Brian Henderson on Required Unrealities

H. L. Hix: “As if” recurs frequently in English usage, so I don’t want to attribute to it more importance than you mean for it to have, but it seems to have unusual importance in these poems: I counted twenty instances of it in the book, and maybe there are others I didn’t catch.  Is “as if” important to this work?  Are these poems especially attuned to that mode of hypothesis?


Brian Henderson: This is a wonderful, and wonderfully unexpected, question. First let me say, I had no idea that the book so bristled with “as ifs”. If I were a grammar freak, I might say that the prevalence of the “as if” construction reveals an aversion for “like” as a conjunction where fairly complex clauses with verbs follow.  But I’m not. If I were a rhetorician I’d say that normally I’d want to push all the way to metaphor or image and stay clear of more tentative things like similes. But I’m not that either, and “as if” isn’t technically a simile anyway. “If” actually opens the conditional — a state of the less-than-certain. It doesn’t introduce a truly metaphoric state of identity, but an unreal tense which expresses a quotient of unknowability. In the book time is constantly being displaced “as if” there were multiple universes, so we’re never quite sure where we are: In a future that has circled back to pick up elements of the Precambrian, or a distant past that has somehow gathered up our own time. Is it a post-future? There are quite a few Sci-Fi tropes in the book – I had been enjoying Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, and the paintings of Jasek Yerka around the time of writing some of the poems. And of course the epigraphic use of Borges highlights the element of thought-time that’s often central to the fantastic. “In a New Refutation of Time” he asks “Is not one single repeated term sufficient to break down and confuse the series of time?” I would therefore be pleased if “as if” might recur to this effect.


So, yes, absolutely, the hypothetical as you say, the speculative, is a primary mode of the book. It’s also a primary mode of writing itself. Writing, and especially poetry, launch us into alterity and the unknown. So does death, and the second movement of the book, “Night Music” is comprised of poems concerning my mother’s. Borges talks about a divine mind being capable of discerning the pattern of a life the way we discern the figure of a triangle. And art requires unrealities to reveal the hallucinatory quality of the world. “As if” we could know it.


Brian Henderson.  Sharawadji.  Brick Books, 2010.


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