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.

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