Sunday, November 05, 2006

Geraldine Kim. Povel. New York: Fence Books, 2005.

It is difficult to say exactly where the poetry starts in Geraldine Kim’s Povel. A lot happens before you reach what would, in another book of poetry, be considered the text. The book begins with an introduction by Lyn Hejinian, claiming that “there has never been a successful merging of confessional verse poetry and the novel . . . until now.” Before you can consider why on Earth Hejinian would care about this potential merging of styles the intro proceeds to quote a bewildering three-page long book title, which is a comically self-effacing stream of consciousness. And it turns out that Hejinian does not care: the intro is a fake. Another fake-into follows, which is Jim Carrey’s Academy Award acceptance speech given the new title of “Transcript of Geraldine Kim’s Acknowledgment Speech.” Then the previously quoted expansive title reappears in bold font, spread over four pages. After this comes the epigraph: “’Beginning texts by quoting someone else’ –Me.” And then a seemingly nonsensical list that equates important characters in the book to musical instruments. And then we get to the poetry. Or novel in verse. Or whatever.

These false starts and bad jokes refuse a stable, chin-strokingly serious reading of Povel. It takes joy in the silliness in contemporary poetic conventions. However these jokes reinforce the importance of the mocked conventions. Lyn Hejinian is fake-quoted because she is, in fact, a driving influence behind the book. Povel bears significant influence from Hejinian’s My Life in its fragmented creation of personal experience. The acceptance speech points out the strange equivalence between status in award honors and the choosing of first books through poetry contests. Kim gets the chance to both express an exuberance for having her book chosen and to completely undercut the possibility that she would take it this seriously. And it's pretty funny. The epigraph both negates itself and works as a useful epigraph to the satirically self-reflexive narcissism in Povel. There is a formal constraint to the presentation of the work; each stanza has a different kind of justification, left, right, centered and repeated. This constraint, however, is so arbitrary as to be almost a joke on the conventions of formal constraint. Following the body of the book is an almost book-length set of footnotes. The book works to situate the reader between attitudes about poetry and the text before you get to the main body. It tells you that this is a book that both cares reverentially about the conventions of contemporary poetry and also finds them silly. It is as much a book of poetry as it is a work of situating the writer in relation to the forced constraints of a constructed text.

The main text of Povel spills out in a caffeine-fueled dance of statements, individual moments, non-sequiturs, information heard from others or read, family events & pop culture references. The book is so packed that it seems to emulate the Romantic mode in which the expression of experience cannot be written quickly enough (I’m thinking of stories about Shelley writing frantically with both hands). The language of Povel is in action; first person statements lack the subject, instead jumping into the action of each moment. This energy and propulsion is the prosodic driving force to the book.

From the first moment I opened it I found Povel is wildly delightful. The problem with writing a review of it is that this delight is an effect of the book as a text. Any passage is going to lack the provisional situation that makes the writing come alive which makes most of the passages lose their energy when quoted out of context. The book is delightful because of its brash comprehensiveness and inertia. The first stanza sets up some of what makes reading Povel exciting:

My roommate complains to me about how she couldn’t enjoy

Matrix Revolutions because everyone else in the theater was laughing at it. ‘Too

much psychobabble for your puny minds?!’ she asks our dorm room. I glance at her

cow-print slippers. The vomit from my Vicodin overdose was green. One of the first

things I am told as a writer is to write about what I know. (1)

Kim shifts sharply between internal and external, between immediacy and reflection, between concrete and abstract. These shifts are propulsive, and within the framework that the opening materials set up the shifts all seem to be based on a kind of desperate playfulness. These shifts consistently turn attention back to the creation of a sense of self in the book and in the writing of the book. Because of the propulsion this inward turn works to consistently recreate, and further understand Geraldine Kim as a stable entity. She reveals a life in the immediate moment-to-moment expressiveness of experience, but contains enough direct personal connection to allow for it to be read as more than an experiment. Povel is a constantly unfurling, seemingly stream-of-consciousness exploration of an individual attempting to make sense of her coming of age intellectually, culturally and sexually. But this stream is deceptive. Despite the constant search for a new turn or a new move a story builds. Characters reappear. An autobiography develops through the work. Kim doesn’t shy away from including seemingly anything in Povel.

Because of her continuous multiplicity she succeeds in moments that would seem precious in another book. “My dreams where my ex and I are siblings anyway. Feeling as lonely as a dependent/ clause without. Instead I said ‘no’ and watched his sneakers run back in the rain.” (79) But she is also able to include moments of simple presentation that ring especially true in counterpoint to the poetic play. When she talks about her brother Kim is especially direct, turning even the most ridiculous scene into a moment of dry existential wonder such as this moment of understanding budding sexuality:

‘And when I see a guy and girl kissing, it starts to rise,’ my brother says to his

twelve-year-old friends while we’re all watching TV, his voice wavering. ‘Me too!’

says his friend. Feeling extraterrestrial. (76)

Because of the exuberance of revelation Povel continually surprises me. Statements or moments arrive that feel entirely new, but continue to be absorbed by the growing body of Povel. These moments are sometimes immediate and the familiar becomes somehow profound, such as “‘Paypal scamming worm asks for bank/ details’ the computer says. That explains everything.” (13) Some of them are more traditionally imagistic, such as “Imagining the/ inside of my body as a densely crowded forest.” (27).

Even those moments that are so affecting to me are couched in the overall framework of the text and I have to distrust them. What is important about them in the context of Povel is that they are not to be dwelt upon. There may be moments of beauty or personal revelation, but they are always going to be followed by something else. Sometimes the following statement undercuts the effect; more often it is simply disinterested in it. Povel pushes forward, refuses to make any single statement more important than the next.

This form of autobiographical writing, of confessionalism, challenges the reader to mediate between the very things the writer mediates between, ironic awareness of the sterility of conventions (even experimentally-based conventions), a belief in the power of these very conventions, a desire to accurately present a life and the awareness of not only the conceit of this desire but the impossibility of successfully satisfying it. Kim builds this mediation by her switches from meta-contemplation of the text itself, mild profundities, personal experiences and reportage without hesitation:

Thumbing through everything I’ve written. The granite was shaped into a

gravestone. An elaborate attempt at immortality. My avoidance of reading The

Denial of Death on my desk. For his birthday, I got my ex a Jesus nightlight and

seventy-five dollars worth of stickers. The protagonist of Fight Club chose the

penguin as his power animal. ‘Quality over quantity’ my physics teacher said to us.

marx said it was quantity over quality since the chances of quality are higher when

there is more. (54)

This comprehensiveness creates an intimacy that for me is more interesting and direct than the attempt to tell the “story” of a life. It is not a confessional poetry impressed by its own epiphanies nor a revelatory bragging about personal failings but rather an accumulation of experience. It is a fresh form of personal poetics, based on the daily revelations of blogging or late night conversations rather than the linearity of narrative or even the conceptual openness of Hejenian’s My Life.

Neither does Kim attempt a solid stand about sexuality or gender identity, though these are also important to the book. She is constantly aware of the eyes of men on her. They arrive at the most simple times, giving daily life a creepy feel: “I could use my declining dollars all day, drinking coffee and staying permanently/ awake. The guy sitting across from me watches me.” (12) She grows angry in the text at being constantly looked at, but does not display her anger in the actions of the book:

This creates a fascinating and frustrating version of biography. That force me to be aware of the conventions I expect out of autobiography. I came to this book with an expectation that somehow cultural identity would be important to Povel. Perhaps it seemed to me that a young Korean American woman talking about her life would have to focus on categories of cultural identity. Though we know in this book that Kim is Korean American and this comes up frequently she is never attempting anything like a categorical definition of her place in relation to this identity. Out of context I can analyze the cultural politics at work in Povel, such as when she relates “Watching my sixty-six-year-old/ Korean dad copy the gestures of a car dealer on TV. How my tall friend kept on being/ asked if he played basketball.” (111) With any other book I might try to understand the anti-essentialist elements of this, but with Povel I instead move forward into another experience and moment.

‘What were you listening too? It sounded familiar’

the guy sitting next to m says. Stop looking at my legs. ‘I’m sorry was it too loud?’ I

say. Stalling. Go away. ‘No not at all, I was just wondering since it sounded familiar,’

he says. ‘It was Control Machete, a Mexican rap group,’ I say. Dull nodding. ‘And

before I was listening to Cex. C-E-X,’ I say. (33)

She considers the kind of sexual identification by which one builds structures of understanding the world:

Sleeping at my bass teacher’s

apartment when he introduced me to pot and his dick. ‘Kiss it,’ he said in total

seriousness. Since I felt obliged to. Deciding what constitutes ‘rape.’ Before that he

said, ‘You’re beautiful,’ to my black bra. (79)

She expresses her own fourth-wave style redefinition of sexuality and identity as well, at one point stating “It’s pathetic that these knee-high boots give me such joy.” But the following sentence immediately undercuts the potential for digging into these kinds of statements: “I start to get jealous of/Quentin Tarantino. Shit he’s even included on the spell checker.”(39) Though identity is crucial to Povel, it refuses to give you time to stop and attempt a structured system of ideas. Instead Povel resists definition by pushing forward, the moments that could be definitional pass by as quickly as name-checking a punk band or discussing coffee again.

A reader might look for clues or keys within the text for ways to decode and understand Povel. Instead of satisfying this desire Kim packs the book with self reflexive ars poetica statements; rather than giving a single key to the rhetoric of the book the reader receives multiple keys that provide new ways of viewing the writing. In the same way that the book presents identity in action, constantly reforming it presents potential reading strategies that evolve, rather than allowing for a single way to understand it. In the end content gives way to the prosody of propulsion.

And this is the pleasure of Povel, the constant dance and play of self-in-action rather than a static self recollected and recreated for a reader to consume. However there comes a point in this book where the poetic moves Kim pulls fail to surprise. The book becomes too comfortable in its twists and turns. It becomes a novel without a plot, which reflects somehow on the experience of the twenty-year old writer, but does not create a satisfying complete book. By the end of the book a stanza that might have been evocatively puzzlingly is instead too easily understood:

It’s acceptable here. Fold my legs into themselves then sit atop them. Pushing back

chairs that sound like farts. I tried parables. When I was done with the popsicle, I

would chew the fibers of the stick apart. Why I wasn’t born with a filter between my

mouth and brain. A matter of tautology, really. (94)

The movement between internal and external seems rote by this point and the comfort level makes the scatological jokes fall flat rather than providing new ways of looking at a life. With a book that bases so much of its effectiveness on brash intimacy I don’t want to feel safely intimate with it. I feel that this happens because Povel is a book that resists a reader sitting down and reading it in one sitting. It invites you to dip in and out, to find a few great lines and then page forward to find some more.

I say this because the book is thrilling for its brashness, it’s constant play and its willingness to show its smarts & be silly and banal at the same time. Povel is a creation in process. Not only in a standard reading response way but in the mechanisms of how the text relates to itself. Its ideas continue to reach for satisfaction as it reaches for an understanding of identity. Povel resists or works through poetic constraints of both form and expectation to express an individual experience in a manner unmediated by structural clich├ęs. It attempts a convincing confessional mode within a poetic aesthetic based on the prosodic experimentation (and implicit anti-Confessionalism) of the Language poets. It is not the reporting of a life but an attempt to present the experiential qualities of a life. There is not beginning or ending. You can open it anywhere and find some moment of delight, some moment that evocatively situates the highly poetic with the mundane or even the crass.

--Review by Mathias Svalina.