as much as possible, perfected as form in Page (though The Clairvoyant Journal remains exemplary in many ways). But ‘large-sheet poetry’ is primarily a technique, not a form. ‘hannah I just sign my name put origin’ (Page 121). This deceptively simple, apparently involuted lyric address is typical of Weiner’s clairvoyant writings. But it contains its own impersonation — not ventriloquism, not its own opposite — being resolutely on and about that perhaps waning index of the talking book we have, for centuries, called our lives:  the page.
     For Weiner, we are / were radically on the same page. Determined to explore the phenomena of astrals, e.s.p., and other communal psychic techniques of, as she put it in an unpublished writing workshop syllabus, ‘awareness and communication,’ Weiner had gone well past Spicerian ‘dictation’ and proceeded to try and demonstrate the social event per se. She figured it as clairvoyance, which as a trope denotes prediction, but as a technique denotes a holistic pedagogical technique, a ‘silent teaching.’ Late works, such as We Speak Silent, present a confluence of voices which impersonate the mastery of originality through the voices of her friends and peers, Andrew Levy, Jackson Mac Low, and Bob Dylan among them. Page is comparatively more ‘lyric’ in terms of address. Charles Bernstein, Weiner’s literary executor, offers the deaths of Weiner’s mother and aunt in the mid-1980s as ‘the backdrop of the poem’ (134).
     That Weiner’s brand of clairvoyance is not simply a quasi-mystical trope for the lyric realization of the subject in the staid machinations of history is indicated in her cover letter, printed with the book, and addressed ‘Dear hero.’ Weiner writes,

Three sections:  PAGE (44 pages), ARTICLES (53 pages), SAME PAGE (19 pages). If you want to disorder them complete you obediently you stuck confident. So clear I didn’t number in order. In order sequence written honest. Be terrific. Same written be careful overconfident historical submit. 116 page sacrifice omit [...]

That the ‘Dear hero’ letter serves as jacket blurb here is a wise move. Given the provision for overconfidence and sacrifice, in light of the ‘stuck confident’ sequence of pages offered, the onus rests on how ‘clear’ and ‘honest’ the materials can be in this exchange. What, in this rendition of the social event, is being exchanged is pages. In preparing this first posthumous collection by Weiner, the editors have chosen, just as wisely, to refrain from making ‘corrections.’ This is not the mystical promise of capital exchange elevated to a poetry ‘written honest’ — honest for its dictatorial narcissism. But neither is it a social microcosm, like Spicer’s Berkeley or North Beach.
     These pages allow for the sort of melancholy the ‘backdrop’ suggests, running throughout the poem in the most obvious case of addresses to ‘sis’ — or, in the preface, ‘Hannah Weiner Statement,’ ‘Mother teaches simple   see introduction enclosed’ — but the vivid interruptions and mingling of social material loses nothing for all these things may claim for the poem. Moreover, the first page seems to squelch the alienating sense of clairvoyance as ‘power’ Weiner put forth about this time in a brief statement for the Poetics Journal’s ‘symposium on the person,’ ‘Other Person,’ while amplifying Weiner’s commitment to silent teaching despite the ‘fear’ and ‘loss’ indicated.

oh   I   was finish   a article   youre joking
poor stupid   stop correctly   it wouldnt
hurt stop names   somebody watching feelings
publish this article   whens a period   have you a
publish page   make this a article book   some other
subjects   do you have a reading   well it
cancels it just us   sis it lasts ten days
in our silence   well we dont cancel this girls
page   this little book returns   sis Im
writing return   watch the weather   plus I
get young girl   my   headache sometime
well you had the news   plus the article   book
sis it makes it clear conscientious   like this
book   make the fast publish   it says it has
two periods   make more complete   sis it says
something   did you invent   sis it hurts
itself reading   the book   well you get stuck
she puts it in the mail   sentence   because
I fear a mistake   question   dont feel ques you
lost sublime your power   not complete
this sentence page   uncomplete   on this page end
surprise   he hero subject   watchful thats
end sentence   which is it   a paragraph  (3)

What, then, is the struggle of the line, sentence, paragraph, and page (a continuum methodically explored through Weiner’s career with the richness of Gertrude Stein’s similar commitments)? Or, what’s at stake in this struggle? The final page, a ‘SAME PAGE,’ contains this ‘large-sheet’ subtitle, ‘sis struggle with content should be contrseeobhanqucontroltwopages’ (133). But this is far from soapboxing on the form / content debate, whose terms are quite illusory in this context.

same name omits providenceity same line continues
mother sincerity   big publisher destroy
confidential   destroy private comply editorial
very better languagecenterwriting   control obvious
I repeat literature   getoffthepageconnectwordssilent
sismotherwords   getprivatecompany get
off   spell   connecting                       WORDS HINTING  (132)

Part of the struggle is with our refusal to hold the center. So what if it does not hold? It was never asked to do any such thing. ‘literature’ is merely a failure of intention:  ‘seen words with it should be in provide’ (133). And indeed, what is at stake is all in your mind:  

When I see words I am also able to know, by reading or handling a book, as example, if an author is a friend, what her illness is, what books she prefers, whether she knows what to do for herself, whether to read her at all. ... clairvoyantly I am the other to myself ... In my nonclairvoyant work there is no person. (‘Other Person,’ 98)

The ‘SAME PAGE’ section, which closes the book, is characterized by the saturation of the page with keystrokes — the book is set in a courier-style font emulating Weiner’s actual typescripts — ‘pleaseconnectwordsofficepresidentkidyourselfofficegetofftheconnect’ (132). The large sheet is not a trace of a ‘lost sublime’ communion dictation might repair. ‘Control,’ the title given to many pages of this book, tends less to binary extremes of a dialectical pursuit than to the reader’s entirely unambiguous invitation, ‘publish,’ ‘provide.’ For Weiner, there could be no knowledge without the pimary communicative condition:  gratitude. There is no other heroism. The canny grace of Weiner’s parting words is hard to miss.

Works Cited

Bernstein, Charles. ‘Excerpts from an Interview with Hannah Weiner.’ The Line in Postmodern Poetry Ed. Robert Frank and Henry Sayre. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988. 187–88.

Damon, Maria. ‘Hannah Weiner Beside Herself: Clairvoyance After Shock or The Nice Jewish Girl Who Knew Too Much.’

Goldman, Judith. ‘Hannah=hannaH: Politics, Ethics, and Clairvoyance in the Work of Hannah Weiner’ differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, Summer 2001 v12 i2:  121–168.

Perreault, John. Rev. of Code Poems, by Hannah Weiner. Poetry Project Newsletter 99, 1983: 8.

Silliman, Ron. ‘While Some Are Being Flies, Others Are Having Examples.’ Paper Air: The Jackson Mac Low Issue Ed. Gill Ott. Blue Bell, Pennsylvania: Singing
Horse Press, 1983. 39–40.

Weiner, Hannah. Clairvoyant Journal. New York: Angel Hair, 1978.

———. ‘Other Person’ Poetics Journal 9 (1991):  97–98

———. Page. New York:  Roof Books, 2002.

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