BooksWeekend

The Poetics of Embodiment: Elaine Kahn’s ‘Women in Public’

Elaine Kahn (photo by Kit Schluter) (click to enlarge)

The poems in Elaine Kahn’s Women in Public are highly self-aware. They’re porous, riven with gaps and fragmentation; at the same time, they’re unquestionably “lyrical” in their concision and fluidity — to say nothing of the formal vigilance with which Kahn transforms couplets into tercets, constructing sometimes larger and sometimes more miniscule stanzaic units:

When it is so hot
I lie on the floor

When I think
of what i have
to give

Life has it’s good points

And the fat, white thigh-bones
of a tourist (“Women in Public”)

(click to enlarge)

The way meaning gathers here in an accretive way, which uses both the isolating space of the poetic line and the capitalized “And” to connect and dissociate the semantic content of each line, is typical of Kahn’s style, and resonates throughout the collection.

Kahn’s poems are strategic attacks against mythic fictions like selfhood, gender, even the universal acceptance of scientific knowledge. But to characterize Kahn’s poetics as invested in “truth” would fail to highlight its multivalent relation to language as something that both delimits perception and serves as a vehicle of power. Generally speaking, the concept of truth refers to statements corresponding to concrete situations. But the language of poetry is no more anchored to truth than it is to communication. Kahn’s poems, at least, do not communicate, in statements or otherwise; they are mimetic of communication. Imitating the sociability of speech, they’re also inflected with tonality and the attitude of a speaker — all of which Kahn thoroughly destabilizes in her work.

In the damp sick
In the dough
In the chewed on chew of faces
of expensive car owner faces
chewed ons of the world:
I do not fetishize the truth
I poke around
Holding my bland sandwich
in my non-dominant hand, I think
what could be worse, I think
what could be as bad? (“Adult Acne”)

Women in Public both withdraws from and moves toward the value of language as a representative of concrete truths. One might call this the failure of language. That is to say, inasmuch as the lived, embodied word is a plenum of expression, the institutional powers of which language forms a part restrict our expressivity to roles and specializations. Poetry, or at least the lyrical mode inaugurated by Wordsworth, and continuing into modernity, has the task of recovering these neglected, otherwise forgotten moments. Functioning in this way, the poem is less a “machine made of words,” as William Carlos Williams once claimed, than a kind of telepathic device, in terms of which both reader and poet acknowledge, in distanced mutuality, the authenticity of states of consciousness deemed unworthy by mercantile logic.

“Everything starts from subjectivity, and nothing stops there,” writes Raoul Vaneigem. In a similar vein, Kahn toys with solipsism only to deny it. “I make myself into a line,” she writes in “Negative Desire,” uploading lived experience into the formal precedent of verse. Throughout Women in Public, the threat lingers that selfhood might be objectified. This reflects the world we inhabit daily, where we discover our social roles only to the extent that we allow ourselves to be reduced to just another object in the world, a thing among things. Kahn attacks objectification by dissolving one of its main causes, the sine qua non without which neither public nor private experience could be grasped: language.

A word meaning nothing
like what it sounds
crepuscular has to do with dim
light or things
at twilight
like animals that are active at those times
bunnies are
crepuscular feeders
strange word   (“Love Mom”)

Ensnared by language, the body has a paradoxical value in Women in Public. On the one hand, it’s a commons that exists beyond words, the fleshy substrate of mortality as much as of experience. On the other, it’s gendered, and, like everything that is bifurcated by language, can fall prey to the alienation imposed by language. For example:

Instead of having a body
I would like a t-shirt of a body
A big, sensual t-shirt
Luscious jersey knit
And very quiet (“It Takes A Real Man to Be a Little Girl”)

Here, the body has become an indefinite abstraction, a simulacrum of life. This branded husk obscuring sentience is characterized as being “quiet.” This is not the authentic quiet that lies beyond language, a silence beyond signification, but the bastard quiet of stasis, locked in a web of words.

Kahn comes to approach the idea of a self resistant to categories, a selfhood which trumps the division of labor by emptying her poems of anything like a unitary speaker. Often enough, the “I” in Kahn’s poems antagonizes reductive categorization by becoming a plenum of contradictory attributes rather than resting passively in a state of “thinghood”:

I don’t give a fuck
About the sun.

I only have eyes for
Blowup dolls

I put pomade on my sternum,
Winding up the saddle (“The Painting in Modern Life”)

Kahn creates poems that, in their very aloofness from ordinary intelligibility or prosaic description, enact a virtual return to the body. Highlighting the fractured character of language that pretends to be naively straightforward, her poems suggest that we can’t say what things are, what lies before us, until we reclaim the body as the supreme origin of our experience.

To feel the thing you want
to feel and not to care

To be a wet road
in the dark

I’d like to thank
Toyota, like to thank
my parents, esthetician
Ritalin Clonazepam internet TV weed
my beautiful dresses (“Adult Acne”)

The phrase Women in Public alone speaks to a wholesale objectification of the subject. Kahn’s poems acknowledge that even in our free time, we might discover ourselves less than we are discovered by others. Nevertheless, stemming from an engagement with fantasy, and “non-productive” states of mind that have no object, such as the desire for imagined beauty, her poems are records of momentary escapes, insightful experiences reduced to aesthetic form. As such, they’re both hopeless and hopeful.

Elaine Kahn’s Women in Public is published by City Lights (2015) and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers. 

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