‘The Wide Road’ by Carla Harryman & Lyn Hejinian
Sinuous, seductive, rife with sexy, feminine energy, The Wide Road (Belladonna) is hard to categorize. It blurs the line between poetry and prose, gender and sexuality, body and story, universality and individuality. Like a road, the “story” of this book flows forward—a landscape ever changing and narrated by “we.” It is a melding of voices, female voices, in the most symbiotic way imaginable. To read The Wide Road is to dive into a mystery: “Today it’s sexy for you to never know who we think we are.”
Early on, the narrator declares, “we come closer to facing/ the frightening malleability/ of gender,” and those themes—awareness and malleability—carry throughout the text. As the narrator witnesses, the city becomes the body which becomes a house or a crowded room or a beach vacation. Later, “we” says, “It is not always with clarity that we experience our sexuality,” but sexuality is all over this book, so clarity proves unimportant, or at least secondary. To say The Wide Road is disorienting doesn’t do it justice, though it is at times jarring, incongruous, hard to swallow. If it is those things, it is also acutely observant, high-spirited, erotic, full of movement and flights of fancy.
Harryman and Hejinian are “two of the most honored innovators of language,” and that is more than apparent in the delicate, whimsical, but disarmingly direct and unbound words that cross these pages. Written over the course of many years, passed back and forth between them, much of the book (purposefully) obscures any sense of bifurcation: “we” may suggest more than one, but throughout “we” is one, lacking the desire to declare or insist upon individuality. In the center of the book lies a collection of letters written between the two women, exploring politics, sex, power, language, but even in the place where their individuality is maintained (by use of names), the thread of connection binds them together. They lift one another’s thoughts, they circle back to previous conversations, the reader might imagine them in a room together finishing one another’s sentences. In the last section, again the “we” is split, this time namelessly, yet organically, indicated by a line running down the center of each page.
You might be wondering about a plot, or characters, and they do exist in The Wide Road. Nameless men; Diana, goddess of love; Basho; Marquis de Sade; Scheherazade and others enter and exit the story fluidly. Yet plot and characters take a backseat to what is more important—the highly charged language, the movement of the story (and yes, this is markedly different than what one might think of when thinking of plot), and the curious bond that draws the two writers together into “we.”
As much as the narrating “we” intrigues, the last section of the book (perhaps) inevitably splits in two, divided into columns that run side by side down the pages. “Foray” and “Array” may take different narrative paths, but neither loses the theme of desire. Respectively, the opening paragraphs read, “Let’s imagine that desire invites perceptions, mediating the interplay of sensation with knowledge” and “Too often curtailed! Too often abandoned! Too often speechless! Why measure desire?” The columns move the reader out of the former malleability of the narrative, into something more structured, without losing the unabashedly alluring use of language.
What works in The Wide Road is invigorating, thought provoking, at turns playful and serious; what doesn’t always work are the moments when the reader is plunged into opacity, uncertainty, and occasionally the poetic fragments that jar the narrative. But to be “dangerous with language,” as belladonna’s mission statement states, is to accept the occasional bump in the road for the thrill of the journey.
In keeping with the collaborative spirit of this book, belladonna has a webpage dedicated to “critical conversation and story” about the book. Full of interviews, musings, and photos, it may answer any questions you might have about The Wide Road, or it may just deepen the mystery.
The Wide Road
By Carla Harryman & Lyn Hejinian