Arduity: Geraldine Kim's Povel.


Geraldine Kim, Povel (New York: Fence Books, 2005)

Geraldine Kim grew up in Massachusetts, and attended New York University. She wrote this book while still a student there, in 2003. It won the Fence Modern Poets prize in 2005, and was widely praised. (I think I learned about it on Ron Silliman's blog.) It's her only book so far -- indeed I don't know of any other publications, and I don't know much else about her. From reviews, I gather she was born in 1983 (not 1974, as the the copyright page has it), and that she's gone on to the graduate program at San Francisco State. For more personal and poetic background, we can only turn to the book itself.

Before getting to the heart of this book, there are a lot of distractions to brush away -- starting with the title. The cover explains it as a portmanteau of "poem" or "poetry" and "novel", but of course there have been such hybrids before (by both Brownings, and earlier). Then, a series of nervous-novice gestures: on the back cover, the poets who give the blurbs are qualified in bold as "Teacher of Geraldine Kim", and the author's photo is superposed over the head of George Bush in a portrait of the then-First Couple. Inside, there is a fake introduction from Lyn Hejinian, and a fake "acceptance speech" from the author (a footnote tells us it was really Jim Carrey); then the "real" title, which runs on for four pages (amusing enough in stretches, but completely tangential); then a jokey epigraph, and a dramatis personae in the form of the list of performers at a concert.

Finally, the poem begins:

...[In] other words, 'Life is good,' says the T-shirt with a smiling cartoon stick figure that is waving crudely. After three kids kill themselves at my school1, each dorm starts 'themed' floors, the fourteenth floor of one building naming itself 'The Thirteenth Floor.' 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.

The poem proper, more than 100 pages, is composed entirely of such prose stanzas, all about six or eight lines long. They are printed with alternating justification (right, center, left, center, etc.) as if to emphasize their autonomy as poems within the sequence. They don't stick long to one narrative thread -- sometimes several sentences in a row may cohere, but more usually Kim skips to a new thought after one or two.

After the first, each stanza begins with an open quotation mark. Evidently Kim is taking the traditional admonition to "write what you know" quite literally: here is what she knows. Indeed, the book is less a novel than a memoir. The characters are unnamed, appearing only as "my ex", "my brother", etc. We can't know, of course, how literally the stories follow the facts of the author's life; but the text does not put any novelistic distance between the subject and the speaking "I".

The clear formal model is Hejinian's My Life (1980, 1987). This classic of American experimental poetry (see here for a taste) is likewise composed in regular "stanzas" of disjunctive prose. Hejinian's form is more rigorous, not to say arbitrary: there are 45 sentences in each stanza, and 45 stanzas in the book, one for each year of her life. (The first version, written eight years before, is 37 by 37.) Hejinian's sentences are often disjunctive internally (Stein is a lodestar), while Kim's are terse but clean, as if cut out from a book of short stories and pasted up. The greatest license Kim takes at this level is the fragment: "Redeeming soda bottles." "Our last conversation and we already knew."

The essential difference, though, is in tone. Kim is ironic, silly, witty, demonstratively a child of her time. My Life by comparison is serious*, in both the positive and negative senses, and while the speaker is also a child of her time -- the '60s, more or less -- she doesn't wear it on her sleeve. There is little pop culture, not even much dateable material culture. The book shows an old-fashioned will to universal relevance, partly by leaving out inconsequential detail ("But many facts about a life should be left out, they are easily replaced."), and partly by framing detail in explicit reflection, sophisticated and wide-ranging. One can see that Kim (b. 1983 rather than 1941) grew up on a different generation's idea of fiction, in which the "reality effect" of authentic contingent detail is an accepted value (sometimes used to dramatize the lack of other values).

To see how Povel works, consider three consecutive stanzas from pp. 23-24.

"'Body movin', body movin', listenin' to the beat that is so smoothin', body movin',' he says as he's walking past me. Without headphones. His backpack says 'NYU' on it. Moving these eyes in ellipses to stay awake. 'I love my SUV. It's me,' she says. Music is a good example. 'It's like that everywhere, not only in New York,' he says. 'That's no excuse,' I think. A tinsel wig in the barber shop window.

A stranger passes Kim, saying some lines from a song (it seems to be by the Beastie Boys, misremembered a little by the stranger or Kim). Perhaps he's singing along unselfconsciously to his iPod? No, "Without headphones" preempts the exculpation -- he must have intended the lines for her. The school logo on the backpack might mean this creep is a fellow student.

Then a series of one-sentence fragments. "Moving these eyes" suggests a moment of exhaustion at her studies. (But why not "my eyes"? A little like Keats' "This living hand"?) "'I love my SUV'" suggests an ad, but expresses consumerism almost too concisely. "'It's like that everywhere'" -- if this refers to the creepy passerby, true enough, and indeed it's no excuse. If the line about music refers to the quoted song, it's obscure; likewise the wig seems not to relate to anything else in the vicinity.

"The fly lives for a day. An elderly man falls. A bus with hissing brakes. 'Are you okay?' I ask. The most stupidest question on Earth. Pulling his veined hand to help him up. Sticky fingers. An apple cider bottle on the ground. Other women come to help. 'Incorrect addresses delay mail,' says the envelope. A juggling man in the middle of the park. 'What good girls,' a woman says. Avoiding everyone's pupils. Hearing someone walking behind me. She walks like a crab down the steps.

The first nine sentences of this stanza read as a continuous narrative -- but on a second look, this may be an illusion of parataxis. "The fly lives for a day" is a morbid reflection on the old man's mortality, if we want it to be. The bus with hissing brakes, and the bottle on the ground, register as evocative detail, but may for all we know derive from another memory entirely. "Sticky fingers" is plausible as description (did the cider spill?), but is also a readymade phrase with associations of its own.

The second half is fragments again. "'Incorrect addresses'" is one of the odd phrases from the verbal environment quoted drily throughout (this one may suggest nostalgia for an era in which incorrect addresses didn't simply fail). "Avoiding everyone's pupils" is oddly more precise than avoiding their eyes -- and in any case, harks back to those eyes moving in ellipses. With "Hearing someone walking behind me", we return to the scenario of the first paragraph, if not literally the same event. "She walks like a crab" is another remembered observation, seemingly evoked by the idea of walking, and recalls the fly and the falling old man.

"Each seat is curved to round out our asses. 'Dr. Ventura phone calls,' says the receptionist. Laughing as I'd imagine a hyena would laugh. Dressed like a sailing captain. Wet hair. The dentist pets his head like a pedophile. The logical progression would be to add a conclusion. Yogurt girl. If only I had a label-making machine. 'I'm here!' I want to scream. 'Identity through consumption practices,' I write. If these walls could talk, they'd say, 'Paint me a different color for the love of god.' To cheer him up, I'd put a pink bow on his head.

A wisp of narrative can be traced here too -- a visit to a dentist's office -- but only four sentences clearly attach to it. Of the others, the cryptic "Yogurt girl" may remember Kim's sister working in a frozen-yogurt shop, mentioned elsewhere. The remark on a "conclusion" (apt enough, but premature here, a quarter of the way into the poem) is the sort of literary reflection Kim permits herself from time to time (more "creative writing" than "literary theory"). The cry for a label maker is another flash of consumer desire, and "I'm here!" may gloss such urges. "'Identity through consumption practices'" would be merely redundant if we didn't see Kim writing the idea, in notes or perhaps a class paper (pushing it toward a conclusion?). Or, of course, Kim may be suggesting that this writing too is a way of shouting "I'm here!" "If these walls could talk" is a straight-up joke, and the last memory (of a pet?) follows by association.

This partial account should make Kim's method clear. Scraps of text -- whether personal memories or quotations -- are pasted together with deliberately varying coherence. Sometimes they narrate an episode in order, or seem to do so; sometimes a scrap hardly relates to its neighbors, instead chiming with them poetically, or connecting, by the recurrence of a salient word, to another scrap, pages before or after. No doubt, the lines I have not resolved could be traced elsewhere in the book -- though I suspect not all.

One of the traditional effects of memoir is the shock of candor. Kim deploys this too (we have seen the suicides, the green vomit, the dentist as pedophile), but with a certain refusal of drama: she doesn't demand that we take her more seriously just because she has mentioned these things. The use of "fuck" and other "swears" (her word) functions not only to wake us up, but as a thread among others, one use recalling the last, from the present time back to childhood. She notices a classmate using "poonani" [sic] in a poem, and tells the story of "workshopping" poems about sex, and the reaction they provoked. One stanza (p. 28) even begins with the one-word fragment "Prurient". (The references to depression, suicide, overdoses, etc., on the other hand, are persistent enough that the mechanisms of irony, detachment, joking and displacement don't quite suffice to neutralize them. One hopes she's doing OK.)

Kim gives those sex poems in full in the endnotes, and they're funny, more surreal than fleshly. In fact, the copious notes are a lot more entertaining than the self-conscious cover and introductory material. The manner is less TS Eliot than DF Wallace (though without his love of syntactic subordination). They include a couple of stories (plus placeholders for more), and explanations ranging from the naive to the useful (translations of Korean dialogue; names of bands) by way of the absurd (Nick Nolte's mugshot).

Her procedure exposes the mechanisms of affinity by which we readers assemble narratives -- not "deconstructing" them, but making them visible, and alive on the page. We watch ourselves bracketing the accessible anecdotes, and piecing together the long-running threads (such as her friendship with her boyfriend's mother) and widely-scattered leitmotive or internal allusions. And in this mode of reading, the many fragments that inevitably go unaccounted for add impressionistically to the portrait of the author, as atmospheric detail fills in a realistic narrative.

Kim's accomplishment is to have written a memoir in the contemporary mode, as appealing as any prose bestseller, by the sustained and resourceful borrowing of a more challenging literary technique. One could even make a case for Povel as the dialectical fusion of two streams of American literature since the 1960s -- middlebrow minimalism and high L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. The trick of the universalization of experience is brought off afresh after all.

* Not that Hejinian is humorless in general. In fact, Kim's epigraph ("'Beginning texts by quoting someone else' -- Me") may remember a more elaborate joke epigraph in the original version of Hejinian's "Two Stein Talks", which dwell on just the sorts of questions of realism raised by Kim.

Vance Maverick. November 2010.

Vance is a software engineer living in San Francisco. He studied music and linguistics as well as computer science, and writes occasionally about poetry and the arts.