Ax Handle


Lesley Jenike’s video essay captures snapshots of motherhood and explores self-discovery. The explanation below provides background for the video and some thoughts on its content and structure. Lesley’s nonfiction piece “I Have Drunk and Seen the Spider” appears in Volume 68, Number 2.


In an old Scandinavian folktale known as “Good Day, Fellow! Ax Handle!” a hard-of-hearing man threatened with debtor’s jail prepares his responses for the bailiff, believing that out of human curiosity or social convention, the bailiff will first ask him about the ax handle he’s been carving. When the bailiff greets him, “Good day, fellow!” the man responds, “ax handle!” and the awkward conversation continues from there. “Where’s your wife?” the bailiff asks. “She’s lying on the beach, cracked at both ends,” the man replies, thinking the bailiff would next ask him about his boat. The bailiff asks, “Where’s your daughter?” and the man says, “She’s in the stable, big with foal,” thinking the bailiff would then ask him about his horse. Exasperated, the bailiff finally gives up and walks away.

“Good Day, Fellow! Ax Handle!” is meant to exemplify the non sequitur, a rhetorical device we find in narrative from time to time as fodder for comedy or tragic misperception. We sometimes we find it in poetry too as grist for the metaphorical mill, or in art that topples orthodox notions of visual harmony. Put two unalike images, two disconnected ideas, two seemingly random lines next to one another, and see what happens. In Latin, non sequitur means literally “it does not follow,” but what if we allowed room for that which does not follow?

Because we can’t escape Freud, we might psychoanalyze the Norse story and say the man’s responses are loaded with subliminal meaning in the way he constructs his responses, in the way the bailiff receives those responses, and finally, in the way we, as readers/listeners, interpret the interaction between the two. But Freudian analysis may well be just another just another narrative overlay—a method for organizing the madness of paradoxical duality, much like the non sequitur.

Think of Hamlet who—in feigning madness—both evades Polonius’s questions and forces his audience to question their assumptions: is Hamlet mad with grief, mad with love, or is he simply mad? Polonius, sent to interview Hamlet, begins the exchange tentatively; Hamlet may be so far gone he doesn’t even recognize his own uncle’s advisor. “Do you know me, my lord?” Polonius asks, to which Hamlet replies, “Excellent well. You are a fishmonger.” The effect is funny, as in weird, and also humorous, but Hamlet’s maneuver has larger consequences. He places the burden of meaning-making on Polonius, and while Polonius follows the prescribed rules of engagement, Hamlet does not or—at least—not in any conventional way.

Harold Bloom has described Hamlet as “the most experimental play ever written,” and, indeed, Hamlet’s means of upending narrative expectations, even cognitive expectations via non sequitur, prompt us to reexamine the nature of language and storytelling. Hamlet—often touted as the first “Modern man”—is, in effect, tearing up and reassembling Hamlet’s dramatic structure even as he performs inside it. There are plays-within-plays-within-plays in Hamlet, just as there are in our own lives; some of the scenes makes sense, but most of them don’t—they require alternative maps to follow.

In truth, I’ve never gotten over Hamlet. I’ve never abandoned my love for plays-within-plays, nor have I given up on non sequitur as occasion for redirection and redress. “Little Brown Jug”—named for a piece of music you hear in the video, played by a trio in period costume at the Ohio History Center—attempts to emulate the non sequitur in form and most likely in theme too.

I wondered what would happen if I added a piece of writing I was working on to video footage I’d collected over the past few years. In the process, I began to see a meditation on motherhood emerging, as well on a particular former student of mine—a genius artist and writer on a mission of self-discovery—who continues to struggle with and against predictable narratives about identity and trauma. We may ask questions of art, though its replies won’t necessarily follow our original line of inquiry.

Lesley Jenike’s poems and essays appear in Poetry, the Kenyon Review, the Southern Review, the Bennington Review, the Rumpus, Rattle, Verse, and many other journals. Her most recent books are poetry collections Holy Island (Gold Wake, 2014), and Punctum (Kent State University Press, 2017). She teaches creative writing and literature at the Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio where she lives with her husband and children.