TYPICAL GIRL by DONNA KUHNRICHARD LOPEZ reviews
Typical Girl by Donna Kuhn
(Fine Tooth Press, Waterbury, CT., 2005)
Comedy is the first word I think of when I try to describe the poetry of Donna Kuhn. Not that the language Kuhn uses is sit-com type canned hilarity. Black comedy is more like it, an apter description perhaps, and I use the phrase not to limit the range and vitality of Kuhn's more abstract writings. Consider Kuhn's totems in her most recent collection Typical Girl: bird, horse, moon, the color blue, water, and you have glimpsed a kind of writing that is based on images for their import. Better yet, consider these lines that conclude the poem "going round"
u cant deny
what u been to
with all that dark chaos going round
and you also have an idea of the type of comedy Kuhn employs. Yes, Kafka would recognize a kindred spirit, but so would Buster Keaton. The humor is not laugh-out-loud, but the sort that is derived from tragedy, risk and chance. Not defeatist in any sort of way, I'd hazard to guess that Kuhn keeps returning to her totems, especially birds (several poems use bird in their titles, for example "short bird taste", "shiver to birds", "can i put the bird back", "i was trying to be a bird", "bird chatter") to keep the world on point and prevent it from blurring into chaos. But also, that comedy for Kuhn is that famous window on the wall that ol' Buster slipped through in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). Out of that dark chaos the wall of a house falls straight on Stoneface only to miss crushing him because there was a measure of a window to save him, and that measurement was absolutely precise, a portal against nonsense, and an exhilaration.
But is it surrealism, another brand of comedy made famous by the likes of Dali and Breton? Most of Kuhn's texts are abstract, therefore surrealism sticks out its craw as a label. The poems exult in difficulty, thereby these texts are resistant to specific meanings from their imagery. The poems in this book were written between 1979 to 2005, however, and there are texts that are, I think, early pieces of literal narratives of street life, and not at all abstract. These pieces are another facet to Kuhn's talent. Take the poem "bus stop" as an early example.
chickenheadfred's mother sits at the bus stop
by a brown paper bag full
of old clothes entitled FREE
she complains about the younger generation
how only five years earlier
kids did not drive around in circles
shouting fuck you out windows
but now we are all hooked
on awful smoking drinking habits
we all want to quit life
there is no way around quitting
life she says
out comes her shoemaker son
they quarrel in a foreign language
he tells me he can get me a job
at jerome’s hot dogs
that working is a healthy routine
his mother tells me my shoes
are terrible for walking
i wasn't planning to go too far
Bam! the last line cinches the poem to a satisfying conclusion. The lines are taut, and the precision lies in the narrative motions of a linear logic. But contrast it to a later text where Kuhn uses her totems to full effect. The poem "pinch the lake" is a fair representative of Kuhn's vitality and difficulty, yet it is a mark of what I think of as her brand of black comedy. It is surrealistic, but not typically so, and I can't help but think that it references our post-911 world.
i am half of a fish door; the moon opens ice.
is a fish walking with a bird?
winston, the planes hit a bird.
i am open at the center for flat tires.
bird terrorism. bird i am bird i am open.
a bird wan't me in the heat.
father, shut the lake.
winston, the plane hit long ago.
bird i am bird i am i'm light with a bird.
now i see nonviolence. i'm her landscapes
profitable moon. light bird chatter.
a bird wasn't me.
I've no idea who winston could be, perhaps Kuhn is invoking Winston Smith from Orwell's famous novel about negative utopia. The buzzwords of post-911 are present, such as "chatter" and "plane" and "terrorism". But that is as far as I want to take it, since my reading of the poem is like watching a silent film. The images have become more definite, cinematic even, while eschewing narrative logic, and the meanings of Kuhn's texts have become more opaque. But you let such imagery wash over you, and take pleasure out of their congruencies. I'm not one to argue that poems must be about something, but since poetry uses grammar and syntax it is impossible not to try to define it, however broadly. The images of bird and fish are portals of transformation. The line "bird i am bird i am i'm light with a bird" echoes Stein in its iterations whereby translating language into prismatic vantage point(s). Of what? Again, for me, Keaton's absurdities (having a house fall around you but survive by the precise placement of a window) reprises what one wishes the world to be, and sometimes becomes by the re-iterations of totemic language. So that we (reader/writer) become agents of that dark chaos all around us. In Kuhn's poems realities are changed utterly by the velocity of language.
Typical Girl is filled with many such beautiful abstractions. Even upon re-reading Kuhn's poems I still cannot locate precise definitions, but the meanings, line by line, accrue pleasure upon pleasure in the reader. I'll end by saying that, damn, wish I had written it! I can't of course, only Donna Kuhn can write this poetry. Her poems are an invigoration of the arts of writing, and reading.
Richard Lopez is a poet in Sacramento. Poems have appeared or/are forthcoming in canwehaveourballback?, shampoo, watching the wheel:a blackbird, fhole, el pobre mouse, mipoesias etc. etc. His interview with the poet Tom Beckett was published in Jacket 25. He takes notes at his blog http://reallybadmovies.blogspot.com.