i finally finished reading My Life yesterday (only a week or so after i was supposed to have read it - not bad). i'm itching to go through it again, though there is certainly not time enough for that.
As i read i was thinking about autobiography, and the decisions an author must make about how to construct their* life story. What events are included? Not included? Does the author try to construct a factual account (through interviews, old home movies, photographs, etc) or rely on personal memory. There is a tendency to construct history as narrative, and that is as true for personal history as for other kinds. Lyn Hejinian explodes that narrative impulse. She also acknowledges the arbitrariness of autobiography (the title of this post is a phrase from the book) by deciding on a structure before writing: the first edition of the book had 37 paragraphs, each with 37 sentences - one for each year of the author's life. The second edition increased those numbers to 45, with the author adding 8 sentences to each of the sections, and then writing 8 more sections. My Life has the potential to be a lifelong poem, constantly being updated and expanded. Yet, like all autobiography, it will never keep up with the writer, can never account for her death. This structure emphasizes that.
Repetition in My Life occurs frequently, and with variations (much like music, actually). As far as i could discern there was nothing mathematical about the repetition, but it pointed towards acts of memory: certain themes would appear frequently, fade into the background, and reappear changed, while other themes would be prominent for a while and then disappear entirely. For instance, a line like "I wrote my name in all of his books" (might not be exact, sorry, i don't have the text with me) would appear in one section to refer to a boyfriend, and in another to refer to the writer's father. This makes the reader question association -- who is the intended recipient of "his"? The ambiguity of reference makes it clear that full understanding, that exact relation, is impossible to achieve. Reality is constructed by the writer; language is the medium of that construction. Hejinian is aware, and makes her reader aware, of the dependence we have on language to explain, and thus shape, experience.
The poetry also refuses to participate in the intense confessional aspect of autobiography. Yes, there are intimate details within the text, but they are not decoded and explained for the reader. How particular events and people contribute to the shape of the author's life is unspecified. Which makes the poetry richer for re-entry; i have a feeling it will read very differently a second time around -- especially when it comes to noticing subtler reoccurring images and phrases.
Hejinian never lets the reader forget that the book is a construction -- its refusal to conform to expectations (linearity! narrative!) and the beauty of the language ("a pause, a rose, something on paper") combine to make an intriguing read.
*i have decided to use plural "their" instead of "his/her", "his or her", "his", or "her". It's how i roll.