'A non-sequitur is a song of experience'
A review of Lyn Hejinian's 'The Unfollowing'
The commonplace that the disorientations and ruptures of contemporary life require an equally disjunctive poetics has led many poets writing today to court the non sequitur as determinedly as a debater might avoid it. In traditional logic and rhetoric, a non sequitur — Latin for “it does not follow” — is a mistake, a fallacy, an inference that does not follow from the premises or evidence. As a literary device, a non sequitur offers illogic and discontinuity for effect: a comedian might use one to inject a dose of the absurd, a dramatist to veer into idiosyncrasy, or a poet to convey a cognitive leap, a rift in the expectation of narrative or discursive progression. Over the past forty years, use of non sequitur in poetry has become so prevalent that it might, from some later vantage, define a period style or motive. As one strategy for resisting, at a sentence level, the logics of larger oppressive narratives — for disrupting the easy-to-follow stories that script conventional beliefs and dominant ideologies — it operates in Ron Silliman’s “new sentences” and the work of others in the Language cohort, in poets as different as Ann Lauterbach, Harryette Mullen, and Jorie Graham, in almost every poet associated with the Gurlesque, and in twenty volumes by John Ashbery. By the turn of the twenty-first century, in the overlapping networks of poetic coteries with various political intentions and institutional entrenchments, the non sequitur had come to be a shibboleth of avant-garde affiliation: not connecting the dots, not making “sense,” meant a poet was in the avant-garde know. A skeptic might call it “disjunctivitis”: how much resistance can a device mount, how disruptive of expectations and assumptions can it be, how strong a jolt to hegemonic power can it deliver, if everyone is doing it?
One answer might be that not everyone is doing it well. Few writers can hold discursive continuity in abeyance and still spark the tension and urgency found here:
The lid of the sun is heavy, its lashes blink on the horizon, brushing the curve of the sea
So now they want to grant federal coal subsidies
I heard “suspected pipe bomb” as “suspected python”
The first nest empty and deep, at child’s eye level, in a young fir tree, of twigs
These four non sequiturs are nonintersecting flight paths through natural, political, and linguistic spheres. One line anthropomorphizes the sun as a cartoon coquette, the next soberly remarks on a political development with ominous environmental consequences, and the next culls wordplay from a mishearing, finding humor in the error even as the line contains the present danger of an explosive device. The return to the natural world, in the next leap, restores not innocence but vulnerability: the gaps between lines vibrate with risk. These lines, like others in Lyn Hejinian’s most recent collection of poems, The Unfollowing, revisit and revivify the non sequitur as a structural principle in poetry.
The seventy-seven numbered poems in the volume gather non sequiturs — observations, utterances, images, and examples that convey no logical relationship or narrative from one to the next — in sets of fourteen, a constraint that inevitably invokes what is perhaps the most closed and logical poetic form of all: the sonnet. To call these poems sonnets, Hejinian writes cannily in the book’s preface, “wouldn’t be inaccurate — or it would be entirely so” (9). “Sonnets are the summit of logicality,” she continues, and unlike “the sonnet proper,” these poems “are intended to be illogical” (9). Defined by and defying their constraint, the poems refuse to “follow” the sonnet’s traditional structure of argument and resolution, instead marshalling disparate materials that instantiate that refusal. No group of fourteen items adds up — to insight, to story, to revelation — though each one nonetheless accrues tonal and affective force. “A non-sequitur is a song of experience” (60), one poem tells us, and these poems resonate forcefully as memos from a postlapsarian world — Blakean in their contrapuntal richness as well as in their woe.
The avowed illogicality of these poems, though not disingenuous, nonetheless elides their reliance on logic of a different order — not “following,” not logical progression, but analogy. It is a logical paradigm Hejinian has espoused before. Her seminal essay “The Rejection of Closure,” still a go-to text for disjunctive poetics thirty-five years after it was first delivered as a talk, presents a rationale that hinges on analogy:
The “open text,” by definition, is open to the world and particularly to the reader. It invites participation, rejects the authority of the writer over the reader and thus, by analogy, the authority implicit in other (social, economic, cultural) hierarchies.
This turn to analogy, to a mode of comparison rather than definition or representation, offers an epistemological scaffolding for understanding open texts, an alternative mode of knowing where meanings are co-created in the gaps, the interstices. The use of non sequitur in The Unfollowing is similarly pegged to an explicit analogy: the preface states that the book was composed through an effort to make each line “as difficult to accept on the basis of the previous and subsequent lines as death is for we who are alive” (9). The word “as” signals the analogical claim: use of non sequitur is analogous to the human struggle with the incommensurability of death — the unthinkable breach, the aporia of the loved one gone.
A skeptic might ask how analogy escapes the pitfalls of a logic of “following.” Hejinian writes that the loss at the heart of the book, the untimely death of a beloved young woman, “overturned whatever ‘logic’ I had trusted to prevail over the larger patterns of the familiar world and over the details and particulars through which we experience it on a daily basis, the logic whereby living makes sense” (9). Fair enough, but how can we trust analogy when we don’t trust logic? Maybe we can’t. Maybe any “as” that asserts A-is-to-B as C-is-to-D collapses just as readily. The attempt, nonetheless, may be as futile and necessary as elegy itself. The shifting fields of thought that comprise The Unfollowing remind us that the logic of analogy is not linear but differential — a relation compared to a relation, not a thing to a thing — and thus analogy is perhaps more capable of a complex and dynamic equation, a calculus and not an algebra. Marked with its elegiac intent on the dedication page and on several poems where a commemoree is named at the bottom of the page, the book is suffused with loss and the ongoing process of grief — “[e]ach elegy continues” (22). It is also marked with the conviction that a singular logical progression would come up short, distort, or even betray:
At a picnic, succinctly, so as to downplay / minimize / desentimentalize / neutralize and make no claim to its purport, I referred to the death of the mother of the child-at-my-side — but already, entering / saying / writing / recording that here, I’ve committed a betrayal (65)
As the moment spears the heart, the reader is likewise implicated in this betrayal, uncomfortably in the position of indulging what one poem refers to as “sweaty pathos” (77). The term “unfollowing” carries a hint of the social media meaning of hiding someone’s posts in a newsfeed — refusing to watch someone overshare, perhaps, and in so doing, honoring the recalcitrant privacy of grief. The Unfollowing is a resolutely introverted book, not only because it is introspective as opposed to expressive, but because it mistrusts “relatability”: “The sociable book is ample and uninhibited, unashamed of its jolly idiosyncrasies, unembarrassed by its infuriated sentimentality” (81). By contrast, this elegiac book keeps its cards close to its chest, inviting the reader’s participation but eschewing voyeurism. Insisting on a non-sequiturial process allows Hejinian to evoke affective experience without simplifying or encapsulating: writing so that “nothing follow[s] logically” (9) becomes an analogical algorithm for getting at the unknowable and unacceptable, a process that opens a differential space for elegy.
Hejinian’s algorithm operates through three strategies that cross and entwine over the course of the poems: attention to granular detail, interpolation of song, and outburst of wit. The poems’ “granularity” — the rich particularity of the sample, the close scale and high level of detail of the data set — allows for a close-up epistemology of the life lived, what she describes as “a revolutionary practice of everyday life, dismantling control and reforming connectivity” (10). The first poem observes that “[t]he visible is rough” (13), and a later line indicates that “I’m working small” (56). Throughout, the book maintains fidelity to experience as textured and episodic:
Elbow, richness, auburn, critic, water rising through the plumbing system (15)
O handwritten fan of the husky chanteuse, o purveyor of bulbs of blue impasto, o patter of the pocket of the chevalier, o lost hemisphere (55)
Here is porcelain for incredulity, milk for irony, a broom for irreverence, a harpsichord for banter and lack of necessity (71)
Eleven lines may be woven with three into an elegy, an entropy, a velocipede, a punishment, and a pin (13)
Many lines function self-descriptively, even synecdochally: “Conjoining unlike concepts (say, birth control and origami) is something mortals do” (20). And yet each line is a discrete instance, a resistance to that impulse to conjoin, maintaining the granularity of the parts in relation to the whole.
This attention extends from the experiential world to language itself, its grammatical mechanisms under scrutiny: “[p]ast tense, present tense, three legs in a single brown shoe” (80). The Unfollowing is preoccupied with grammar, listing verb conjugations and parts of speech, mulling over a “[p]redicate without prepositions” (17), exploring pronominal substitutions, asking, “How do sentences do this?” (28). It is, moreover, an extended exploration of how deixis is involved in the work of mourning — how language can point offstage to what or who is gone, a procedure reminiscent of Susan Howe’s observation, in That This, that “non-being cannot be ‘this.’” And yet the speaker keeps directing her language to that absence, keeps pointing:
The very fact of pointing to something commits the person who is pointing to the conviction that there is something there, to the existence of what she’s pointing at (34)
It’s a non-sequitur — that (19)
It is only in this light that I can see the spider’s web (21)
That’s a bushel of wheat; that’s a secretary; that’s a night flight to Bangkok — but which one (45)
And so we see that the here and now that are constantly changing are always current — or are they (23)
With deictic markers pointing in all directions, no single line connecting to the next, the referent remains always just outside the frame. Deixis intensifies the deliberate discomfiture of the non sequiturs, rehashing the effects of severance.
Though line after line points outside the frame, the tight frame remains. Each sequence breaks off after fourteen lines and begins again: the units remind us that “sonnet” comes from the Italian sonetto for “little song” (itself from Old Provençal sonet, “little poem”). They are threaded with diminutive utterance and bits of song — as if to steal back the sonnet from Big Poetic Form and restore it to the little tune. The poems are laden with song and singsong, nursery rhymes and rhythms — onomatopoeias, assonance and consonance, acoustic play from pun to coo:
Have you ever seen a donkey go this way and that way (55)
An elf with so many toes on her feet, bam bam, that she couldn’t wear boots, dam dam, stepped into hot coals, ram ram (15)
I have an orange cat who is a jaunty predator, he’s bargained with the garden birds and never been a traitor (75)
Accumulations of sonic play give rise to (or give way to) heady humor, and several poems foreground this tactic:
The situation calls for a rhyme: gelatin with skeleton (64)
There once was a woman with assurance and wit who considered all isms counterfeit (52)
The most insectoid thing I can think to utter is et cetera (49)
It is said that one should rhyme something concave with chaos (35)
This is Hejinian’s algorithm: granular detail, bundled with little songs, yields not logic but wit. The circumstances of dying and mourning unearth a psychosonic underlayer, and ensuing hilarity becomes a coping mechanism: “The little group around the bed engage in a flurry of word play, meanings are bent, words are pressed by etymology, it’s all amorous activity” (57). Elegy, inexplicably, becomes funny: “Laughter is encrypted grief, but grief is encrypted laughter, too” (81). The laughter in The Unfollowing restores, or at least taps into, a prelinguistic mode of infantile utterance that is soothing: “Language is as blind as sleep” (55).
Via analogy, these seventy-seven clusters of non sequiturs succeed in documenting personal grief, but Hejinian also has in mind broader claims that have long formed an ideological underpinning for disjunctive poetics, and that have suggested a role for non sequitur in language that resists hegemony. The book also documents responses to public catastrophe in the interval since the death in the family:
[I]n the time since her death … there has been much to mourn in the public sphere, too. Indeed, there is ample cause in the world for real political anguish and justifiable cosmic despair. Whatever checks on capitalism’s rapacity existed (or perhaps only seemed to exist) even a decade ago are all but non-existent now. (9)
The skeptic might resist this leap and furthermore resist the idea that the non sequitur has any efficacy in altering that rapacity. One might ask, against this assertion, doesn’t Donald Trump speak in non sequiturs? Glenn Thrush of the New York Times observes that
Like many of his speeches, Mr. Trump’s pitch at Rivertowne Marina [on June 7, 2017] was a wandering assortment of self defenses, attacks and non sequiturs that bumped into one another like untethered barges.
Are Hejinian’s lines also untethered barges? How can we, and should we, sustain faith in the non sequitur as poetically generative or as an ethical or political good, or even tangential to an ethical or political good, when perverse illogic has prevailed and done so much harm? Hejinian seems to have mulled the objection herself, presciently, making this observation:
That the strongest social bonds are forged by language doesn’t nullify the power that dancing around the puppet effigies of the men in power has (63)
This tricky statement, part concession and part commentary, reminds us that the valence of social language and its capacity for connectivity, for good or ill, is of course dependent on its context vis-à-vis power. Trump’s presidency shows yet again that dancing around “puppet effigies” can have catastrophic consequences, and he won his post with rhetoric steeped in egregious violations of logic. Yet Trump does not really speak in non sequiturs: a Trump rant is notoriously crude and incoherent, but it is a string of invective bound to a terrible narrative indeed, a cable of xenophobic, fascistic causality: hate to “make great.”
Hejinian’s method in The Unfollowing allows space for inquiring into the paradoxes of its own making: following and unfollowing, logic and fallacy, sense and nonsense. She draws no conclusions about the political efficacy of breaking with logical syntax, and indeed cautions the reader against doing so: “The critic has to stay close to her object of interest but she’s also got to confess her anxiety, her uncertainty, her criminality” (75). It may not be criminal to admit this, but I found that reading The Unfollowing starts to conjure a personality, starts to feel like accompanying a witty and shrewd person on a long car trip — like keeping company with a mind at times irascible, at times indulgent: “O experiential friend, let us kiss and make sense” (36). This companionability — the hortative “Let’s go now” (84) — becomes the most convincing, most trustworthy expression of a capacity to mourn collectively the catastrophes of the public sphere. This elegiac work amplifies the differential of social analogy, extending an evidentiary of unacceptable loss to include the unacceptability of, among other horrors, the ruptures of the present day. We’ve been schooled in unfollowing, but we’ll follow her anywhere.