The Physiocrats, 2009
The young American poet Aaron Kunin may be unfamiliar to many readers. He is the author of one previous poetry collection, Folding Ruler Star (2005), and a novel, The Mandarin (2008), published by the New York-based Fence Books. If his work is intellectual, it is naturally so, for Kunin is a scholar of Renaissance poetry. If it is difficult, this owes mainly to its allegiance to a genealogy of experimental poetics that includes the French Oulipo and its more recent offshoots. But we will hear more about Kunin in the coming years not because of either of these things, but because he writes poems that are both tortured by and ecstatic about the relationship of language to the self and its chosen others, without sounding either indulgent or technical. As such, it is a poetry that succeeds when it is most conscious of its own failures and limitations. The last poem of his new chapbook features a speaker who claims first “I’m Chiquita Banana” and then, following a Heideggerian meditation on death, that “I have tried hard ‘to’ cultivate / Indifference regarding success / Or failure.” Thankfully, humour is not beyond Kunin’s range.
The 14 poems of Cold Genius range deftly through slightly defamiliarised domestic and public spaces and a corresponding range of affective registers. That they achieve this range is no mean feat, for the most salient aspect of the collection is a governing, and very noticeable, diacritical experiment: once a word or phrase repeats in a poem, Kunin surrounds it with quotation marks. (The system resets with each new poem.) Thus, the opening lines of “Two painful descriptors” read:
I see clearly that “I” did not act well. “I see clearly that” it
was an unfair situation.
….….….That’s “not” “an” excuse.
Kunin’s poems often feature a voice in conflict with itself, constantly concerned with justifications, rationalisations, and the possibility of violence or loss erupting at any moment. The quotation marks add an almost over-intimate precision to the speaking voice of the poems, as though accenting repeated words were both the native pattern of the speaker’s voice and the residue of a neurotic sensibility. Invariably, repeated words include numerous articles and conjunctions, and it is not Kunin’s aim to reduce the number of repeated words. Thus, repeated words, rather than a metrical pattern or even Charles Olson’s “breath”, determine the rhythms of Kunin’s lines. This places a particularly heavy burden on the ends of his poems, littered as they are with recycled words. “Two painful descriptors” closes with the following lines, which offer a sort of explanation for the practice, which, if it were not for the urgency with which Kunin endows it, would feel distracting:
—Meanwhile certain words
Appear in poems. “Inadequate
To what I felt.”
In spite of any attempts to be original, avant-garde, or cutting edge (at one point Kunin writes, “History is the soft medium into which you cut; love ‘is the’ instrument that cuts…love is the drill”), the poem, Kunin claims, is a space and a time haunted by familiar words, a spiral which leads—in this case self-consciously—toward its self-defeating and repeating end. That the phrase “inadequate to what I felt” is itself a quoted phrase reminds us that even what we try to say about language’s inadequacy participates in its iterative modality, its continuing to appear.
Kunin’s forthcoming book, The Sore Throat, will use only 200 different words. Cold Genius’s poems, in their emphasis on a mind that sometimes despairs of escaping its own methods for articulating itself, prepare us for an experiment in inescapable vocabulary. Kunin’s name is one that may well become familiar in coming years in association with the now new American poetry.
John Steen is a PhD candidate in comparative literature at Emory University.