02 May 2010

Short on Words? Not Quite. New Poetry by Aaron Kunin

The Sore Throat & Other PoemsBarely over two weeks old, be the first to read about Aaron Kunin's The Sore Throat and Other Poems from FENCE Books.

English is one tricky language when it comes to sound and meaning. Poetry often profits by punning on twists of sound or taking it a step further and working with euphemisms and connotations. These techniques in literature can be as humorous as they are insightful; Aaron Kunin is sure of that.

His new book, The Sore Throat and Other Poems, fits right in this tract of linguistic pliability, but rather than simply punning or riffing or vamping as earlier beat style or jazz poets have, Kunin has taken to entirely reestablishing word usage by limiting this entire book to 200 different words or less. This has the potential to be repetitive in a book of poetry that is over 100 pages long, but Kunin has presented an effective form for handling the nuances of words, the implications of language as well as a tryst of poetic meditation, and genuine perception of human reality.

The real eye catcher of Kunin's book is his deliberately limited vocabulary. Referring to an approach which resembles "automatic writing," Kunin determined a basic subconscious vocabulary of under 200 words and set out from there to provide new "translation" of the poem "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" by Ezra Pound and the play Pellas et Melisande by Maurice Maeterlinck. It is not necessary to be familiar with either work to absorb the feel of Sore Throat as Kunin brings to it a style that is definitively his.

Beginning with the poem "A Word With You," Kunin lays the foundation of his work. He writes "The word is a fact, after all; / We can be sure of that / [...] the fact / of your narrow throat, ah! / Remember that your talking habits / Change the word, and change who you are," stating that, while we are dependent on language to communicate, language is also dependent on us to have value. The relationship between language and us is symbiotic in that we use it to change perceptions, and that it changes ours. Kunin employs this book is to explore the relationship of words to their expressions. These lines from the same poem indicate the importance of humanity and feeling to language: "My god! How the machine can gasp, / Sob, sigh, and weep. / And yet, it is not like us," Presses; typewriters; computers; all these can show words, but cannot express them, cannot feel them or make others feel them the way a human can. For everything they can do, they are still not as subtle or stern with language as we are with each other.

Kunin also works with various line forms that would be a disservice to try and reproduce here, but he portrays verbal dialectic interestingly with stanza breaks and word placements in some poems. Some of his poems actually look like a verbal dialog on the page. Above all, his insights to language, its flexibility and applications are what Kunin conveys most effectively through this book. There is not just a portrait of the confines of our language but also the confines of our minds, our interests and our deepest feelings and how all of these fight and struggle with each other to get out just who we are. This fight of words is undoubtedly the "sore throat" Kunin uses, referring to all the agitation that comes from such interwoven complications. One of his most poignant insights is also one of his most fantastic uses of his limited vocabulary from the series "The Sore Throat" he writes "I'm inventing a machine / for concealing my desire. / And I'm inventing another / machine for concealing the / machine. It's a two-machine / system, and it sounded like / laughter. And I'm inventing / a machine for concealing / the sound." Here Kunin expresses the limitation of language and the confines of humanity, we want so much, but at the same time we try to hide are wants, while trying to look like we are not hiding anything, and through it all we have no sound, no language but laughter, and even that becomes an enemy.

This study of the flexibility of language lends it self well to the dynamics of romantic relationship. Our personal interactions, especially with lovers, beget the necessity of variations of meaning and intention which Kunin explores in these poems. On the familiar dialect between physical and emotional relationship he writes, "For the moron, what's good is a hard-on / Always hard: longer wide and always easy," in the poem "What's your pleasure brother?" He twists this statement a few pages later in the same poem writing, "All pleasure and goodness I grasp; / I am just a boy or a moron;" continuing with "You mean so much to me -- just to hear / You talking with a vowel in your throat! / I like more more than I can say; / There is no word can mean so much!" Kunin is reflecting on both the physical interests of relationship in sex to which he refers to the most climactic moment as the vowel in the throat followed by a much deeper pensive into how much one means to another. Sex and pleasure are one thing and to enjoy them is one thing, but for there to be "no word [that] can mean so much" is on a completely different plane of connection. What Kunin has done is broken relationship down into a dialectic of language, the physical, while pleasurable and meaningful, is expressed via a single vowel. The deeper feeling of how much one means, how much one is liked by the other, cannot be summed up with any word. One is summed up simply, while one cannot be summed up at all. This is the struggle of language, and this is the struggle of many relationships; creating a grounding between physical appreciation and emotional. The blur between these understandings of relationship are mimicked in the blur between words, intention and perception that Kunin has established in this book.

A problem with Kunin's experimentation is that his poems have a built up desire to bouncing words around. Kunin makes this limited vocabulary work by finding all the nuanced ways or reworking something, unfortunately his poems often wander into a sort of vamping that they would be better off avoiding. In a particularly interesting and creative piece, one of a several poems titled "The Sore Throat" Kunin uses different demarcations of speech to influence tone. Writing "'I'm your toy,' he complained" followed by "'If there's every anything I can do for you, anything at all, / just let me know,' she demanded." he brings a new perception to relationship dynamic. There is no outright intention in the words spoken, but in his way of noting the speech he expresses the familiar tensions. His statement is a frustration. Her offer to help is really needy and possessive. This poem makes great use of these ending throughout itself, ending all the bits of dialog in something besides "said" nothing is just "said" as he writes, "Talk isn't ever / 'just talk.'  It always / has to be about / something don't you think?" his intentions in this part of "The Sore Throat" series are smart and well aimed but midway through the writing becomes tumultuous. After his fruitful use of dialog markers, Kunin breaks up his poem's tone by writing, "can see, in my, me a, say that you think / nothing, head you, gain you, it's all you see / but you won't see, must not, right if I won't / begin, we can't, no rats, left / seeing, being report, felt," while this stanza holds a sense of internal questioning, a frantic monologue, and an interesting investment in repetition it strays to far from the direction of the conversation between the two characters occurring in the stanzas immediately before it. This instance is not singular, but occurs in several poems within the series, detracting from the overall coherency of the pieces, but the poems maintain most of their intentions.

Aaron Kunin's The Sore Throat and Other Poems 

was released in April 2010 from Fence Books. A book that truly explores the depths and shallows of both language and ourselves. Certainly worth a read.

1 comment:

  1. An exploration of the limitations of language by, what else, limiting his language. An interesting concept, and one that I personally have seemed to struggle with quite a bit lately. The romantic in me is especially drawn to Kunin's insights on language in relationship. Verbal communication often seems to fall short of expressing the depth of one person's feelings toward their "other."

    "There is not just a portrait of the confines of our language but also the confines of our minds, our interests and our deepest feelings and how all of these fight and struggle with each other to get out just who we are."

    Who we are. What we mean. How to say it. Questions that can be forever reflected upon without ever reaching a satisfactory answer. As malleable a tool as the English language is, it will always come up short.

    Very well-written review, a favorite so far. You've inspired a great deal of reflection, as well as a desire to read the book.