Situations, Sings

Jack Collom and Lyn Hejinian

Adventures in Poetry


Wednesday, April 23rd, 2008

I’ve always thought Adventures in Poetry put out good books, and I’ve always thought it was a great name for a press. The new collaboration from Jack Collom and Lyn Hejinian (a collaboration that spans over fifteen years) makes it literal: Situations, Sings really is an adventure in poetry. Like last year’s Flowers of Bad by David Cameron, it’s arranged as a sort of anthology of formal procedures, with a brief “key” to each section at the back. For example, the gloss on “Blanks”:

“Blanks” utilizes something of a Mad-Libs structure. As usual, we took turns adding to the work, in this case by reaching into each other’s entries: each addition included three blanks in its text; the respondent had to fill in the blanks and then provide additional text. The piece acquired its own haphazard logic.

That it did. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Sleepily, like some ancient oilfather watching a fern frond unwind,
the scribe sketches nerve bifurcations. But in what context
Is this picture a picture, and on what map is it a name for a mountainous
terrain? “The” becomes accusatory
When a prosecutor presents evidence of any precision or a doctor holds up
a baby. But in Louis Zukofsky’s “Poem Beginning ‘The,'” “The” is
not a magazine at all.
Can you picture God reading Newsweek?

A lot of the enjoyment of pieces like lies in trying to guess what the details of the process were like: where were the blanks, which poet wrote what part? And too, it induces a generative eagerness, a desire to try one’s own hand at the form–or better yet, to come up with something of one’s own in the same vein. Thus the same inspirational charge that passed between the two authors is transmitted to the reader.

Sometimes there’s a ludic orneriness to the work, as in “Wicker,” a two-columned piece where the form requires that the left column contain “quotations from famous, unknown, or purely imaginary, people”; and, of the actual people, some of the quotes are correctly attributed and others not. In many cases it’s clear which are real and which are phony. For example, I’m pretty sure Emily Dickinson didn’t write “Sunlight / contains a buzz / Softness is as softness / does.” But did Stan Brakhage say “Imagine a baby / in a field of grass…”? He might have. I hope he did. The not knowing, at any rate, inspires a slight feeling of guardedness in the reader, as though these two colluders might be trying to make a fool of him or her. But it’s pleasing after all, like being teased by big brother and sister.

There are acrostics, plays, prose pieces, freeform improvisations, fractured pantoums. It’s a veritable carnival of procedural follies, but one never feels that it’s an exercise in gimmickry, or an indulgence in de rigeur avant-garde aleatorics; the mutual hum of engagement between Collom and Hejinian is always in the foreground, keeping a high-voltage emotional current running through each page, even when things are played for laughs. The laughs, in turn, always feel like spontaneous bursts of delirium rather than planned pratfalls, as they are interspersed with passages of beauty, obscurity, difficulty, reflection, polemic. Delirium, that is, is indistinguishable here from ecstatic vision. In “Paddle,” the compositional principle is the accumulation of non-sequitur sentences:

A very pretty maiden stood up and said, “Me look-look plenty quick goddamn big pirate Mistah Peter Burling me plenty baby!”; the Governor coughed discretely. Tumblers the watch lets: their love of unstable equilibrium is demonstrated in their riding. Lapsed banshee of sail several through though tough a oops into unto and two.

Readily car, hurriedly dog, of butter of what of bump to our doom. But once again. “Milton produced Paradise Lost as a silkworm produces silk, as the activation of his own nature.”

What we read in passages like these is less the referential content of the phrases (when referential content is even discernible) than the play of connection and disconnection between two poetic sensibilities. Collom and Hejinian have, at times, very different styles, and they don’t make the mistake of trying constantly to adapt their instincts to each other’s. Just as often as there is harmony and tonal unison, there is a sense of gleeful undermining, almost as though one poet were deliberately trying to throw the other off, or bend the other to his or her aesthetic will in ways that could obviously never succeed. Rather than disrupting some ideal unity of the work, this tension keeps it alive, infused with comically angular moments of unassimilability.

The dominant mode of Situations, Sings, is comic, but comic in a sense that encompasses a much broader range of effects–and affect–than a great deal of other writing out there that appears under that heading, or for that matter, under other headings. It is comic in its positing of limitless possibilities for form, expression, communication. To imagine a field that various and wide is always to court absurdity, especially when one shuttles from space to space within the field so rapidly and restlessly. From “Questionably,” the first piece in the collection:

Say a woman calls a man “Fuck Face”–aren’t there scenarios in which this comes off as neither angry nor enticing but as calming–neutralizing?
So why not be horrified all the time?
Anode odna o agfuoantoa hv noqa roebn?
I see somebody in your eye. Who is it?

In between the isolated speculations and goofings around and strings of scrambled code, moments of confusion become indistinguishable from moments of clarity. One no longer recognizes oneself in another’s eye, and in that instant, one is borne aloft, beyond mere selfhood, into the current of a collaborative en-musement. We write each other, as they say, and the others that we write into being write us into being in return.

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Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers

Kim Hyesoon (trans. Don Mee Choi)

Action Books


Thursday, March 13th, 2008

I saw Don Mee Choi reading some of the poems of Kim Hyesoon’s she had translated for the Tinfish chapbook When the Plug Gets Unplugged (2005) a couple of years ago at a conference in Austin, and had an experience I don’t often have at poetry readings: I was genuinely disturbed, made viscerally nervous, as though one thing had been peeled back to reveal something else, something I didn’t necessarily want to see. That same feeling revisits me upon reading the collection of Kim’s work recently published by Action Books (and incorporating the poems in When the Plug), Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers. Kim’s surrealism is not a precious affectation or a sterile literary convention, but a way of conveying nightmarish states of existence through the most effective means available. In this case, those means include mass suicide, visions of nuclear annihilation, endless vomit, dismemberment, and an awful lot of squirming, cannibalistic rats.Before you run in the other direction, looking for something less, shall we say, negative, let me say that beauty is also a major part of its approach–beauty is inherent in both the smooth surface that is ruptured by the book’s violently repulsive images, and in the space of unsettledness opened up by that rupture. It is not a comfortable beauty, however, but a beauty, like Rilke’s, that threatens to be more than one can bear. From “Boiling,” which begins with an image of a cruise missile being launched:

The condor shoots straight up against the harsh air streams
slowly circles, then rapidly descends
and looks down distantly at the boiling water
Maybe someone has hidden a helicopter in the forest
From faraway the sound of the trees boiling
The thousands of electrical wires are pinned to the body’s interior
begin to emit electricity to the inside, inside
this is not just a feeling but an ultrasound, a hydro-current
my inside can get electrocuted when I place my hand in it
this time I begin to boil like an electric pot
this isn’t love but an electricity detector, a missile

If there is one theme that recurs even more insistently than rats in this book, it is the inside of the body. This interior turns inside out, is illuminated by various light sources, is figured as a mechanism of desire, pain, fertility, nourishment, expulsion. In “Seoul’s Dinner,” the city itself is an expression of this monstrous reversibility:

Seoul eats and shits through the same door. My body curls up like a worm. It seems that every few days a big hand descends from the sky to roll out cloud-like toilet paper and wipe the opening of Seoul, which is simultaneously a mouth and an anus.

The air of detachment with which Kim describes abomination and suffering is like an extenuated version of the detachment with which one realizes that one has suffered a terrible wound, when one registers the facts of trauma just before pain removes the capacity for such reflection. In a suspended holding pattern, the mind dreams and strays and analyzes relationships with others, as in “The Rat Race”:

Wherever I meet you, you are always on the run
from Scorpio to Libra
from Libra to Taurus
Not here, not here
From the potato sack to the rice sack
from the soap dish to the bottom of the desk
from Lukács to Deleuze
from the basement to the attic
from the wastewater plant to the cemetery
I hate all things that are shiny and black
You are always on the run
from the deep to the surface

Where are you really?
Am I the dream you dreamt inside my body?
Am I the dream you pulled up with chopsticks from the 39 degree Celsius fever?
Did we meet as we gnawed on a corpse and rolled around inside the grave?
Where, where was that place?
Not here, not here
This is the inside of somebody’s skull–
you can’t see out without the two black holes

As Choi explains in the Translator’s Introduction, Kim is one of the most radical innovators in Korean women’s poetry in recent decades, breaking as she does with a limited and limiting tradition in which poetry by women is “characterized by a language of passivity and contemplation” as “predefined by the literary establishment.” One can perhaps see sardonic nods to that language in the way that Kim’s traversing of predictably domestic images (potato sack, rice sack, soap dish) is disrupted by the mention of Lukács, Deleuze, and “the wastewater plant”: the familiar confines of home life and kitchen duty cannot keep out continental theory and industrial sanitation. Similarly, the discourse of erotic address (as defined by an interlinked “I” and “you” faced with a problem of distance and separation) gives way to a discourse of sickness, entombment, and necrophagy. And once again the inside of the body is an obsessive touchpoint, here given special emphasis as a place within which consciousness transpires–though in a defamiliarized context, “inside my body” rather than “inside my mind”–and from which vision emerges–though only paradoxically, from the “two black holes” of the skull rather than the eyes that should fill those holes.

Throughout the poems in Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers, intimacy (physical and emotional) is alternately reaffirmed and transgressed. In “Face,” the dynamics of “I” and “you” are subjected to further destabilizing, but in a way that suggests those categories are indispensable even as they are claustrophobic:

The you inside you is so strong that the I inside me is about to get dragged into your inside

Now you are drinking a glass of red wine, holding a piece of cheese in your hand

The I inside me thinks about the fact that the cheese is made of milk then worries about which cow inside the cow has spurted out the milk

Even if you are far away, another you inside you is here I can’t return or avoid the you inside you

Maybe I am the hostage of an absent being

I will certainly stay alive while the I inside me clutches onto me; furthermore, I want to deliver the cheese made of me inside me to your table every morning

I have no way of knowing how Choi’s translations compare to Kim’s originals, since I don’t know Korean. There is a sense of precision and intensity in these Englished poems, however, that makes me think Kim’s response to someone who asked how she felt about the translations was genuine and reliable: “It is like meeting someone like myself” (again, from the Translator’s Introduction). And in fact, much of the power of this work lies precisely in the eerie convincingness with which it appears to deliver to us a perfectly realized, specific self, even as that self is threatened, stretched, and torn by monolithic forces of alienation.

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