Objects of Fear and Worship: The Evolution of Aliens in Literature

Dreamers and readers have always been fascinated with the idea of the otherworldly, the extraterrestrial, the alien. So long as we have been telling stories, those stories have contained life beyond what is seen—be they gods, monsters, or, for the purposes of this essay, aliens.

Some have argued that the scientist Johannes Kepler’s work of fiction—Somniumpublished in 1634 is the first work of science fiction that features an alien. In it, a boy named Duracotus is magically transported to the moon by a demon. There is life on the moon and it is described in a scientific manner (apparently—I haven’t read the book). My earliest encounter with an otherworldly lifeform was in The Man in the Moone or the Discovrse of a Voyage Thither by Domingo Gonsales by the bishop Francis Godwin, published 1638. Godwin begins his tale with a suggestion that a voyage to the moon would be the equivalent of the early explorations into what is now the U.S. A man of means gains favor with a Spanish Duke by committing robbery and murder. A series of unfortunate events leads him to create a flying machine powered by creatures bred to counter the earth’s magnetic field and he finds himself on the moon. The moon people are true aliens—giants.

coverMicromégas by Voltaire, published in 1752, has pretty much no plot but almost certainly features the first aliens from beyond the moon; indeed, the solar system. They are also the narrators. Micromégas is the main character and an inhabitant of a planet orbiting Sirius. This planet is, Voltaire describes, 21.6 million times greater in circumference than the Earth. Micromégas is, therefore, “twenty-four thousand paces from tip to toe,” or about 20,000 feet tall. Science fiction isn’t about predicting the future, but maybe laying down warnings. However, Voltaire notes, for example, that Mars has 2 moons. Astronomers did not discover Phobos and Deimos until 1877. In this short story, there are also giant aliens on Saturn. The aliens have a better rationale for the direct questioning human philosophy, and Voltaire has a few digs at those who would not live a rational life along the way too, as the aliens debate science and philosophy (bickering over size and distance, for example).

cover1847 saw the publication fo the intriguing Orrin Lindsay’s Plan Of Aerial Navigation, Edited by J. L. Riddell. M.D. Riddell was American doctor, and this was a story published in a pamphlet that claimed to collect letters received by Riddell from a former student. Despite getting to the moon, Lindsay reports that there aren’t any aliens to be found; the story concludes with a letter again from Lindsay to Riddell suggesting a voyage to Mars. The hunt for aliens is not always successful, but the idea of finding life on other worlds, planets beyond the gaze of humanity, was gaining traction by that time. It wasn’t until The War Of The Worlds (1897) and H.G. Wells that non-humanoid aliens finally made contact. We all know the story. Martians invade earth, or rather, the southeast of England. We all know the subtext: British colonialism. But what Wells did was extraordinary. He thought about the evolution of intelligent creatures on the red planet. As a species, Homo sapiens tends to revolt against real animals that don’t operate in the expected manner: spiders, crabs, octopus. Wells used that to instill additional horror into the alien invasion. Would “the rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind” have occurred of the Martians looked like you and me?

coverMeanwhile, Mars was the planet of choice for many new science-fiction authors, and Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs populated his planet with a range of different aliens. Norman Bean published a serial story from February 1912 through to July that same year. Called Under the Moons of Mars, it was printed in The All-Story. It was later revealed to be A Princess of Mars (1912). Burroughs was addressing race via the use of aliens on Mars: there are green Tharks—a nomadic warrior tribe; the princess is a red Martian; there are brutal, mindless white apes.

A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) by David Lindsay features a made-up planet (Tormance) orbiting the real Arcturus, which is a double star system, consisting of stars Branchspell and Alppain

covercoverOlaf Stapledon created an entire universe in Star Maker, published in 1937. In it, the narrator is transported out of his body and tours the universe, exploring alien civilizations. One key alien concept explored is a non-humanoid symbiotic species. He pitched his aliens to have evolved in the same manner as life on Earth. Concepts such as collective consciousness are explored, maybe taking the concept of the insect hive-mind to its logical conclusion. Writers make up new species of intelligent life, why not make up who new planets?

It is alleged that C.S. Lewis decided to write Out of the Silent Planet (1938) after reading Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, but must surely also owe a debt Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars. Lewis describes a convoluted process in which the protagonist ends up on a planet known as Malacandra. Lewis introduces three distinct intelligent species: the sorns are slender and humanoid and are the scientists and thinkers; the hrossa resemble overstretched otters—and have their love of water—they are poets and musicians; and the pfifltriggi are the builders, looking like insectile frogs. Lewis split characteristics into species in a similar manner to Burrourghs, but like Stapledon made some of them non-humanoid. By then, the idea that human-shaped creatures were the pinnacle of evolution was waning within science fiction. As science and understanding of the natural world advanced and Homo sapiens were accepted as just animals, science-fiction writers seemed to feel more freedom of imagination. Lewis was of course very religious and, as with Stapledon, the question of aliens as religious figures is addressed. A species called Eldila control life in the universe, and appear as vague shafts of light. They are Lewis’s angels.

By now, science-fiction books contained a plethora of alien species, all exploring similar ideas of evolution, religion, consciousness, and humanity’s place in the universe. As humans use and abuse our planet, would superior alien species use and abuse us?

covercovercoverE.E. “Doc” Smith’s The Skylark of Space (1946) features a hyper-intelligence with no material existence. Childhood’s End (1953) from the great Arthur C. Clarke features aliens that have benevolently overseen human evolution but have the appearance of Satan. Humans are at war with an intelligent insect species with a super-intelligent queen in Starship Troopers (1959) by Robert A. Heinlein.

Science fiction is a common disguise for philosophy. Solaris, published in 1961 by Stanisław Lem, is a treatise on memory and communication. Lem, picking up on some of the ideas of his predecessors that aliens need not be human-shaped or have minds like ours, developed the idea of a sentient ocean. The planet Solaris is studied by scientists, but the planet is studying them back. In less than a century, aliens have evolved from Wells’s trilateral brains to intelligent planets. Whereas the likes of Lewis extrapolated what science knew of biology and evolution, Lem let his imagination run riot; science be damned; they adhere to their own internal logic, even if it is beyond what we believe is possible today.

covercovercoverDune (1965) by Frank Herbert features giant sandworms and the complex ecology of a desert planet. The aliens, from Gethen, in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. LeGuin are “ambisexual;” having no fixed sex. From the same year, Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain sees the aliens as crystalline micro-organisms with no DNA.

Ringworld (1970) by Larry Niven takes imagination and biology to a new level. By now, aliens are all over popular culture, from so-called “real-life” alien abductions to classic science-fiction films such as Children of the Damned and TV series such as Dr. Who. Over the course of the Ringworld novels, Niven develops very definite biology, sociology, political life, and, of course, appearance of his aliens. The Pierson’s Puppeteers are 3-legged and 2-headed creatures. The brain isn’t in the heads, however. Meanwhile, the kzin are cat-like humanoids with a rich warrior-based history.

covercovercoverIn the majority of science fiction, aliens and humans interact. The aliens in Kurt Vonnegut’s classic Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) are almost beyond comprehension. Known as Tralfamadorians, they exist out of time, witnessing time the way we witness distance. They also keep humans in a zoo. In Roadside Picnic (1971) by the Russians Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, we don’t meet the aliens, only their detritus. They visited the Earth some time ago and left behind objects that have had a curious effect on anyone who goes into the Zones. The intelligent aliens in Rendezvous with Rama (1973) by Arthur C. Clarke are so unknowable, they don’t even feature—only their space craft and a few non-sentient species and some plants are featured. Meanwhile, the alien Vogons in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979) by Douglas Adams are patently so dumb it is hard to imagine them developing space flight in the first place. Contrast them with Adams’s mice, the hyper-intelligent superbeings that built Earth in the first place.

covercovercoverBy the late 1970s, once Star Wars entered popular culture, aliens had truly exploded into the cultural consciousness. They continued to work as robust allegories for issues such as cultural suppression, the understanding of language, capitalism, food production, anything the author wanted to tackle. In Doris Lessing’s Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta (1979), empire and evolution are the topics: a benevolent galactic empire accelerates the evolution of a humanoid species. Lessing plots the story so that the natives have a degenerative disease, giving her licence to examine religion, power, and imperialism. Hyperion (1989) by Dan Simmons has similar themes, only with humans as the galactic dominant species. Simmons introduces the time-traveling Shrike, a fierce half-mechanical, half-organic, four-armed alien. It is both an object of fear and worship.

covercovercoverMary Doria Russell has two intelligent species and a religious expedition in her remarkable The Sparrow (1996)—cultural and religious clashes are examined and their consequences are brutal. The aliens in Michel Faber’s Under the Skin (2000) look like humans and live in Scotland. However, they pick up hitchhikers so they can be processed and sent back to their home world for a huge meat-producing corporation. Matt Haig’s The Humans (2013) also has an alien that takes on human form so he can work in an English university.

From Haig’s “human,” to Becky Chambers’s multi-species crew of the spaceship Wayfarer in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2015) to Nnedi Okorafor’s jellyfish-like aliens in her Binti series, extra-terrestrials—be they energy, gaseous, insectoids, planetoids, immaterial or microscopic—tackle every aspect of science fiction in every conceivable way. The aliens are here to stay.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

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Poem of the Day: Antique

I drowned in the fire of having you, I burned
In the river of not having you, we lived
Together for hours in a house of a thousand rooms
And we were parted for a thousand years.
Ten minutes ago we raised our children who cover
The earth and have forgotten that we existed.
It was not maya, it was not a ladder to perfection,
It was this cold sunlight falling on this warm earth.
When I turned you went to Hell. When your ship
Fled the battle I followed you and lost the world
Without regret but with stormy recriminations.
Someday far down that corridor of horror the future
Someone who buys this picture of you for the frame
At a stall in a dwindled city will study your face
And decide to harbor it for a little while longer
From the waters of anonymity, the acids of breath.
Robert Pinsky, "Antique" from Gulf Music. Copyright © 2006 by Robert Pinsky. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, www.fsgbooks.com. All rights reserved.

Caution: Users are warned that this work is protected under copyright laws and downloading is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the work via any medium must be secured with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

Source: Gulf Music(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007)

Robert Pinsky

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Poem of the Day: The Process

So grateful the process is clean
and faithful. Does not cheat
like a disenchanted spouse
dozing on a haggard couch.
Take heart: the process is always right — 
is automatic, phlegmatic. Clean, cold,
and always refreshing. Brewed to perfection
some say. Guaranteed to satisfy
you might say. Give thanks the process
is organized. Synchronized and sterilized.
Optimized but not disguised, like
the grown man at my door long after
trick-or-treaters have gone, hand
outstretched, mask covering his eyes.
Thankful, too, for the oversight: no
boogeyman standing over the drain pipe,
clogging it with debris when no one sees
so he can charge you your life
for the cleaning; name your price.
And how shall we praise the instruments
of investigation? So shiny, so new, gleaming
with silver and glass? No traces of fingerprints
or funders. No whispered voices
softly requesting, of the results, a first glance.
There’s no need to come clean. We know
the process won’t fall prey to steak and wine
and then slink upstairs to spend some time,
just a little. The process doesn’t. The process
wouldn’t. The process isn’t that kind.
Source: Poetry March 2017

Dilruba Ahmed

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In Defense of Third Person

“I think fiction writing which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator himself is a form of imposture which I find very, very difficult to take. Any form of authorial writing where the narrator sets himself up as stagehand and director and judge and executor in a text, I find somehow unacceptable. I cannot bear to read books of this kind.” – W. G. Sebald

That this is the age of first person seems undeniable.  Essay and memoir are—have been for some time—culturally ascendant, with the lines between fiction and essay increasingly blurred (I’ve written about this here).  In its less exalted form, first person dominates our national discourse in many guises:  the tell-all, the blog post, the reality confessional booth, the carefully curated social media account, the reckless tweets of our demented president.  We are surrounded by a multitude of first person narratives, vying for our time and attention, and we respond to them, in our work, and increasingly in our art, in first person.

My impression, as a writer and teacher, is that over the last 10 or 15 years there has been a paradigmatic move toward first person as the default mode of storytelling.  In a workshop of 20 student pieces, I’m now surprised if more than a third are written in third person.  When I flip open a story collection or literary magazine, my eye expects to settle on a paragraph liberally girded with that little pillar of self.

coverAnecdotal evidence tends to support this suspicion.  A completely random example:  six of the last 10 National Book Award winners have been first-person narratives; of the 55 previous NBA winners stretching from 2005 to 1950 (Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm), the tally is 40 to 15 in favor of third person.  This is, of course, completely anecdotal and almost certainly statistical noise, to a degree.  Still, it’s suggestive.  As recently as 10 years ago, creative nonfiction specialist jobs barely existed at the university and graduate MFA level; last year, there were more creative nonfiction job openings than comparable tenure track positions for poets.  Essay and memoir classes have sprung up everywhere.  Whether this trend is significant and whether it will continue are debatable; that it is a trend, seems less so.

It worries me that we may be slowly losing the cultural ability or inclination to tell stories in third person.  Why does this matter?  Because, I believe, third-person narration is the greatest artistic tool humans have devised to tell the story of what it means to be human.

coverIn How Fiction Works, James Wood cites Sebald, decrying third person as obsolete following the horrors of World War II.  Wood comments, “For Sebald, and for many writers like him, standard third-person omniscient narration is a kind of antique cheat.”  The general argument, as advanced by Sebald, and more recently, by writers like David Shields and Will Self, seems to go:  Flaubertian third-person omniscient narration is a jerry-rigged, mechanistic anachronism blithely ignorant of the historical context that renders it obsolete; far from “realism,” it is almost wholly artificial, beginning in the first place with the artifice of a narrator and extending through the sleight-of-hand known as free indirect discourse (crudely put:  the blending of narrator and character perceptions).  First person narration, the corollary would go, is more immediate and less contrived.  It is authentic.

Most people seem to agree.  These critical interpretations both reinforce and describe a more popular apprehension of first-person narrative—that it is the most direct and natural form of storytelling.  In creative writing classes, teachers will often advise students to employ first person with more overtly raw or emotional material, operating on the rationale that first person has an implicit honesty third does not.  Sebald’s quote—as to the inherent (and therefore inherently truthful) uncertainty of the essayistic perspective—is simply a more sophisticated version of this position, what we might call the naturalistic view of first person.

First person, however, contains a contrivance central to its character that third person does not: audience.  In first person, someone is addressing someone else, but absent narrative framing to position these someones—a la Holden Caulfield directing his speech to a ghostly doctor—we find ourselves in an inherently ambiguous space: to whom, exactly, is this person talking, and why?  The uncertainty of this space, I would argue, is largely filled, intentionally or not, by the voice of the narrator, its presence and authority.  Even if this narrator declaims her own uncertainty, she declaims it with certainty, and she declaims it toward an imagined audience, in a speaker/listener relationship.  There are no competing voices, no opportunity for the objective telescoping of third person, and so the reader essentially become a jurist listening to a lawyer’s closing argument.

covercovercoverIn this sense, all first-person narration is unreliable, or placeable on a continuum of unreliability.  It isn’t accidental that the greatest examples of the first-person novel—LolitaThe Good Soldier, Tristram Shandy—make ample use of unreliability and/or intricate frame narration.  The best examples of the form lean as heavily as possible on first person’s audience-related pretenses.  Third-person narration, in contrast, contains no similar inherent claim to authority, and therefore tends toward a version of the world that is more essentially descriptive in character.  A third-person narrative, whether in the form of a short story or War and Peace, is a thing to be inspected by the reader.  It is, in a sense, a closed system, a ship in bottle, and the reader can hold it up to the light to see how closely it resembles a real ship.  If it does, part of the reading experience is to imagine it as the real thing; but it can be assumed, in a kind of contract on the part of intelligent writers and readers, that the shipbuilder is not pretending his model is fit for actual seafaring.

In other words, the existence of a third-person narrator—that artificial authority Sebald found intolerable—signals the act of storytelling, and in doing so, encodes a structural uncertainty that first person lacks.  Third-person narrators no longer walk onstage and deliver monologues, a la Jane Austen, but we still understand them to be devices in service of telling a story—a contrivance that announces itself as such.  They are the artifice that enables the art, and they are truthful as to their own untruthfulness, or perhaps better, their truthlessness.  Compared to the explicit machinery of third-person narration, first person’s artifice seems covert, a clandestine operation.  This is not necessarily an argument against first-person narration—in able hands, this concealment can be a means of exposing greater truths about the subject of the writing or its writer—but it is an argument against the proposition that first person is somehow more transparent or “honest” than third.

The other common objection to third-person narration, and by proxy an argument for first person, also concerns the artificiality of the third person narrator, not in artistic but rather, experiential terms.  This is the second prong of the naturalist argument: it isn’t a thing that exists.  No one walks into a room and thinks of themselves, “he walked into a room.”  Also, no one simply watches other people walk into a room without being aware of their own frame of reference.  And this is true:  close third person, via free-indirect discourse, models human consciousness with an intimacy that strives toward first person’s access to a character’s thoughts and emotions.  Why then, the argument goes, not dispense with this clumsy intermediary and go right to the source?

Counterintuitively, third person achieves an effect, both in spite of and because of its narrator, that is more “realistic” than first.  While no one walks into a room and thinks, “he walks into a room,” it can be asserted with even greater force that no one walks into a room and thinks, “I walk into a room.”  No one, that is, who isn’t an imbecile or robot—not characters who figure heavily in the canon of great fictional protagonists.  The experience of being a human is, in fact, an experience of dual consciousness.  Human beings are social creatures, and human existence is an endless negotiation of the immediate, subjective perspective, and the greater objective context.  We constantly divide our attention between the first- and third-person points of view, between desiring the shiny object in front of us and figuring out what it means for us to take it:  who else wants it, what we have to do to get it, and whether it’s worth taking it from them.  In this sense, close third person not only accurately models human cognition, but omniscient third does as well, since, while we cannot read other people’s minds, we are constantly inferring their consciousness—their motives and feelings.  The human experience is a kind of constant jumping of these cognitive registers, from pure reptile-brain all the way up to a panoramic moral overview and back down, and human ingenuity has yet to invent a better means of representing this experience in art than the third-person narrator.  The apparatus of third-person narration, while wholly artificial, ironically enables the most authentic depiction of the quagmire of personhood.

Irony is key here, in both cause and effect.  Third person’s scaffolding of multiple, competing levels of awareness is inherently, structurally ironic; the effect created by these slightly ill-fitting beams and joists, as the demands of narrative push and pull them against each other, is a large-scale, resonant irony.  Writing about the ability of narrative to convey humanity’s huge profligacy of type, Adelle Waldman, in a New Yorker piece from 2014, quotes Leo Tolstoy’s depiction of Vronsky:

He was particularly fortunate in that he had a code of rules which defined without question what should and should not be done.  The code covered only a very small number of contingencies, but, on the other hand, the rules were never in doubt, and Vronsky, who never thought of infringing them, had never had a moment’s hesitation about what he ought to do.  The rules laid it down most categorically that a cardsharper had to be paid, but a tailor had not; that one must not tell a lie to a man, but might to a woman, that one must not deceive anyone but one may a husband; that one must not forgive an insult but may insult others, etc.

She says, “If someone like Vronsky were to give an account of his moral code, it would not, we can be sure, read in precisely these terms.”  This is true but neglects an important aspect of this rendering of Vronsky’s moral code, for we see at once in this passage a social view of Vronsky’s hypocrisy that shades toward a self-awareness of his own hypocrisy.  This shading—the ironic bounce of the repeated “never,” and the pompous “most categorically”—both enact Vronsky’s pompous hypocrisy and suggest a shiver of cognitive dissonance, of unease, that seems to come from Vronsky himself.  The point is debatable—maybe Tolstoy is just calling Count Vronsky an asshole—but in a general sense, the ironic space that third person carves out creates a productive ambiguity that deepens character the same way these little ironies of the self, the simultaneity of objective and subjective, deepen human existence the more a person is aware of them.  In this case, they suggest a Count Vronsky who is not only an asshole, but also, perhaps, very slightly aware of his own assholishness, as most assholes are.  It at least implies that possibility—a complex position unavailable to first person, in which a Vronsky POV would essentially either cop to his own hypocrisy, or strategically introduce it through unwitting revelation in the usual reliable unreliable method.

coverAs a thought experiment, try to imagine Ulysses written in the first person, the dueling solitary consciousnesses of Stephen and Bloom.  We are, of course, embedded deep in Bloom’s and Stephens’s minds, but we are embedded there, via virtuoso free-indirect discourse rather than first-person.  It is surprising, in a way, that Ulysses was not written in first—after all, here we have the summit of stream-of-consciousness narrative, with an emotional and associative immediacy that has informed 100 years of writing all the way to the essayists of the moment.  Not only this, but the fracturing of consciousness and Dublin’s social institutions as represented in the book are (as we understand, in a somewhat trite though probably accurate sense) a cultural response the First World War; per Sebald, we would expect such a narrative to dispense with the puppetry of third-person narration.  So why not in first?  What would be lost?

Among other things, it would more or less be simply a record of human confusion.  It would be an exhaustive, exhausting trek through Dublin, unremitting in its assault on our senses.  Ulysses is already exhausting enough in this regard, but many of the moments of relief are moments of perspectival shift:  the wider view of Stephen in the classroom, for example, or the anti-Semitic Citizen throwing a biscuit tin at Bloom as he flees the pub, righteous and triumphant.  These, and similar moments allowed by the omniscient narration, crucially allow in other people, complicating the dominant note of mental claustrophobia.  I say crucially, because the novel is not, ultimately, about mental claustrophobia, about being trapped in oneself; it is about the opposite, about the inevitability and value of social connection.  A Ulysses in first would represent, in spite of its erudition and catholicity of reference, essentially a shriveling worldview, rather than the enlarging one it offers.  HCE:  Here Comes Everybody.

coverAll of which is to say that the current critical and cultural movement away from third-person narration should be taken seriously, and to some extent—as much as such a thing is possible—resisted.  Matters of taste come and go, and it may seem silly to imagine third-person narration disappearing.  After all, it has persisted in its current form for going on 300 years.  But many pinnacles of high art recede and disappear in the face of changing norms.  It was probably similarly hard for the 19th- century art lover to imagine classical portraiture and Renaissance brushwork disappearing.  David Shields and similar critics may be dismissed as extreme, but they give voice to a larger cultural impulse, the enthronement of unmediated personal experience and feeling (as though such a thing were possible, even if desirable) as the height of written expression.  Reviewing Meghan Daum’s essay collection, The Unspeakable, Roxane Gay writes, “When it comes to the personal essay, we want so much and there is something cannibalistic about our desire. We want essayists to splay themselves bare. We want to see how much they are willing to bleed for us.”  The promotion of this kind of writing is, in turn, a collective response to larger cultural currents, among them the still shockingly recent advent of the Internet and reality television.  In this context, it is not hard to imagine omniscient third person, with its many registers of complex irony and representation, becoming the truly outmoded art form that Sebald and others would like it to be, an ornate artifact of a slower and more explicable age.

And it’s true that in a very real sense, third person is not the narrative mode of our time.  A Henry James novel is essentially the anti-tweet.  Its aesthetic roots are in a more contemplative era, an era with fewer distractions and, simultaneously, more incentive to consider one’s place in the larger social context of a world that was rapidly expanding.  Now that the world has expanded to its seeming limits, we see an urge to put the blinders on and retreat into the relative safety of personal narrative.  This impulse should be resisted.  We need to engage with our world and one another, making use of the most sensitive instruments of understanding we have at our disposal.

Image Credit: Pixabay.

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Art Quote of the Day

Art Quote of the Day: “Love the art in yourself and not yourself in the art.” – Constantin Stanislavski “Love the art in yourself and not yourself in the art.”

Poem of the Day: from The Fatalist: “Come October, it’s the lake not the border”

Come October, it’s the lake not the border
that has been redrawn. Thinking
about the event afterwards, I realize how remarkably well-prepared   
the girls are. There don’t seem to be any slouches
among them. Please tell them I say hello and that we’ll need 14   
for the green salad and 14 for the apple tarts between
with some rapid washing in clear water I remember as play
and planning in childhood, preparing until the very last moment   
for a gripping narrative that was itself perpetually given over
to improvisations and asymmetrical collaborations that could run
for days. That makes another 14. It was ”the word“ or “the world” in 1981   
when we undertook to talk about the phrase
“once in a while” once in a while
noting the vagueness then named “a while” and how “once” the phrase   
recurs and therefore means more than once
the “while” is defined. We too are in “a while”   
and when “once” next occurs, if the basic design suits
you, we will need a bit of modestly biographical contextualization   
for November. I’m going to put some thought to something
implausibly contemporary which perhaps isn’t wise
since between then and now no new coincidences have been noted   
just one large color photograph of bespangled cowgirls
herding heavy bulls up the avenue that opens this week carefully   
wearing baby blue boots to take out the garbage
but it never rained. At the end of the month, Halloween should be clear.
Lyn Hejinian, “Come October, it’s the lake not the border …” from The Fatalist. Copyright © 2003 by Lyn Hejinian. Reprinted with the permission of Omnidawn Publishing, www.omnidawn.com.

Source: The Fatalist(Omnidawn Publishing, 2003)

Lyn Hejinian

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