Thursday, April 6, 2006

povel, by geraldine kim

I'm pretty sure the claim that Geraldine Kim's book Povel represents a new form that successfully merges confessional verse poetry and the novel should be taken as tongue-in-cheek, appearing, as it does, in an introduction that claims to be written by Lyn Hejinian and claims to have originally been published in An Exaltation of Forms CXXXVIII, only to turn around to tell us, in a footnote at the very end, that "Lyn Hejinian never wrote this and An Exaltation of Forms CXXXVIII is not an existing text."

This fake introduction, with its sense of pomo gamesmanship and its willingness to cleverly tweak elements of "the book as form" (the author photo, bio, and epigraph are all played for gag effect, too) initially seems to place the book in a tradition staked out by David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and later parlayed into a literary career by Dave Eggers, particularly in McSweeney's and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. But perhaps Povel's claim to hybridity is not all red herring, as the book does ring akin to Lyn Hejinian's My Life, at least in the way that it makes a sort of biographical narrative by aggregating a set of tenuously-related details.

The main difference is that Kim renounces just about all claim to "poetic"-sounding language. A Hejinian line might say something like "The waves rolled over our stomachs, like spring rain over an orchard slope," a sentence that might contain the somewhat ungainly noun "stomachs" but which also is built around a "nature-y" simile that should sit pretty comfortably with readers of traditional lyric poetry. Contrast this against Kim's "Sarcastic Starbucks Guy runs like a frantic penguin to get tea for the lady in front of me." Still based on a nature-themed simile, but the difference feels pretty stark, even if what exactly distinguishes it is hard to articulate. Is it just the presence of the corporation name? Is it the fact that this image feels, to me, familiar, whereas the "orchard rain" image feels, frankly, exotic?

Whatever the reason, Hejinian's book feels like a poem, whereas Kim's book feels not exactly like a poem or like a novel but a bit like reading straight through the archives of a breezy, funny blog. "It would suck to be a unicorn" (p. 40). "A woman walks in front of me as we climb the stairs and I notice that her ass resembles a pair of tympanis" (p. 86). The whole book is like this, ten thousand bits of random observation, accumulating in various ways, some of which take on some of the features of narrative (the book does have, for instance, characters, some of whom have back-stories, although how much "character development" is happening here is questionable).

The fact that the book piles on these observations and leaves them in free suspension qualifies it as an "Everything Device," although one that's fragmented and trivia-focused in comparison, to, say, Juliana Spahr's This Connection of Everyone With Lungs. One could almost think of Kim as the anti-Spahr: where Spahr's book keeps focusing consciousness outward, broadening it, attempting to see each detail as part of the Big Big Picture, Kim's book seems more focused inward, the sheer massive weight of detail-to-be-collected cramming out any sense of wider connectedness as it overtaxes the very consciousness responsible for collecting it: "Trying to constantly remind myself to write it down before my short-term memory takes it away." I'm not saying that Spahr's book is better—in fact, if you asked me which one works as a better representation of everyday consciousness, I'd say that while we all might wish we had minds like Juliana Spahr's—concentrated on making sense of world atrocity and issues of personal agency—I, for one, feel the shock of recognition much more when confronted with the mind of Geraldine Kim, fixated on TV shows, celebrity trivia, momentary impulses, vaguely narcissitic anxieties, and things said to me by an ex, years ago. This may or may not be lamentable.

Monday, April 3, 2006

this connection of everyone with lungs, by juliana spahr

OK, so for a while now I've been wanting to talk about Juliana Spahr's new book, This Connection of Everyone With Lungs, as an example of what I've been calling an "Everything Device," a structure, framework, or system which positions disparate information into a meaningful relationship.

We can get a sense that the book is going to do this from its title alone, a phrase drawn from the opening poem: "Poem Written After September 11, 2001." This poem's central task is to articulate the model of radical interconnectedness upon which the rest of the book depends. Over its eight pages it performs this task through what essentially amounts to a slow zoom-out, from the microscopic level ("cells, the movement of cells and the division of cells") all the way out to global scope ("the space of the cities and the space of the regions and the space of the nations and the space of the continents and islands"). To call oneself a "global citizen" is slightly pollyanna-ish, but this poem still functions as a lovely vision: the way it is made elegiac by its positioning as a "post-9/11" poem feels slightly predictable, but that makes the elegy no less real. One of the more "important" poems in recent memory (let's set aside, for now, the question of whether poetry should aspire to importance).

More interesting and important still is the book's remainder, a single long poem (broken into discrete chunks), entitled "Poem Written From November 30, 2002, to March 27, 2003." (The first bit of it lives over at Shampoo, you can go check it out if you're so inclined.) I think this poem is more interesting because it's doing the thornier work of dealing with the consequences of the first poem: if "everyone with lungs" is connected in a "lovely [and] doomed" global matrix, then what does this mean? If we can successfully expand our consciousness to the point where it encompasses the whole earth as a system, then what does it mean when part of that system (including but not limited to "our part") is attempting to kill another part of that system (including but not limited to "their part")? Is it possible to love humanity all-encompassingly when some of the humans that we're connected to behave so, well, shittily? Is a person killed in the Burij refugee camps important? What about someone killed in the Monoko-Zohi civil war? What about Justin Timberlake? How important is the weather? If you can make your own bed a place of "connected loving" and "pleasure" and "agency," what relevance does this have to the rest of the world, if any? How can you consider these questions seriously in a world at war without going insane or succumbing to crippling grief?

I don't think that the book answers these questions, but I think they're the right ones to be asking, and any book that represents a sustained attempt to address them (lyrically no less!) gets my recommendation.

PS: When I first wrote about Spahr's project I said that the high lyrical voice and the sometimes "newsy" details made it seem like "Walt Whitman doing NPR's Morning Edition," and it still seems possible to say that Spahr's project is to represent the newspaper in the form of a poem. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing, and it has its own storied tradition: the avant-garde has been attempting to beat the newspaper as a model for radically discontinuous juxtaposition at least since Mallarme.