Women in Public, by Elaine Kahn, is a book that pairs well-crafted poetry with sucker-punch direct statements. Think surrealism but instead of image juxtaposed with image, it’s image juxtaposed with concept/idea/point. It’s an interesting pair, one that follows, in concept, surrealism, but ultimately does the opposite because surrealism never tries to make a point aside from creativity, whereas Women in Public makes several cultural, societal, sexual, gender, and political statements.
One piece of poetic prowess that stood out throughout the book is the use of line break. When line breaks are utilized with love and full understanding, words and meaning reverberate through your body, but the noise, the slam, the fact comes from within your bones and echos. These three lines come from the title poem: “What does the world hate more / than women / in public.” That is also how the page ends, but how could you keep reading? Those line breaks expand and radiate as they roll through your brain because they provide a gut-punch twist on the title of collection.
Kahn knows how to manipulate everything related to language, and this book shows off her skills. If you want alliteration, assonance, rhyme, half-rhyme, slant-rhyme, refrains, slightly-altered-refrains and repetition within poems and across the book, give Women in Public a gander. And if you want idea-based poems, poems that have an agenda, poems that have something to say, Kahn’s got them too.
While, on one hand, this book has two great strengths with wonderful craft and articulate, direct, serious statements on current life, the push and pull of those two pieces is also a weakness. When the poems bounce around from sound, line, and form play to idea-centric lines/poems that demand attention and serious consideration, it becomes difficult to stay connected with the poems and speaker; at a certain point, the constant shifting from high poetry to lines with a point makes it difficult as a reader because the content goes from purely fun and funny to snapping teeth. But because it’s such a shift, it sometimes misses with its chomp, sometimes feels insincere.
For example, the poem “In Life We Are the Stories that We Tell about Ourselves” could be an exercise from Oulipo. The poem takes a set of words that tell a story from childhood and rearranges only those words to keep telling stories from childhood, but as the word order changes, so does the story. It’s very interesting seeing how the same words that tell one specific story can be rearranged to tell a completely different story. A merry-go-round of remembrance.
However, pushing it further than just form and rearrangement, Kahn begins the poem in a seemingly already butchered version of the retelling. We do not start at step one in the story; instead, we’re dumped into reincarnation five or seven, so the story has already been butchered to near incoherence, which works extraordinarily well because it forces the reader to play one game for the first few lines (trying to understand the fundamentals of the memory, the story, the childhood, the scene, the characters) and then switches the game when the reader realizes the conceit. The problem, though, is that none of the incarnations of the story make complete sense, so we never actually go anywhere: as a reader, even after you understand the conceit, you are still trying to find the bottom of the river with your toes so you don’t float away. There is no story, just art. This is very intriguing, because it feels like nothing new is happening with the same words being rearranged, yet every line is brand new because of the rearrangement. But because there is no logic, no tangible story to follow, no growth or original story we know to base the new variations against, the poem becomes an interesting exercise that lacks depth, like most OuLiPo efforts.
However, that’s not the final kicker, and this is where the breakdown that plagues Women in Public begins. The poem doesn’t end on a variation of the rearranged words. It ends on an altered haiku that breaks the form of the poem: “I do not remember / what was left / or what the summer banged against.” A southpaw haymaker when the speaker had been leading right all night. The pseudo-haiku stands in opposition to the rest of the poem, because clearly there is detailed memory at the root of rearranged words, but it also follows the rest of the poem because it acknowledges isolation. It calls the story alone and leaves it and the memory and, ultimately, the self hanging, banging against nothing. The haiku makes the poem simultaneously work with and against itself. Oulipo practitioners would be proud. But like much of Oulipo’s efforts, the depth doesn’t last. The haiku fits, it works, but it’s dishonest. It’s neat. But it is disingenuous. The haiku says, “I do not remember,” yet there’s a whole poem constructed from at least pieces of a memory.
Yes, they are limited, as is everything; we know that. We know memory is flawed, that self is something created, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something knocking against whatever you tell yourself you are, whatever you tell yourself happened. There is always something else. Nothing is in a vacuum, and the ending haiku falls victim to being too poetic, to serving poetry rather than the poem, rather than honesty, rather than serving nothing but purity. The pseudo-haiku in the end tries to clean up, clarify and justify the creative exercise that the rest of poem is, but it doesn’t need justification; Oulipo and experimental forms and constrained writing exist because they’re fun to do. That is all the justification they need to exist, and putting a haiku in the end undermines the fun by trying to make it poetic, by trying to make it mean something. Experimental poetry is awesome and fun because it doesn’t pretend or try to be something else, while “In Life We are the Stories that We Tell about Ourselves” tries to be both wildly experimental and serious at the same, a pairing that doesn’t work.
The largest strength of the book is the focus and attention to sound: “We gluttonous with sound, depress the line / to lively stand its silky trousered fit / whence piggly, schoolyard fuck with awkward speed / great tallow horse’s eye to fallowed quit” is the opening stanza of “Glutton the Sestina.” No idea what it means, but could reread it all day. Kahn’s penchant for sound, her ear for the thickness words make in our mouth and minds, is superb: she is an expert with language. And moments like this happen throughout the book.
From the day I picked up Women in Public, it took me exactly thirty days to finish reading it (a bit more than two hours of actual reading time), and in that time, I read seven other books of poems: for all its power and play and sexuality and brutality and honest open statements that feel like they were lifted from a book of axioms to live by, this book simply couldn’t hold my attention. It jumped around too much from whimsical to serious to funny to sexual to silly. It is firmly in the the contemporary poetry movement that values abrupt jumps, obscurity, irony and shock mixed with stripped-down heartfelt statements. And while sometimes it offers great juxtapositions and keeps poems feeling fresh, when repeated in a book, it becomes a conceit that feels contrived rather than a natural give-and-take; it becomes formulaic and loses authenticity, as most things do when repeated. But when it works, there is nothing that hits harder. But Women in Public doesn’t work on the whole. It lands one or two surprise haymakers, but it tries to hit a lot more. It did surprise me and make me laugh and make me think, and it’s incredibly hard to be whimsical and serious in a book, but ultimately, this book didn’t harmonize with it’s contradictions.
Women in Public, by Elaine Kahn. San Francisco, California: City Lights Spotlight, April 2015. 101 pages. $13.95, paper.
Jacob Collins-Wilson writes poetry, fiction, and reviews of both. Email him about anything at email@example.com.