The Wide Road Commentary

Maria Damon

My Sister/Mysteries, Exegetes’ Delight


A thin, flexible wand segmented by dehiscences arcs subtly across the upper part of the cover of my book. I mean, the book that Rachel Levitsky sent me and hence is mine; not that I wrote it. It’s The Wide Road, by Carla Harryman and Lyn Hejinian, two poetry megababe superstar coolio ladies. At first this wand is a bone, knuckled, burled and jointed. Or is it, or is it… I open the front and the drawing continues on the backside: the wand, now a stem, branches into smaller stems that end in huge, pompom flowers made up of hundreds of individual, prism-like blossoms… a flower whose reproductive organs are the beauty that captivate us in their minutiae? or a body part like the lungs, fallopian tubes, organs consisting of agglomerated cells differentiated yet similar, functioning in concert to create a human being? They look like sensing/hearing organs, surfaced like acoustic-enhancer devices in symphony halls, the better to hear you with, the better to feel you with (Hejinian writes: “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”[63]). This indeterminate animal-vegetable-mineral configuration (it could be a vein in a rock that blossoms into crystal or other geological mystery), resonant and dignified in its singularity, is multiplied on the back cover in joyous, impish, cartoonish overkill: a pattern of –insects? overly (B/ovary) ornate blossoms? highly stylized uteruses, or Victorian lamps in the shape of highly stylized uteruses? cover the surface of the page like 1950s wallpaper in furious motion: each blossom-unit is surrounded by sets of concentric circular lines that, in the comics/cartoon world signify agitated activity. Restless blossoms/sexual organs/lamps are these, glowing with animated interiority and showy exteriority. In their patterned repetition they riot decorously, intimating the contents of The Wide Road. I know there is another cover too, suggesting the “duplicity” within. I’m glad I got the cover I got, because it was such a tease: every exegete’s delight.

Then, on the inside, a gorgeous orange sheet of textured paper, sunny California with a touch of ombre. Title? Onward we trek, page by page, along the wide road of the book. “O man(sic)kind, get wide”! Exhoration toward open-mindedness and open-leggedness, a highly-traveled but no-less-for-that exhilaratingly new adventure-path that is the mother’s well-stretched birth canal, the channel of happy promiscuity and the expansive sensory apparatus, the story itself more capacious than capricious, offering a horizon along which anything can appear to fit and misfit. “Spreading our legs we invited the stranger to enter and make himself comfortable.” This hospitality is unafraid, not shy, and maintains its power in its ability to reflect on itself, pluralize, and celebrate itself. “Indeed, the morning bowed to us from the wide road which was filled with things to be coupled and compared.” Coupling and comparing is dialectical: we know who we are because we are not-that Other; in comparing we see how we are one or can be conjoined. Dialogical too: who is speaking/writing? Are Carla and Lyn interrupting each other’s sentences or finishing out alternative, gently sparring paragraphs? Are they separate and/or together, and along what axes?

The Wide Road is more twining than twinning, less wining and more winning, femme-picaresque and erotico-inquisitive across landscapes domestic and “foreign,” internal and intimate, simultaneously and ambiguously dyadic, singular and multiple. What is there to say about it that it doesn’t say itself? It says itself, they say herself, “we” says ourself. Playfulness and productive conflict. Don’t leave anything unattended, it will be searched out and we want you to be not too safe. Hejinian’s sentient curiosity, Harryman’s erotic imagining, and the volley of language in the valley of female eloquence, shuttlecocking and battledoring in letters, interwriting, and diptychal, split pagination: what do they do? They write speakingly to each other and to us, they participate fully (or as fully as the exercise allows) in each other’s internal lives as they sisterly spread forth their wherewithals for our intellectual delectation and part(y)-time participation. Yum. It’s an aesthetic revel; I feel as if I’m going on walks with them, celebrating the everyday in details of animal/human life–and vegetable/mineral life, sparring in writing (in the way that martial artists spar, stylizedly) about the use of eroticism and violence in writing, deviance and its spectacularization, Wallace Stevens once said (or wrote) that everything is like everything else; it is also different. Harryman and Hejinian, commadres in the language writing community who go back, what, say, about 35 years?, share and diverge and observe their commonalities and othernesses from each other and from others. It’s thrilling to be a woman writer reading these words, to see the excitement, shared and singular, over this ludic use of high talent and assertive intellection. No shame, no self-second-guessing, no two-steps-forward-one-step-back; without triumphalism or apology, without defensive finessing, gender and sexuality are both problematized and embraced.

Spiders and cows, those mythologically feminine creatures, are woven into meditations on animalness and storytelling, as “nurseries” are relevant to discussions of delicate plantlife (each blade of grass is a monument to structure”) and lively gaggles of children, whom the writers welcome into their spheres of attention as stimulants and thematic foci rather than sequestering them away, as did Rousseau. Also the freakish among them, the children, echoing the otherness of the writers themselves. These divisions into type, genus, species, etc., things to be compared and coupled, are questioned with intellectual grace, aesthetic/sensuous delight, and sharp critique. Politics are never far away, embedded in the gendered discourse of the authors and also referred to explicitly in passages on Haiti and the Gulf wars. While Grace Paley has written, “Sometimes, walking with a friend, we forget the world,” Harryman and Hejinian travel the wide road that includes the world at every step, on every page, mutedly or overtly acknowledged.

Erotic vignettes of youthful travel, fantasy, and debate. Dreamy feminine picaresque, self-confident phenomenological curiosity, aphoristic aperçu.

The lushness of these scenes is freighted for me with a particular memory of walking with Carla. Summer? 2006? On the wide road of the beach in Woods Hole Massachusetts. Nighttime in that heavily sweet, humid ocean wind that drenched the fuschia rugosa petals and turned them into quivering, twisting riot girls and bent the silver-green beachgrass across the shiny sand. Bits of cloud blew in from the bay and tangled in the scrub pines that leaned away from the waves and wind. The waves were roaring happily, not an instance of the overwhelming sublime but of acute sensory pleasure. It was a strangely fierce and romantic evening; nightwalking by the beach always contains its own wide and unpredictable pleasures. The moon couldn’t have been out, not with such a palpable fog, but everything was illuminated anyway; I wonder how.

In the passage early in The Wide Road in which Hejinian refers to a walk with Harryman, presumably in the Oakland hills or other Bay Area sanctuary, I felt this walk, the wonderment of processing the intellectual life with a live wire in a setting saturated with nature at its most erotic and pleasing. The following morning we watched parts of Zabriskie Point, and I associate the briskness of the “Zabriskie” sound and its geographical pointedness with our oceanside walk.