The Wide Road

Carla Harryman and Lyn Hejinian



Monday, March 21st, 2011

On the Road’s last long sentence concludes the novel with the (in)famous “scoping” from external observation to internal reflection created by Kerouac’s breath-taking spontaneous prose:

So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.

By prying apart syntax with sweeping gestures that observe and reflect and question, Kerouac’s style encompasses the mode and aims of the entire novel. Here we have syntax (convention) dislodged; we have a further overthrowing of convention via empathy with “all the people dreaming in the immensity” of America. We have, via parataxis, an emphasis on the connective moments of the journey, rather than on any sort of end-driven goal. We also have the friendship bond between Paradise and Moriarty reaching through the separation of distance via thought. If life-as-a-journey is one of our foundational conceptual metaphors, On the Road presents an exposition on what it is to live.

However, we also have, in this moment, the project’s failure, for regardless of the novel’s efforts, its protagonist remains infused with the values of the system he seeks to break from. Paradise’s empathy with what is other to him (what is not male, white, educated, and middle-class) is obtained by objectifying the other. His journey, while undertaken for the experience rather than a goal, nevertheless ends with the sentiment of “forlorn rags of growing old,” of an inevitable end, of death. And as to friendship bonds—in the end Dean Moriarty is abandoned to the rain, accessible only in thought. He is absent and, furthermore, drives home the absence of “the father” and what the father represents: country, language, law. The cause of this failure is the fact that the transcendence longed for in On the Road is one of individual transcendence, thus inevitably locking the novel into the foundation (individualism) of the very conventions of American culture that it seeks to break from.i

This failure may be old hat, bromidic sermon, but it is a failure that still presses on our culture as we continue to clutch our beloved sense of individuality. This grip continues to be particularly evident and painful in discourse around American poetry wherein the notion of a poem “mattering” is still often, unfortunately, directly tied to individuality via a New Critical concept of “voice.” Under this model of poem and self, if a “voice” doesn’t “speak to me” (read: “give me what I need,” or, in a less cynical version, at least “speak my language”) then I have no reason to “care.” Furthermore, as Jonathan Culler notes in his essay “Why Lyric,” (and elsewhere) the New Critical lyric—and its reception by critics—has encouraged us to think of voice in poetry in fundamentally narrative terms, as “a fictional imitation of the act of a speaker, and to interpret the lyric is to work out what sort of person is speaking, in what circumstances and with what attitude or, ideally, drama of attitudes.” ii Such handling of voice minimizes focus on the processes of artifice, language, and the construction of identity in order to hi-light a decontextualized, individualistic model of the self.iii

And so, are we doomed, like Paradise, to continue to fall short of exiting the monolith in our poetry, and in our lives? The Wide Road, a collaborative multi-genre book by Carla Harryman and Lyn Hejinian, answers this question by presenting an alternative conception of life-as-a-journey. Here, rather than linear “voice”-driven narrative, we have fragment, conversation, “forays” into language’s “arrays” and an alternative, relational concept of self.iv

Hejinian and Harryman began writing the book in 1991, and Belladonna’s website tells us that the composition unfolded over the following twenty years “by letters, by walking, in cabins, together and apart, and finally together again.” Given the fact that the text is a collaboration, the book immediately challenges the notion of individual authorship. However, the book does not simply blend the voices of two autonomous authors—its project goes much deeper than this. Here subjectivity (echoing Kristevav) is the effect of linguistic process, rather than something that comes into being before or apart from language. The collaborative nature of the book thus provides a completely different conception of the self in the world than that modeled both by the conventional journey narrative wherein man sets out alone—and by the new critical concept of the lyric, wherein the self of the poem speaks fully-formed from offstage. As such, Harryman and Hejinian’s text does not just propose, but, rather, performs relational subjectivity. Here, not only are the authors directly speaking to each other and to us, but what and who they are is created and informed by this process of relationality, thus creating a work that “has multiple centers of gravity.” These centers include investigations into the relationship between sexuality and violence; power and desire; humans and nature; politics of the self and other; friendship; and “compassion and animal exhaustion (death).” Here, life as a journey down a “wide road” does not circumscribe, but radiates out.

The book is given solidity and focus by its structure. Divided into four sections, each section performs a different mode of relational subjectivity, and I suspect that the different textures of the sections have as much to do with the processes of composition as they do with working to get at relation from various angles. Sections one and three are prose-and-poem hybrids that present a blended form of subjectivity and enact a collaborative stream of consciousness. For example, the book begins:

Late one afternoon, we find ourself wandering in our city, the site from which we have long regarded the distant horizon. It is always changing. We notice that we have been distracted by many days and minutes, many trees and malls and continents, many radiants and radicals, many names and figures of many men, children, women, goats—and that we have been walking in silence for such a long time that we have reached the ocean, where we encounter a little drama, a rescue in which someone is saved from drowning.

As is true of this passage, all of the writing in sections one and three employ third-person pronouns, and it is impossible to tell who authored which passage. In addition, the referent of the pronoun “we” is ambiguous and shifts. Sometimes “we” seems to mean “the multiplicity that is I” (as in “we find ourself wandering the city”). Sometimes “we” feels like it indicates the two authors (in the passage above I can easily imagine the two poets on a walk to the shore). And sometimes “we” seems to refer to larger groups such as “women” or “humankind” or “Americans” (as the list of “distractions” accumulates I feel as if these are our culture’s distractions, as well as those individually owned). This tactic of shifting reference shows attunement to nuances of intersubjective experience as it becomes constituted in language. It also points to the limitations and flexibilities of language, hi-lighting the complexities that undergird even the simplest of words: we.

The second section makes use of the epistolary form and includes three exchanges of letters between Hejinian and Harryman. The letters are dated, addressed, and signed, making it quite clear who authored each letter. The language of these letters is direct and often addresses the project itself. For example, the first letter, from Harryman, begins with the salutation “Dear Lyn” and proceeds to say:

It seems to me that this may be the right moment to start a correspondence; I think we need to take a break from accumulating fragments. The difficult aspects of sex or sexuality may have to do with the way the fragmented form has evolved to this point.

This overt discussion of the project underlines the constructed nature of the language that speaks to us from the page (it is a made thing that we, and the authors, can stand back from and analyze). In addition, the epistolary form allows the authors to draw thematic concerns to the surface. One of the most striking moments is Harryman’s mediation on a photograph from Bataille’s journal Documents of two children who share the same hair.

I am looking at the reproduction of a photograph of an 18th century drawing of two children who share the same hair. By necessity, they are standing so close together that it is difficult to discern if they are joined in any other part of the body. In any case, they are not facing the same direction: one child offers the viewer a profile and the other a semi-frontal view: they are rendered as specimen. Perceiving them in this way is uncomfortable, at least to me.

In her analysis of why the photograph arrests her, Harryman does not arrive at any conclusions. Rather, her letter to Hejinian provides an example of the mind in the act of consideration, that is to say, in the act of constructing relation. The work Harryman does with the photo not only brings it into the epistolary conversation, but also employs it as a vehicle to drive relationality. Furthermore, the energy of the contemplation does not stop with the end of Harryman’s letter, but infuses later moments in the text both implicitly and explicitly, as when Hejinian takes up the theme of the photograph of the children in a later letter. As such, this section shows us the ways in which the act of writing is an act of creating relationships rather than an act of reporting relationships that are already established. Furthermore, the fact that this is performed in letter mode draws the reader’s attention to the extent to which we all engage this relation-making act daily via letters, emails, texts, Facebook status updates, etc.

If the first three sections invite reader participation through the difficulty of fragmentation and reference (sections one and three), and the concept of text-based exchange (section two), the final section of the book pushes the reader’s involvement in performing relation one step further. The section is constituted of double-columned pages. The right-hand column is titled “Array” and the left-hand column is titled “Foray.” The columns are divided one from the other with a black line, and each column has a distinct style that is carried through the remaining twenty-four pages of the book. The style of “Array” includes dates, lists, and anecdotes. The style of “Foray” includes literary allusions and precise visual details of the natural world. This typographical division between the columns and the distinctness of the two styles does not invite us to easily read the text in the normative way, all the way across from left to right. Rather, the natural path through the page is vertical, column-by-column.

The effect of this division is that it asks us, the book’s readers, to perform the role of relation-making that we have witnessed in the other sections of the book. What, we must ask ourselves, is the relation between the passage on the left (such as “Let’s remember the place in the woods where we stopped to compare a shrubby ravine extending uphill under leaning tree trunks with certain paintings by Cezanne…”) and the passage on the right (“Loneliness is nothing, encompassing abandon. In loneliness the past seems vast. As a wife has said, it often seems that the husband is lost in the grass.”)

Whether or not (and how) we can create linkages between such passages leads directly into (and back to) the notion of mattering—of whether or not poetry, or anything else, can “matter.” This subject of “mattering” is directly addressed by Hejinian’s July 10th letter to Harryman and, not surprisingly, does not revolve around an individualistic voice coaxing readers into a state of care:

In my last letter I continued with the notion of “mattering” that you raised in your first letter—where “matter” refers to literal materializing and to significance, importance, something worth caring about (emotionally, intellectually, ethically, amorously, etc.). The linkages you imagine when you speak of one’s thanking a mountain for the use one makes of it—or, as I would hope one might, thanking it simply for being there, for making an appearance (as the white-tailed kites we saw together above a coastal meadow did, to our mutual delight)—I want to forge and continuously feel such linkages. To live in a disenchanted world is to live at a dead-end. In The Wide Road “we” finds enchantments.


i See Haslam, Jason. ” ‘It Was My Dream That Screwed Up.’ The Relativity of Transcendence in On the Road.” Canadian Review of American Studies, 39 (4), (2009) pp. 443-464.

ii See Culler, Jonathan. “Why Lyric?” MLA 123 (1) (2008), p. 201.

iiiThanks to Noah Eli Gordon for sparking this branch of thought…and to putting Facebook to intelligent use.

iv Appreciations to Enikő Bollobás and Zoltán Kövecses for kindling thoughts about relational subjectivity and conceptual metaphor.

vThis echoing of Kristeva, as well as other aspects of this review, shows the extent to which the book rewards reading as a feminist text. I hope to see conversations in essays and reviews that focus on this regard.

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3 Responses to “The Wide Road”

  1. Ira Sadoff Says:

    Just want to thank you for another thoughtful review that opens the work up, details its virtues, and demonstrates without hype or self-absorbed cleverness why the work really matters.

    Two wonderful, ambitious writers engaged in praxis:they appear to nourish each other and their readers beyond what any individual volume could do.

  2. Sesshu Foster Says:

    Terrific, lovely point of departure from Kerouac developed into compelling, lively exegesis—delivering how the text could matter, on points that do matter!


  3. John Smith Says:

    Really reaching with the Kerouac stuff. Over the top intellectual shite. Sounds like a boring book.

    All the bluster about ‘mattering’ is ludicrous: what have the author/publishers done to get the work out there? Started a facebook page? Great.

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