The Eigner Sanction: Keeping Time From the American Century

Whoever dwells everywhere, Maximus, dwells nowhere at all.
—Martial, VII, Ixxiii.

Early in Clint Eastwood’s 1975 film The Eiger Sanction, his character, Dr. Hemlock, an art historian, collector, and retired government assassin, is summoned to a darkened room to meet with Dragon, the albino mastermind of the secret government agency C2, who mentions that a rare Pissarro will soon go on the black market. When Hemlock fails to bite, Dragon turns on the pressure, reminding the underpaid professor that his phenomenal art collection—now 21 world-class canvases kept in a secret vault below his otherwise unassuming Alpine hut—would “make interesting material for the internal revenue people,” and walking him through an imaginary auction of his holdings in which a particularly thuggish C2 nemesis of Hemlocks’s, Mr. Pope, winds up with one of the connoisseur’s precious canvases. This cruel coming to the point is a carefully chosen payback for Hemlock who, on being explained initially that the darkened room was necessary because of Dragon’s medical condition, had cut short their conversation with a cruel rhetorical question, aimed at what he took as an embodiment of the lame and increasingly untrustworthy state, from whose Cold War imperatives Hemlock wished to disaffiliate himself: “Does your physical disability preclude you from coming to the point?”

Two years earlier Leonard Henry and Jan Boon produced “Getting it Together: A Film on Larry Eigner, Poet.” Because Eigner’s speech was affected by his cerebral palsy, the filmmakers decided to have Allen Ginsberg do most of the reading, in some cases followed by Eigner. After one poem and a brief scene setting on Eigner by the narrator, Ginsberg offers his own framing of Eigner’s work:

“Ah, obviously the form of the verse is dictated by his physical condition of slow hesitancy and difficulty in maintaining his hand steady to write words. And as the words come swiftly through his mind he has to stop his whole thought process to write down a word while thoughts are going on still.”

Two temporalities, then, in Ginsberg’s reading—a fast time of thought, and a slow time of difficult key pressing. Eigner’s particular aesthetic, his version of an open field poetics, is produced by the irreconcilable conflict between them. He cannot come fully to the point because the physical labor of registering a single word is so great, and the time of his thinking necessarily so much faster, that his forlorn lexemes, out in their vast expanses of white pages, will always remain but romantic ruins of the richer internal thought processes out of which they emerge. When the transcript of this film was later published, Eigner added a note to Ginsberg’s statement, hinged on the word “obviously.” “Obvious,” it reads, “but not too good a guess” (ibid.).

On September 22, 1965 Eigner, then living in his parents’ house in Swampscott, Massachusetts, started one of his over 1700 poems, beginning with the line “those planes were loud.” First published in the 1980 chapbook Flat and Round, by Lyn Hejinian’s Tuumba Press, Eigner’s poem would thus travel both 3000 miles across the country to Berkeley and 15 years into the future—from the beginning of escalation in Vietnam to Reagan’s first year in office—before its odd, recalcitrant temporality would claim readers’ attention. References to the sonic dimension of air travel were a common feature of Eigner’s poems. He lived less than ten miles away from Logan airport in Boston and undoubtedly heard planes low in the sky on final approach and takeoff. We think of Eigner, perhaps, as the most minutely focused of the New American poets—the most attuned to his immediate environment, an environment that consistently includes the language of its description, doubling back and complicating easy picturing. Both these features of his poetics—insistence on the contingent surroundings and their reflexive unfolding in language—suggest that the larger, exterior world of airports and transcontinental flight might seem alien to the second-to-second unfolding of perceptual effects among the trees in Swampscott. But there is also an outside to Eigner’s poetry, and it can help give us a richer sense of why its inside was, and remains, so singular.

If not quite at the pitch of the Cuban Missile of 1962, the Cold War was in 1965 nonetheless beginning again to simmer. Air and space were the domain, even the medium, in which this agitation registered most clearly. On March 18, the first person to walk in space had been a Soviet cosmonaut. A month earlier, U.S. bombers from aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin began operation Flaming Dart in Vietnam; a week later President Johnson authorized operation Rolling Thunder, an even larger scale bombing mission; then in April the U.S. began dropping napalm throughout Vietnam, where the Johnson administration now—that July—sent 50,000 additional troops, increasing the total to 125,000. In October, the U.S. would test a hydrogen bomb in the Aleutian Islands equal to 80,000 tons of dynamite. And, closer to home, on July 11, a U.S. surveillance aircraft crashed off Nantucket, killing 16 of the 19 crew aboard.

Developed in 1963, this plane, the EC121H Warning Star, was charged with monitoring the eastern seaboard; a sequence of the aircraft flew continuous missions over the Atlantic coast 24 hours a day for a decade. Producing photographic documents that would be beamed across the United States and interpreted by specialists at the North American Air Defense Combat Operations Center in Colorado Springs, the Warning Star sought out singularities in its assigned neighborhood, tracing in particular Russian aircraft and naval vessels cruising off the east coast of the U.S. While other jets of this same make provided surveillance for atomic testing in the Pacific, and for the war in Vietnam, this squad remained in a kind of permanent holding pattern whose center was less than 20 miles from Eigner at another local airport, Hanscom Field in Bedford, Massachusetts.2

“The plane sounds protective,” Eigner writes in a May 1960 poem. That October, an Eastern Air Lines flight landing at Logan airport crashed into the sea, killing 62 of the 72 passengers aboard. Eigner writes directly of the accident: “planes again hove by / the corridors light above / sirens, after the crash / this wall off toward the bay.”3 If Eigner’s house in Swampscott was nominally protected by the Warning Star, it was also, however, an around-the-clock center for a very different kind of information gathering. Connected by radio to the outside world, even introduced by radio to the field of poetry, news for Eigner both comes through the air and is often of the air: rockets and jets are launching satellites, dropping bombs, testing nuclear weapons, spewing exfoliates, and crashing into the sea close by. And yet “news” in Eigner’s poetry would seem to be a direct rejection of these kinds of drama, even when highlights of this drama occur within earshot. Rather, Eigner FM tended to register events that could not be noticed, let alone broadcast, by major stations, central among these what he calls “tides of the air” (419) or elsewhere “the inrolled / maps in the sky” (425). Eigner’s attention gravitates toward the air in part because it is an undomesticated, fluctuating space that will not permanently retain man’s physical or linguistic imprint: “no axiom exists / in the air” (428).4

But if air is the constantly mutating and refreshing medium of freedom, it is also the permeable membrane through which his research radio station gets linked to, even harnessed by, the rest of the world, which is why manned flight becomes such a crucial seam within Eigner’s poetics of air. Many of Eigner’s poems from the late 1950s and 60s explicitly reflect on space travel and the possibility of airborne nuclear destruction. But this engagement is typically understated, superimposed as one among several interpretive registers: “That the neighborhood might be covered / by one roof, occurred / this morning,” Eigner writes in a 1959 poem, morphing this image of a dome into a mushroom cloud with the lines, “And death when you don’t want it what you like / is a plain object // the long-trunked clouds / a weltered event” (305). Again, most long-trunked clouds and weltered events in Eigner’s poetry are less about singular tragic occurrences—like nuclear strikes—than about the ongoing perceptual possibilities of clouds transforming in time. But the fact that there is quiet commerce—or perhaps we should call it air loss—between the durational neighborhood diorama in which Eigner labors and the outer world of nuclear strikes and airline crashes helps us understand the degree to which the former is not so much a repression of the latter as it is a patient and radical re-modeling of it with the materials at hand. Or, to put it sonically rather than physically, the slow process poetics of air always available on Eigner FM was a dramaless, eventless broadcast that achieved its traction dialectically as a aural oozing below the frequency of administered news—even public radio.

Like Henry Darger taking daily meteorological data and comparing it to the weatherman’s predictions, or Georges Perec making the micro-occurrences of a single Parisian apartment building the whole story of a gargantuan novel, Eigner’s attention to his occasionally domed domain should also be understood as an intentional and carefully framed project. As Eigner himself put it: “In order to relax at all I had to keep my attention partly away from myself, had to seek a home, coziness in the world.”5 And yet this physiological constraint does not dictate the kind of attention Eigner will lavish on the surrounding world. And this is why he objects to a reading like Ginsberg’s that sees Eigner’s singular open field poetics as a direct mechanical consequence of his cerebral palsy. The type of exterior home Eigner will construct is not a given; nor is his patience, either in Swampscott or in Berkeley. The poem with which I began helps to draw all this out.

+++those planes were loud

+++++++the degree+++with my head down
++++++++half-way to my lap

+++++++what bird’s call
++++++++sounding close
+++++++I haven’t
++++++++learned+++a flute

+++++++++to match silence
+++++++and the sea’s sound

+++there’s nothing like music
+++++in the street

+++++++out the opposite window
+++++++++along through trees

+++++a piano hoisted up-
++++++level storey

+++fire sire
+++++the hot night
+++++++++still to draw

+++the passing earth
+++whirls out (671)

Here the external world of planes is a prompt—an alarm clock even—that as ambient sound often does for poets (think of Wordsworth) begins the focusing process: first, on a rare image of the speaker’s body, and then on a series of less dramatic, less loud, sonic occurrences that organize the neighborhood. The failed identification of a birdcall here is also a rejected identification with birds, say famously melodic nightingales, as idealized figures for poetics. Similarly, the role of the as yet unlearned flute would only be “to match silence / and the sea’s sound.” Another celebrated melody maker, producer of expressive musical figures, must for Eigner compete against the equally fascinating ground of silence (more Cagean than absolute) and sea murmur. Here as elsewhere in Eigner the received hierarchy of event over condition is first challenged and then exploded—as conditions themselves become micro-events. When Eigner writes that “there is nothing like music / in the street” he means not that literal music beyond his driveway would be the asymptote of excellence but that the actual sounds of the street—on which he’s just reflected—would be poorly described by analogies to music. And so flutes and bird songs are poor figures for the poet’s self-assigned role as reflexive transcriber of local audio effects. As he continues, the piano is similarly of interest not for the music that might come out of it, but for the sound its hoisting makes. In the distance fire fathers (or sires) a siren, and crickets fill the subsequent gap, as the poet both draws and draws from the earth, before drawing his poem to a temporary close, which the next poem of his street will quickly open again.

Eigner was not unknown at the time this poem was composed. And yet, his most sustained reception would occur at least a decade later, in the 1970s and 80s, when he was taken up by poets associated with Language writing. Barrett Watten published him in early issues of This, brought out a book of Eigner’s prose in 1978 (the long, elegant sentences of which casually explode Ginsgberg’s claim), and then wrote on Eigner in Total Syntax. Hejinian, as I mentioned, published her Tuumba press Eigner chapbook in 1980 and Ron Silliman dedicated his 1986 anthology of Language writing, In the American Tree, to Eigner. So there was both significant interest, and significant lag time: the odd temporalities of Swampscott in 1965 getting re-released, rebroadcast, in the atmosphere of Berkeley in the 1980s.

But it was not primarily time that caught the attention of the Language writers. Rather, Eigner was recuperated mostly for his rejection of a speech-based poetics. Following the blast of Robert Grenier’s “I HATE SPEECH,” the first line of Silliman’s introduction to In the American Tree, the rest of this essay proposed a re-reading of one wing of the New American poetry, now claimed as the radical wing, in which Creeley and Eigner became “two early ‘projectivists’ whose writing transcended the problematic constraints of that tendency.”6 But did the negation of speech in fact require 1777 poems over the course of roughly 50 years? Either it was a very eloquent and protracted renunciation, or speech kept breaking out, like small fires or insect infestations, on Eigner’s street, thereby requiring his continual attention, his patient acts of sequential shushing. Understood solely as the sanctioner of speech, then, Eigner’s poetics becomes that of the cranky octogenarian neighbor who has always just been woken up. And yet we see, even when he is actually woken up, as in the poem we just read, his poetry performs a range of far more specific sonic, temporal, and conceptual operations than can be conveyed by the raised finger to lips commemorative statue fashioned for him by Silliiman in his Language writing wax museum of literary history.

I’ve suggested some of these already; but by way of conclusion I’ll readdress this problem at larger scale by sketching, very roughly, another way of understanding Eigner historically, one in which his insistence on conditions rather than events might better register as the event it has already become in literary history. Eigner occupies an extreme position within New American poetry not just because he undermined a poetics of speech, but because, unlike Olson, the field of his field poetics was comparatively purged of diachronic references, of collage historicism, and was, instead, identified with an unfolding empirical situation—his Swampscott porch and the street scene beyond it over three decades—that he nonetheless refused to “capture” in pat vignettes. The project of his projectivism was at once to insist upon and destabilize this literal field, by testing relations between its fleeting effects—sonic, visual—and the field of the printed page, where Eigner’s lexemes invariably uncouple themselves from any simple, instrumental roll and begin to take on reflexive relationships only possible on this second field. But it is the dose of empiricism within this otherwise reflexive textuality, the continued, iterative framing in relation to the porch and its surround, that turns Eigner’s writing into such a conceptually unified and in fact singular project: an experimental research station, observation outpost, durational diorama.

What emerged from this diorama was, however, more than a subtly reflexive discourse on the depiction of space. Eigner’s attention to minor time, to “another / time / in fragments” (357)—to non-monumental unfolding, to a micro-temporality diametrically opposed to the would-be major events of Cold War time was in some ways the clearest and most compelling version of a larger project shared by most of the New American poets, in their various ways, through the poetics of daily life: O’Hara, Creeley, Olson, Whalen, Kyger, Baraka, Spicer, Mayer and, in fact, Silliman, among others. Silliman would put his and the larger project of Language writing negatively as the critiques of representation and speech rather than as the positive experimentation with the poetics of daily life because he saw the New American version of this later project as entailing a commitment to representation. But if daily life becomes not merely a spatial picture but a contestatory time, a time below the radar of history with a capital H, then we can begin to recognize a vast project of the New American poets that put them all, in different ways, in dialog with official modes of time keeping, and measuring more generally. More, and this is the rub for Silliman’s reading, we see a continuity rather than a break between New American poetry and Language writing. Both seek another time in fragments—a slowing down. If Language writing proposed a higher degree of reflexivity, still the implied liberation to be wrested from disjunction was not merely an anatomized space of representation, or the suddenly activated co-producer of meaning. No, disjunction was also a temporal project that sought authenticity in a micro-temporality of unfolding linguistic complexity that could be positioned against the rush of administered time.

We can see this now because for the last 25 years or so, since perhaps the late 1980s or early 1990s, since the end of the Cold War, let’s call it, experimental poetry has not been able to position the temporalities of daily life or disjunction as effective antidotes to administered time. While we can acknowledge that avant-garde devices of defamiliarization have half-lives, and thus cannot work their offices indefinitely, this process of exhaustion has been affected more radically from the outside—by the fact that time is now administered very differently from how it was from the 1950s to the 1980s. With the effective obliteration of the opposition between work and leisure, in short, the dialectical temporal frame that guided New American poetry and, yes, Language writing looses its traction. As bleak as this sounds, poetry’s just fine. I can’t tell you now how it’s survived and even prospered, which is another story; only that, with the temporalities of these now classic modes of daily life and disjunction now become the geologic recent past, it’s had to go in search of other times.