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Saturday, December 8, 2018

Lyn Hejinian, The Unfollowing

Fourteen lines on each page, that’s sonnet length. Little rhyme of syllogism employed. No tidy conclusions. Each line as long as it needs to be. Most discontinuous with one another but not necessarily so. It seems there may not be a logic other than method in the construction of Lyn Hejinian’s The Unfollowing (Omnidawn 2016). Nothing follows, no conclusions, the title says it all. Still it takes an act of will to write as Hejinian does. Each line is inventive in its own quirky way. “A woodpecker of wood fastened to a piece of wood by a wire and string pecks when the string is pulled” (24). Documentary perception and constructivist method, still I find it a surrealist image. Perhaps pecking is an aspect of method. The image also reminds me of wooden lumberjacks that bounce and dance on a flat board. The dance rhythms delight children. Hejinian’s lines also dance, sometimes a jig, “I thought I saw an earthworm stirring in the dirt, then I saw it was a sadist, wielding a quirt” (19). Unexpected cruelties flash across the screen of my mind, “Once it was enough to be melodious, when every song was like a nail in the jaw” (62). The matter of what is at stake in poetry is never broached or resolved. At this moment I happen to be listening to motets by Josquin DezPrez (Hilliard Ensemble). Overlaid resonances of different voices in the high registers has the effect thrilling deep regions of my inner ear. Enough for nails!

My observations are not meant to suggest that Hejinian’s art lacks purpose or meaning. In the middle of the collection I find the deeply allegorical poem, “The Eye of the Storm.” The only poem in the collection with a title and a stated purpose, “For Susan Bee. In memory of Emma Bee Bernstein.” She writes, in one breathy line, “Let us take our surrogate selves out and leave them like guinea pigs to sniff and browse on swirls while we sit cross-legged in a sun swept amphitheater” (Poem 35, p. 47). I did this once upon a time,  if I remember correctly, with my son, long ago in the forests of Oregon. Unlike many other poems in this collection, this poem concludes in sonnet fashion with a message, “O child, be contemporary, your soul an ornament of consciousness.” The next poem is equally brilliant and perhaps closer moralizing than is Hejinian’s purpose, “All prancing proud horses sweat milk, and are mothered by low-lying clouds” (48). This surreal and maternal image carries layers to my mind of deepest preconscious meaning, encapsulated, not quite unfollowing upon neighboring lines, where a daughter confesses to her mother, “Mother, mother, I got married and I kept God entirely out of the game.” It may have been unfair of me to choose passages that appeal to my own whimsy and melancholy. You should read this book for yourself.

Donald Wellman

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