The Unfollowing. Oakland, CA: Omnidawn, 2016. 96 pages. $17.95
Early in spring, the pink of magnolia blossoms and the bright yellow of forsythia begin to flash in the park near my apartment. The scent of the changing season, the feeling of the air, evokes in me visceral flashes of past springs; sometimes it’s as if history is still occurring, still wildly present. In her new book of “anti-sonnets,” The Unfollowing, Lyn Hejinian is concerned with such paradoxes in temporal experience, such punctures in linearity: “Time’s flow is dammed and the past comes back.” She investigates the relationship between language and “our overwhelming experience of the vastness and uncertainty of the world” (as she writes in her seminal essay “The Rejection of Closure”) in yet another work of affecting linguistic innovation.
The provocation here, Hejinian tells us in the preface, is the inexplicability of loss: the death of a young family member, to whom the book is dedicated. The Unfollowing consists of seventy-seven fourteen-line elegies composed of non sequiturs (a phrase that literally means it does not follow), conceptually upending the traditional sonnet’s assumption of logical progression. The state of grief—this should not have followed, but it did—necessitates the disruption of coherent trajectory. “Things predicted are always restricted,” writes Hejinian; she might agree with Simone Weil’s claim, “We must leave . . . the belief in the providential ordering of events.” Hejinian’s forthrightness in the preface—as well as the personal nature of the loss—creates a sharp vulnerability from the outset. The lines rhyme and pun and are sometimes startlingly funny: “There are two elites that rarely meet and they are the hoity-toity and the artsy-fartsy”; “Clerk, haven’t you a pen with pigs in it”; “Whew—my head is like a chrysanthemum held upright on my neck.” Yet this playfulness does not undermine but adds to the sense of vulnerability; for Hejinian, sorrow and hilarity are woven together irrevocably in everyday life, and this is enacted in the material of language, of thought. After all, “Laughter is encrypted grief, but grief is encrypted laughter, too,” and “If you can write a tragedy you can write a comedy.”
The elegized young woman is alluded to throughout the book:
First the beginning, then the middle, then the interminable part
We come to a number, 38, its bowl
In the first of these two lines, where we might expect to find the phrase “the end,” Hejinian gives us interminability, endlessness; it seems her language will not accede to terminality any more than it will submit to the notion of closure she has long rejected in her theoretical work. The dates on the dedication page reveal that the woman elegized was thirty-eight years old when she died. Here that number becomes (and/or possesses) a bowl: a spherical space, an amphitheater resonant with echoes that both outlast and protract the source of their sound—interminability again. Yet the word “bowl” is also plain, banal, favoring the quotidian over the metaphysical. These lines and the other non sequiturs that make up the book require that each reader engage fully with the text, encountering the gaps produced as sites of collaborative meaning-making.
Reader participation in the construction of meaning is one of the main tenets of the Language poetry with which Hejinian has long been associated. For Language poets, this call for participation embodies leftist political values; it prioritizes relationality, collaboration, and community, rejecting “the authority of the writer over the reader and thus, by analogy, the authority implicit in other (social, economic, cultural) hierarchies” (“The Rejection of Closure”). In the collection’s first poem, Hejinian invokes this idea explicitly: “There are all kinds of words here and some that aren’t here and some that might if put together in the right order mean more to you than I can say,” she writes. Here, poetics and poetry become indistinguishable. “The two practices,” she writes in The Language of Inquiry,
are mutually constitutive and they are reciprocally transformative. It is at least in part for this reason that poetry has its capacity for poetics, for self-reflexivity, for speaking about itself; it is by virtue of this that poetry can turn language upon itself and thus exceed its own limits.
In the face of grave loss—The Unfollowing is not limited to a single death, but extends to include other private losses, as well as current public and global grief; politicians and chanting protesters appear—Hejinian wields this double capacity for poetry and poetics with the dry humor and astute intelligence to which her readers are accustomed. Many moments are exemplary of her poetics, intentionally becoming self-reflexive (though not at the expense of the pleasure and immediacy of the language): “Why not associate small dogs with cold butter, hesitation with play, finger puppets with habit, ogling with red buttons”; “Daylight and pins, she announces; sandwiches and obligations, geometry and macaws.” Defamiliarizing compositional techniques—such as, here, juxtaposition or adjacency—are crucial to Hejinian’s poetics; in moments like these, her poetry is indeed “speaking about itself” while also placing one thing beside another as inquiry, as experiment, as invitation. Variance is inevitable, because as usual she wants to cull all that she can from daily life and culture into her language, expressing as vast a range of cognitive experiences as possible, continually providing new opportunities for the reader to make connections. In the line “Daughter precedes dog,” for example, she fuses a meditation on alphabetization with a statement on human cultural values: our children come before our pets.
Hejinian’s last collection before this one, The Book of a Thousand Eyes (Omnidawn, 2012), exhibited great formal range; more than 300 pages of untitled sections include short prose that varies in tone from fable-like to experimentally diaristic, alongside lineated poems that vary widely in punctuation, length, and shape. In contrast, each poem in The Unfollowing adheres to the fourteen line constraint and to one of Hejinian’s trademark approaches to the line: each begins with a capital letter and is a self-contained syntactic and cognitive unit that (almost always) ends without punctuation. There is no enjambment, though indentation implies the continuation of a single line past the space allotted by the printed page. In the longest example of this, a single line takes up twelve lines of text (but we still read it as only one line of the sonnet). This use of the line—one of my favorites in Hejinian’s oeuvre, employed in previous works such as Slowly and Happily—creates a quick, wryly declarative tone that seems consistent regardless of what’s being expressed. The lack of end punctuation keeps each syntactic unit hanging in the air, stopping short of a prosaic matter-of-factness. The effect is an astonishing flattening of registers and modes; all the lines exist on a level plane. No subject, mode, or mood is given priority, as Hejinian reflects upon: “We have no alternatives but alternatives, so let’s alternate.”
Lines in The Unfollowing include—among many categories one might name—quirky domestic observations (“For no apparent reason, the empty sleeves of the gray wool coat that has hung in place for days from a sturdy hook by the door uncannily shift and the coat falls”), philosophical claims (“Every minute proves that reality is conditional”; “The tree is exactly itself in its accidents”), tautologies (“Nothing rises that doesn’t rise”), sonic lists (“A sphinx, a grid, and a cyclist in red”; “O museum, O masochism, O mammary glands”), exclamations (“My daughter can speak!”), and riddles (“My home is under green—who am I”). I imagine Hejinian’s lines as emerging from the kind of “decisive moment” the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson described: “the simultaneous recognition in a fraction of a second of the significance of an event, as well as the precise organization of forms that give that event its expression.” For Hejinian, this recognition is an attempt to acknowledge both the scope and the impenetrability of the subjective experience of the present, from devastation to love to the mundanity of a paper clip or a piece of lettuce (“I assume the reality of everything,” she writes in The Language of Inquiry). Her ear is tuned to the word, the thought, the phrase as event and therefore to the disjunctive arrangement of meanings that give rise to any number of expressions that are, to borrow from Hopkins, “counter, original, spare, strange” (yes, sometimes her lines are spare: “Risotto”; “A moan”). The result is a defamiliarization that is always, for Hejinian, political; her writing urges us to be attentive to the ways in which meaning is emergent as well as to the constant unfolding of possibility that constitutes our public and private lives.