Spurred by the irrationality of the death of a loved one, Lyn Hejinian’s The Unfollowing rejects traditional logic as a means of processing an irrational world. The book is a sonnet sequence that refuses to be classified as such, as the poet operates within the sonnet form while simultaneously rejecting its parameters. Each line bears no logical connection to those that precede or follow, and line lengths vary from a single word to near-paragraph digressions. Here, every line break is a volta, pushing the poems into unforeseeable directions. This allows Hejinian to be discursive, exploratory, and associative in ways that otherwise might be too jarring to comprehend.
The reader is given precise fragments of narratives (“Girls on razor scooters turn the corner and scoot”), syntactical hijinks (“Rude and shoed, should and lead, reed”), and personal revelations (“I don’t have much capacity for nonchalance, indifference is a poor substitute”). Populated by politics, personal interjections, and linguistic manipulations, and progressing through non-sequiturs, the poems risk devolving into an indecipherable mess. Hejinian is acutely aware of this, but continues: “Knowledge is lost in redundant unexpectedness / A field, a flash of emergence, the present, new ideals.” Yet even though the lines are not logically connected, their juxtaposition creates a conversation that feels true to the experience of grappling with a heavily felt loss: “‘Today is today is today yet again’ / I cannot play the instrument of lamentation, it’s impossible to tune.”
As the lines build, they create new layers of comprehension while resisting completion. Hejinian writes: “Turning everywhere in unkempt directions we must now make a new beginning.” This foregrounding of beginnings (and refusal of conclusion) destabilizes any hierarchy of meaning that we might apply to the work: “That’s all / Can we call life falling / We can talk to each other about tiles, snowballs, and camels.”
At times, The Unfollowing’s dissociative reaching can feel overwrought; certain groupings of lines attempt hilarity but fall flat: “O yes / I’ve been tied to a rail / Knock, knock.” However, Hejinian delights more than disappoints with her turns, particularly when they become self-referential: “Why is there no one instead of someone / Watch out, you almost let yourself follow.” These moments anchor the book, reminding us that despite the number of times we begin anew, grief always returns, leaving us with “no other sentence to speak, to syntax, to serve.”