Lyn Hejinian

From My Life: A name trimmed with colored ribbons by Lyn Hejinian

‘A name trimmed with colored ribbons’ by Lyn Hejinian is a Language Poem that requires the listener to use their imagination and creativity to reconstruct and interpret the poet’s childhood fantasies.

‘A name trimmed with colored ribbons’ is a section within Lyn Hejinian’s collection, My Life. This collection chronicles the poet’s life experiences, serving as a poetic memoir. While this poem is perplexing, it is a remarkable example of postmodern abstraction, as the poet intentionally forces the listener to come up with imaginative, fluid readings of the poem.

This poem places the speaker as an oracle who delivers confusing, ambiguous messages that require an original, personal, and unique interpretation.


‘A name trimmed with colored ribbons’ from Lyn Hejinian’s My Life is a poem about childish imagination, play, and reality.

‘A name trimmed with colored ribbons’ opens as the speaker, likely the poet, describes a domestic scene. People sitting around her are shelling peas and shucking corn. The speaker seems detached as she observes the world, searching for patterns and color.

Her perspective shifts rapidly as she describes the appearance of a window at night that does not allow the speaker to look outside. Due to the reflecting light, she only sees her reflection and shadows cast by the tree branches outside.

The speaker next imagines a person with blue eyes looking out from a bridge at sunset. This image morphs into orange jello, then “orange and gray” lovebugs locked in an embrace.

The speaker addresses the listener next, stating that bodies limit one’s imagination, holding us back from living in fantasy. The image next transitions to someone pouring “stale water” from a vase that once held an iris into the sink.

Then, the perspective rapidly cycles. The speaker recalls her family’s garden, where a pansy, a snail trail, an “enormous” egg-shaped rock, her mother, and a pelargonium or marigold add color and intrigue to the scene.

The next scene is of the speaker’s experience falling asleep for a nap. As she lies down, the golden-yellow sun sets a sticky melancholy mood in the air. Then, she rises and gets dressed as “they,” her family, wash the baby and prepares fish for dinner.

The speaker next enters an imaginary realm where her doll, discarded and half-buried in sand, is a powerful, beautiful woman. This doll rather fantastically drives around the once-circular road surrounding her home.

However, the speaker is called back into “the room,” ending her fantasy and beginning a new one. As the poem closes, she imagines that her family is calling her to receive a birthday gift, such as a pony with many ribbons in its mane.

Form and Structure

There is no fixed form or structure in ‘From My Life: A name trimmed with colored ribbons.’ Instead, the poem consists of one large block of text, indented at the beginning to include the subtitle, ‘A name trimmed with colored ribbons.

With no rhyme, meter, or syllabic structure to this poem, it reads like a stream of thought. The visible length of each line is the only ruling principle of this poem’s structure. Each line is approximately the same length as the others — aside from those seven lines near the poem’s introductory indentation. 

Since this poem is a scene from the poet’s childhood, the lack of form mimics her childish understanding of the world. Her thoughts take over in this poem, leaving no room for rigid structures and rules. In this way, the poet maintains a conversational, plain-English tone

Lyn Hejinian revealed her reasoning for compiling this poem in the way she did, stating that, when using this form: 

The writer relinquishes total control and challenges authority as a principle and control as a motive. The ‘open text’ often emphasizes or foregrounds process, either the process of the original composition or of subsequent compositions by readers, and thus resists the cultural tendencies that seek to identify and fix material and turn it into a product; that is, it resists reduction and commodification.

Lyn Hejnian, “The Rejection of Closure”

As such, this poem resists interpretation. Instead, it aspires to remain ethereal, larger-than-life, and imaginative. 

Wordplay and Double Meanings

Hejinian uses a lot of wordplay in ‘A name trimmed with colored ribbons.’ In doing so, she attempts to convey her childish understanding of the world when she was younger. 

For example, the poem’s name, ‘A name trimmed with colored ribbons,’ reinterprets the last lines of the poem, a pony perhaps, his mane trimmed / with colored ribbons.” This reinterpretation makes it clear that the poet is comparing the “name” to a pony with a decorated “mane.” 

In this wordplay, the poet hints at her childish, playful understanding of the world around her. By jumbling the letters in “mane” to “name,” it also seems the speaker is having difficulty pronouncing words, hinting at her youth.

Additionally, it emphasizes the main images of the poem: the pony, the pelargonium flowers, and the speaker’s youthful perspective. 

The Symbolism of Color

Color plays heavily in this poem as the poet seems to absorb the emotions associated with the many colors she observes in her life. 

The first color she mentions is “Pink, and rosy, / quartz.” This color, which she observes as she searches for “the spot at which the pattern on / the floor repeats,” represents a boundary. It is the floor and the foundation for the rest of the poem, which will function like a rainbow, building from pink to violet. 

Curiously, blue is the next color as the speaker elaborately describes her “blue” mood. She states she was “blue as / the eyes overlooking the bay from the bridge scattered over / its bowls / through a fading light and backed by the protest of / the bright breathless West.” This perplexing description seems to illustrate the image of a person looking down at the water from a bridge at sunset. 

Colors continue to appear and fade as the poem progresses, creating a kaleidoscope-like effect that encourages the listener to see this poem through the eyes of a child. 

Hejinian’s Patchwork Style

Many critics call Hejinian’s My Life an example of the patchwork text, and ‘A name trimmed with colored ribbons’ is a brilliant example of this style

Patchwork writing is an informal genre, often characteristic of women’s writing. In it, the text consists of many scenes that each stand alone. However, as the poet ‘sews’ together each of these vignettes or statements, she creates a large text that covers diverse themes and images. 

So, while this poem may seem difficult to follow and incoherent at times, each statement can stand alone as its own poem. Each vignette, or scene, can become its own individual idea outside of the ‘quilt’ that is ‘A name trimmed with colored ribbons.’

This idea adds new meaning to the poem’s title. The ‘colored ribbons’ from the title are just like patches in a quilt, with each line of text representing a ribbon. 

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-13

A name trimmed (…)
holes underwater looking into a dark sea, which only reflects
the room one seeks to look out from. Sometimes into
benevolent and other times into ghastly shapes. It speaks of a

‘A Name trimmed with colored ribbons’ opens strangely, as the unique poem structure demands attention. The poem’s first line takes up a blank block on the left margin, isolating it from the rest of the text.

This positioning draws attention to the poem’s name, which ultimately makes the rest of this poem the “colored ribbons.” Thus, expect some vivid, colorful imagery from the following lines.  

The scene seems to open as the speaker watches some people husking corn and shelling peas in a rustic homestead. However, the speaker appears to be an observer in this scene, as her hands are not at work. Instead, she stares at the floor, looking for symmetry in the repeating pink pattern on the flooring. 

However, the speaker’s mind seems flighty and inattentive as she mentions, “They wade   in brackish water.” 

Who is wading in brackish water? We have no way of knowing. Still, we might assume that “they” are the same people husking corn and shelling peas. If so, the scene has moved from an indoor location to an outdoor one — but that’s not the case. Instead, the speaker’s mind wanders outside as she thinks about water. 

This point-of-view shift is one of many in ‘A Name trimmed with colored ribbons.’ While they make the poem’s logic difficult to follow, focusing on the logic here is against the poem’s point. Instead, this poem wants the listener to see the world through a child’s creative, shifty eyes. 

Like the tesselating pink patterns on the cabin’s flooring, this poem depicts a kaleidoscopic view of the world. In it, fragments of color and perspective shift frequently. In such a way, this poem is “trimmed with colored ribbons.” Each perspective and idea represents a colorful ribbon flowing like a pony’s mane. 

Thus, the speaker moves on to discuss the reflection of light she sees in the leaf-shadowed windows of the cabin. The light inside the house is so bright that she cannot see outside of the window, though she knows it is dark outside. Out there, shadows sometimes show through the window, creating monster-like shapes. 

Lines 14-23

few of the rather terrible blind. I grew stubborn until blue as
the eyes overlooking the bay from the bridge scattered over
bugs were linked from their mating but faced in opposite
directions, and their scrambling amounted to nothing. This

The speaker describes how the light and the shadows from the tree branches outside serve as blinds. However, by phrasing the lines “it speaks of / a few of the terrible blind,” this verse also refers to the speaker’s inability to see beyond the inside of the cabin. 

The idea of seeing makes the speaker feel stubborn, a feeling she compares to being “blue. She continues using colorful imagery as she describes that she is just as blue as the eyes of some unknown person who overlooks bay waters. The setting sun casts light over this scene, making the water’s troughs look like bowls. The image of bowls is particularly useful, as it ties back into the imagery of the people sitting around bowls as they shuck corn and shell peas. 

However, the perspective shifts again, never lingering too long on any image. 

Next, the speaker thinks of orange jello that she cast in some dolls’ dishes to make small treats. These “trembling orange” bits of gelatin are a bit like the speaker as she follows her urge to go “rummaging” outdoors in the orange sunshine.

Blue returns to this scene as she describes the sky as the sea. The speaker compares herself to a small paper hat floating on top of one a disposable paper cone of water. This metaphor suggests that the speaker feels like she is on top of the world. However, she is delicate and merely floats from moment to moment. 

Lastly, the speaker brings up again how orange and blue coexist, using the image of lovebugs (Plecia nearctica).

Lovebugs, when they copulate in mass, link to each other for hours at a time, flying in unison. These bugs lack independence when they link to each other. Even if they wanted to escape, they couldn’t. As such, their bodies tie them down to reality and oppress their imaginations.

Lines 24-35

simply means that the imagination is more restless than the
body. But, already, words. Can there be laughter without
my grandmother raked up the leaves beside a particular
pelargonium. With a name like that there is a lot you can do.

In lines 26 through 38, the speaker muses on the imaginative nature of ‘A name trimmed with colored ribbons.’ She shares her thoughts on the unfocused perspective of this poem, drawing connections between reality and imagination. 

She states that the force of the love bugs pulling against each other in vain “simply means that the imagination is more restless than the / body.” This is the poem’s main message: ideas are greater than words. 

As such, if you are confused by this poem, you are too focused on the wording, form, and syntax. The speaker suggests that those focused on the “body” should instead redirect their attention to their imagination and creativity. 

The speaker next makes a point about how, once we share our creative, imaginary ideas, they are no longer creative. Instead, they are physical, mundane, and like a body. In the same way, the speaker’s poem transforms an abstract perspective into a “body” of text. 

These brightly colored ribbons of ideas die as soon as the poet writes them down. The speaker uses the statement, “We have poured into the / sink the stale water in which the iris died,” to illustrate that, once you pin down an idea and harvest it, like a flower, it begins to wither and lose color. All that’s left of it is “stale water.”

The iris here is also a symbol of the rainbow. It pulls from the Greco-Roman messenger goddess, Iris, who trailed rainbows behind her as she delivered messages to the gods. Using this allusion to Iris, the speaker invokes the “colored ribbons” from the poem’s title. Still, the ends of these colorful ribbons are “hopelessly / frayed, all loose ends,” just as the iris has wilted. 

The speaker’s thoughts of life transition her focus to her family’s garden, where there is “an enormous rock-shaped egg.“ This strange egg likely refers to the omphalos, an egg-shaped rock that the Graeco-Romans believed to represent the center of the world. Located in Delphi, this rock was supposed to be the rock that Rhea fed Uranus when she tricked him.

As such, the rock-shaped egg in Hejinian’s garden transforms her home into the center of her own little world, positioning the speaker as a sort of oracle who mutters meaningful nonsense.

Then, the speaker moves her eyes to her grandmother, who rakes “up the leaves beside a particular / pelargonium.” The name pelargonium is the scientific name for the genus called geraniums. So, the pelargonium here is simply a flower. 

The speaker next makes one of her most interesting statements of the poem: “With a name like that there is a lot you can do.” What name is she referring to? What can you do with a name? 

With no context, this cryptic line forces the listener back into a place of confusion and imagination. The speaker deliberately neglects to add context here. Instead, she wants the listener to ask questions, search for a unique interpretation, and be creative.

Ultimately, it seems that there is no correct interpretation. One could understand the “name” to be almost any word within the poem. 

Lines 36-48

Children are not always inclined to choose such paths. You
can tell by the eucalyptus tree, its shaggy branches scatter
breathing fish and breathing shells seems sad, a mystery, rap-
turous, then dead. A self-centered being, in this different

In line 36 of ‘A name trimmed with colored ribbons, the speaker continues discussing the phrase, “With a name like that there is a lot you can do.” She explains that children don’t often choose to “do” things with names.

Here, we see how the poet incorporates her interest in wordplay as she explains that not all children appreciate creating new words from the sounds of other words. 

The speaker explains that the eucalyptus tree scatters buttons, metaphorically describing its round leaves as buttons and personifying the tree. This tree becomes like the children who do not engage in imagination or wordplay. These children, instead, scatter mundane objects on the ground — perhaps a reference to a game like jacks. 

However, the speaker returns to her own imaginative experiences, describing the yellow light that casts over her bed when she lays down for a nap. This yellow light is thick and “melancholy.” 

Still, the speaker notes that she cannot hope to capture the atmosphere of the yellow light with her words. She states: “That doesn’t say it all, nor even a greater part. Yet it / seems even more incomplete when we were there in person.”

Note here that the speaker plays with the use of verb tense. Thick, yellow, sad sunlight currently “seems” more incomplete “when we were there.” This does not make sense syntactically. However, it reads like the statement of a child who doesn’t have a firm understanding of the English language. 

As such, the speaker seems to be devolving, submerging herself in her own childhood and childish perception of the world. She allows her grammar to fall away, revealing a meaning altogether more imaginative, creative, and rule-breaking. 

Additionally, the speaker seems to step outside of herself as she describes how “she obeyed / she dressed” after rising from her nap. The “they” people, presumably the speaker’s family, scrub “the baby” as if they are scrubbing an apple. 

This baby seems to appear out of nowhere as the speaker emphasizes his inactivity and place in the family. Instead of being a sentient being or interactive person, he’s just a piece of fruit. The speaker’s family “are true kitchen stalwarts,” who engage in domestic chores like obedient soldiers, remaining objective and practical.

On the other hand, the speaker lives in a fantasy world.  

Lines 49 -56

world. A urinating doll, half-buried in sand. She is lying on
her stomach with one eye closed, driving a toy truck along
too large to hide, or alive, a pony perhaps, his mane trimmed
with colored ribbons.

In line 49 of ‘A name trimmed with colored ribbons,’ the speaker next begins to describe someone — perhaps herself or her mother — as “a self-centered being, in this different / world.” She, unlike the rest of her family, is more like a “urinating doll, half-buried in sand.”  

She, satisfied with her beauty, was “untroubled / by the distortions” of reality vs. imagination. Instead, she could do anything at all. She could drive a toy truck down the road and clear away all oncoming traffic and obstacles with just a finger. It didn’t matter whether things were real or not. Imagining something was just as good as seeing it happen in reality. 

As the poem nears its close, the speaker generates a sort of rippling effect as she describes the area surrounding her home as circular, with a once-circular road, a round barrier protected by their dog, circles of chirping crickets and frogs, and foghorns. This circular effect re-emphasizes that the speaker’s home was her entire world. 

Finally, the speaker explains how she received a message of happiness one day when she was called into “the room,” the center of her world. This message, likely a call to dinner, was as pleasant as the anticipation of getting a pony, “ his mane trimmed / with colored ribbons.” Thus, the speaker’s imagination makes her mundane world much more extraordinary, elaborate, colorful, and exciting. Her creativity is what brings her rural upbringing to life.


What are the themes in ‘A name trimmed with colored ribbons’?

The main themes in ‘A name trimmed with colored ribbons’ are imagination, childhood, and play. As she recalls scenes from her childhood, the speaker blends fantasy with reality, constantly distorting the poem’s meaning. By doing so, she ‘plays’ with words and ideas the same way a child plays with nature and toys.

What is the tone in ‘A name trimmed with colored ribbons’?

The tone in ‘A name trimmed with colored ribbons’ by Lyn Hejinian is detached, impartial, and nostalgic. The speaker observes the world impartially. However, she interprets the things around her using sensory details that she imagines to be much more extraordinary than they are.

Is ‘A name trimmed with colored ribbons’ a feminist poem?

‘A name trimmed with colored ribbons’ is not an explicitly feminist poem, but it has the potential for a feminist interpretation. The speaker, the female poet Lyn Hejinian, includes details about her grandmother, a young baby who lives with her, and her imaginative understanding of an old doll, all of which make implications about the role of women in society.

When was ‘A name trimmed with colored ribbons’ published?

‘A name trimmed with colored ribbons’ by Lyn Hejinian was published in 1980 as a part of her book, “My Life.” Hejinian edited and re-released this book in 1987, then again in 2003, adding content as she aged to allow the text to ‘grow up’ with her. The original publication came out when the poet was 37, and there were 37 poems within the book, each of which consisted of 37 sentences.

Similar Poetry

Lyn Hejinian belongs to the school of Language Poetry, an avant-garde poetic movement. Under this genre, poets deconstructed the meaning of words and then reconstructed a new meaning for them, building a new understanding of the power of words.

Some other well-known poems from the school of Language Poetry include:

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Aimee LaFon Poetry Expert
Aimee LaFon has a BAS with honors in English and Classics, focusing her studies on the translation of Latin poetry, manuscript traditions, and the analysis of medieval and neoclassical poetry. She is a full-time writer and poet passionate about making knowledge accessible to everyone.
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