I almost always remember where I read what I read, but very seldom do those locations so mark me as the place I read the first two of these titles. During a month long stint in Bujumbura, Burundi, I visited my friend Samantha Sangwe—noted Burundian furniture designer and entrepreneur—who lives in one of the city’s nicest neighborhood, high on the hills overlooking the city and Lake Tanganyika. While she, her mother, and aunt exercised poolside to a soundtrack of ’60s ballads and ’90s French techno, I sipped an Amstel Bock and read The Sore Throat and most of Find the Girl. It was as surreal as Kunin’s book, the perfect place to read it for the first time.
The Sore Throat & Other Poems, Aaron Kunin (Fence Books) $16
In Peter Gizzi’s introduction to a selection of Kunin’s poems for Boston Review, he makes the comparison to Jack Spicer that often came to my mind while reading The Sore Throat:
“In short, Kunin’s poems belong to the great tradition of the tragicomic. Jack Spicer once wrote that ‘A really perfect poem has an infinitely small vocabulary,’ and Aaron Kunin has outrageously written an entire book using no more than two hundred words.”
Conceptually, it would be difficult to get much stranger: a book that loosely translates Ezra Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly” and Maurice Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande into a vocabulary of the psychological interior, using a lexicon of words generated by a nervous habit of “compulsively transcribing… all the language [he] can pick up—into a kind of sign-language” of his own invention. The repetition never reaches annoyance because it so quickly achieves a haunting psychological quality, with the recurrence of “rats” and “bladders” and “Jesus” all building toward narrative obsession. The book’s tiny vocabulary allows simple emotional statements—like “I no longer wish to remember / Seeing you gasp with laughter”—to resonate with their directness. One portion of dialogue from the recurring poem “Sore Throat” sums up the tone of the entire book:
XXXXXXXThere’s a word in my throat!
—Can’t you let it out with your voice?
The word is too wide, my throat too narrow;
there’s something in the way.
And in another poem, “What Music!” he articulates the difference between The Sore Throat by describing how contemporary poetry often hides more than it uncovers:
XXXXX…My eyes are bad, they are “good
for weeping but not for seeing,” and eyes
not good for seeing are good for nothing.
But what good is seeing, what is seeing
for? Seeing is just another way of
concealing what is there. The purpose of
the eyes, the purpose of the body, is
to keep the mind from knowing anything.
Elsewhere Kunin uses his spare vocabulary to achieve a religious questioning of Rilkesque proportions, to exercise his gentle cynicism, and to articulate, in its basest terms, the fears and desires of love. The book ends with a peculiar piece of prose, in which Kunin describes, in third person, the genesis of the book and the development of his binary hand-alphabet. At first glance I was dismayed at his third-person narration, but upon reading the text fully I found that, as in his poetry, the person allowed him an uncommon freedom of expression, a heightened honesty of self. Kunin’s Sore Throat is ultimately a great success, and I imagine it like some of my favorite Spicer books—perhaps After Lorca—lingering in the consciousness of a generation before breaking through to greater popular acclaim.
A Business Idea
I’ll start a business!
(And I won’t let you in it, maybe . . .)
“Let’s start a business!”
(in a voice that sounded like money)
“Let’s do it!” “We’ll start
a business, my brother and me. We’ll
invent a machine
to can laughter, and anybody
can have our laughter
for two dollars a can.” “You think your
laughter is your own,
to do with as you wish; you think you
can keep your laughter
in a can where is will last, if not
than you will, anyway; you think you
can can it and change
it for money (not much, however).
Maybe someday when
you’re down, and you think the sound of it
would heal you, you’ll wish
you had your laughter, but all you’ll have
is the money.” “Mind
you own business.” “I’m in the money
business.” “That’s a good
business.” “There’s no other business.”
Find the Girl, Lightsey Darst (Coffee House Press) $16
The poems in Darst’s first collection are also linked throughout, but less formally, exploring the poet’s obsession with girlhood—more accurately the sexual curiosity that awakens with the dawn of womanhood—and the CSI industry. Her collection is littered with the graves of known and unknown murder victims, over the span of several thousand years. The collection is dedicated “to the girls at Fairview Middle School,” and much of Darst’s imagery comes from the locker rooms of adolescence:
We slide off our skirts for dirty gym shorts
scatter grackle-like across cracked ground to the field for
a moment adult then panic gaping
like sinkholes inside & now
you will run around the gravel track quickly without knowing why.
Throughout the collection Darst uses frequent asterisks to break strophes and even phrases, an effect that works most of the time, achieving a narrative compiled of clues and images like “rosebud ovaries” and “her coccyx filigreed in gold.”
She incorporates details from a wide range of actual murder cases, including the JonBenét case and Jack the Ripper. The book’s imagery balances the very dark—”I didn’t realize how little love a frame like that admits” and “This? A skull with roots / tunneling where once there was a dream.”—with a sexually charged natural world—”…woman’s sex / —fiddlehead still tiny, furled in a spangle of dew.” Altogether a success with only occasional hitches: some too-wide gaps of imagery, some distracting punctuation, a contagious obsession, and an overwhelmingly successful use of tone in the face of such potential bathos. The collection brings contemporary sensationalism into focus, raising (but not answering) many of the moral questions most poets don’t ask.
Lung Soup, Andrew Elliott (Blackstaff Press/Dufour Editions) $30.95
Andrew Elliot is to me a mystery, but a very satisfying one. Lung Soup begins with two head-shaven women wrestling “while aliens, en masse, to the glass of the French doors cling like spawn,” at the exact moment of a murder—and this all within the first poem! His collection traces those two women, Amy and Sabrina, as they journey around the world, from Berlin to Hackney, with an extended time in a perfectly described America. It’s a long book, with many long narrative poems, marked by a keen British wit and intelligence, with a note of self-consciousness that’s not overdone. His descriptions combine precision with meandering:
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX…Cheese, to his right,
is a fatso whose beetling brow breeds beads of sweat, like lanterns
jiggled in the middle of the night from the eaves of a shack in
by the banging of his Paw taking out on his Maw the frustration at
of his life, until — with the rocker rocking faster and faster — they
on the crotch of his pants which is as taut as the teepee of his
They take place in the fifties, during the War on Communism, in California, in FBI-rented hotel rooms, and in Midwestern housewives’ foyers. There are recurring themes of household appliances, the poet’s confusion of his protagonists’ gender, and mid-century American politics. It’s a vast and magnificent book that could only be properly described at much greater length, so suffice for now, a poem:
States of Anatomy
Amy comes home from work, opens her blouse and looks at
like a man might quickly look away from two sisters sitting shoulder
to shoulder, their backs to a dancehall wall so thin they can feel it
being peppered by snowflakes blowing over the border from Canada.
Amy sometimes thinks of herself as a cave a child balked at
XXXthe mouth of,
so that when, at the age of forty-six, she gets taken in hand,
shown the way, it almost blows her head off and Sabrina, on all fours,
can only do what she can, like Jackie Kennedy that day down
Taller than all but the tallest of men, Amy is not what Sabrina
and so suffice here to say that at Woodstock she appeared to tower
above everybody like a reed waist deep in water
which rocks very slowly one way and then just as slowly the other.
Not since the late Neolithic has hair of all kinds enjoyed such a rage,
taking to the streets in defence of the lengths to which it is prepared
XXXto grow …
Still, one has to ask: is there another pair of ‘pits here as hairy
Were each hair a thread of saffron she’s be worth her weight in gold.
There’s a part of Amy’s anatomy would be of fascination to the best
In the middle of her chest, a little to the left, it will sometimes beat
a little too rapidly though by no means as rapid as a hummingbird’s
Poor little bird, burning sugar, one sweet-lipped flower very much
Forgive me (don’t if you don’t want to) if I return to Amy’s breasts,
which are more than made up for by her nipples. Sabrina, amused
by how long they can grow, takes them between the Vs of her fingers
like cigarettes. By the time she’s smoked the one she’s ready to
XXXlight up the other.