Tuesday, November 27, 2007


"These are the days": a first note on Larry Eigner

Recently taking an intensive look at the excellent 1997 memorial issue of the online journal Passages celebrating the life and work of Larry Eigner (for some reason I've not been able to create a link to this, so if you are interested please search for "Eigner Passages 5" or "EPC Authors Eigner"), I found myself delighted by Kit Robinson's beautiful formulations defining the characteristic movement of Eigner's poetry. Take for instance the following two sentences from Robinson's essay:

"In Eigner, the desire to know anchors itself in the discrete particular, recording sense data in an empiricism derived from Williams, Pound, and Olson, then stretches itself by a series of shifts of attention, to create an arching figure for knowledge. The shapes those figures take are products of an insistent, restless movement on the one hand, and on the other a refusal to compromise the harvest of the moment by surbordinating it to any totalizing statement."

However, I also found myself wishing very much that Robinson would, at least parenthetically, note that there are other types of fine poems by Eigner than those involved with momentary particulars. A short amazing Eigner poem called "Whoppers  Whoppers  Whoppers!" that I take to be one of pure statement was ringing in my ears.

One of the virtues of David Baptiste Chirot's essay--ambitious in scope and relatively lengthy--in the Passages issue is that he indeed presents other sorts of Eigner poems than those that are most typical. Chirot finds it crucial to discuss an Eigner poem--"Whitman's Cry at Starvation in a Land of Plenty"--that speaks of Civil War prison camps, and of the persistent importance of the factors of "consumption and conservation and population" in human affairs. Chirot also presents a short Eigner poem called "a  d o t" that is a brief characterization of Space and Time.

Let's look at the poem I said was "ringing in my ears":

Whoppers    Whoppers    Whoppers!

          memory fails

              these are the days

This is a deft characterization--skewering--of the nature of Nostalgia. One convinces oneself of massive lies--whoppers--concerning the Past that make it seem so much more lustrous than the Present: as stated in the common phrase that Eigner alludes to, those were the days that were truly worth living. The phrase "memory fails" usually refers to forgetting some fact about the past, or something one learned in the past--say someone's face or name--but here it is transported towards meaning that memory is failing to properly evaluate what the past was actually like in comparison to the present.

"Whoppers" is the second poem in Eigner's 1983 volume Waters / Places / A Time. It's interesting to turn back to the first poem from that book:



                    ows a


At first glance, this may seem like one of Eigner's most modest exercises in the registration of momentary perceptions--using "modest" not to refer to the attractive verbal restraint found everywhere in this poet's work, but as a mild pejorative. Eigner has apparently arrived in his electric wheelchair 1 at a building housing a cooperative venture, most likely a food co-op, and finds something attractive about the building's windows and its door. The split-up of the word "window(s)" into "wind//ows" suggests the word's derivation from an Old Norse word meaning "eye to see the wind".

OK. So now we can turn the page?

However, if we hear the syllable "ows" also as a pun summoning the word "owes", this poem resolves into, or has one of its aspects as, a statement: The conception that there is a fresh wind within the co-op--that is, an ethos of indeed cooperative working and living; and that the co-op members, possessing this spirit, and having their special views, their windows into the outside world, owe it to the world to try to find a pathway, a door, into an era in which such values are more widely prevalent.

1 Regarding Eigner's mobility, see the third paragraph of Robert Grenier's essay in the Passages issue. And see all the issue's prose essays--those by Dorothy Jesse Beagle, Charles Bernstein, and Ben Friedlander, in addition to those previously mentioned by Robinson and Chirot; and certainly as well the letters by Eigner himself, for valuable perspectives on this extraordinary man's life (1927-1996) and work. I haven't yet read the Passages poems dedicated to Eigner--and what am I waiting for?

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