Scott Thurston

Two poems by Kimiko Hahn arrive by email. I’m not familiar with the author, but after reading these spare, difficult poems, ‘In the Spirit of a Sestina’ and ‘From the Clipping Morgue,’ I’m left with the impression that these works are by a young poet, perhaps just starting out. What gives this sense? On reflection I find it something to do with the almost complete effacement of personality in these works, which, according to the notes appended to them, are essentially found texts from The New York Times. But somehow articulating that thought as an ‘effacement of personality’ seems wrong  in terms of the game with myself of constructing the author of these works as a younger poet—perhaps this is actually the opposite of what we might expect from a young writer, bursting with the discovery of the self. But perhaps it is something about form here after all—the use of a procedure which, for a younger writer, might be a way of circumventing the problem of addressing one’s identity, whilst simultaneously offering a modish critique of privileged subjectivity. In retrospect, now knowing something more about Hahn’s career and work, the technique takes on a different hue. The directness of the poem is of the sort available to a poet who has already spent many years engaged in an enquiry into her own selfhood, and for whom putting it—and its effects—to one side is no great effort. Thus the politics of these pieces starts to resonate as more sincere, more urgent, rather than ironic.

I look up the article referred to in the note for ‘In the Spirit…’—a piece entitled ‘The Evil Behind the Smiles’ by Nicholas Kristof, published in The New York Times on the 1st of January 2009. The article is an account of sex trafficking in Cambodia which includes graphic accounts of imprisonment and torture within brothels which peddle forced prostitution to Western sex tourists. Comparing the article to the poem, one recognises the material, quoted verbatim and rearranged into lines and verse divisions. The material focused on here is largely to do with survivor Sina Vann’s horrific account of being tortured by electric shocks and locked inside a coffin full of biting ants. The poem’s title is a key to the formal transposition of material as the new arrangement pointedly ends each line with words which are then repeated throughout the composition in the following pattern:

 

naked / shocks / shocks / shocks / naked / coffin / ants / coffin / ants / ants / coffin / shocks

 

The elaborate twelfth-century form of a sestina consists of six six-line stanzas and a three-line envoi and uses the words that end the lines in the first stanza as line endings throughout the rest of the poem, rotated in a particular order. It has certainly been utilised as a poem of complaint, therefore whilst Hahn’s poem only loosely alludes to the sestina’s form in its repetition of words at the end of lines, it is perhaps in its accusatory argument that it fulfils the ‘spirit’ of the sestina.

There might be further dimensions to this reference to the traditional form however. If one reflects on the gendered aspect of a form invented by a troubadour, and the gender of the article writer, one might see Hahn’s détournement of the sestina as a feminist critique of form, over and above the male journalist’s reporting of crimes against women. This might expose the rather clumsy sensationalism of the article’s title which risks implying that the evil resides in the personality of the women being exploited rather than, as the writer no doubt intended, in the nameless perpetrators of this violence. If one might still take a reference point from Julia Kristeva’s question for women—what can be our place in the symbolic contract?—then the poem seems to both ask and answer this question with an urgency which might make other kinds of poetry redundant. The poem implies that the author has no right to write poetry, let alone sestinas, when such crimes are taking place at this very minute.

‘From the Clipping Morgue’ also uses the procedure of appropriating material from The New York Times. Presented as a ‘monostich sequence,’ each one-line poem is separated from the next by an asterisk, as if each quotation, with its references to death, violence, and abuse, lies like a corpse in its mortuary drawer. Although some of the quotations continue the themes of ‘In the Spirit…’ of violence against women—‘they stitch girls up and resell them as virgins’; ‘blinded her and burned away her eyelids’; ‘smoke rose from her burning flesh’—others seem more oblique: ‘like a barn coming out of the faucet’; ‘a blanket of black plastic balls that blocked the sun.’ Nevertheless the overall effect is of another dystopic vision of everyday life emerging from the daily press.

How are we supposed to take these appropriations and reconfigurations as they transpose atrocity from newsprint into the supposedly more culturally privileged arena of literature? Pound’s declaration that poetry is ‘news that stays news’ perhaps reflects an anxiety among poets that their political pronouncements are often given less credence and status than those announced by news networks with all their blatant manipulations. The trade-off for this neglect is perhaps the vain hope that one’s poems have more of a chance to be read in the future than yesterday’s newspapers—already outmoded by the era of twenty-four hour news. Kenneth Goldsmith’s notorious Day (an eight-hundred page transcription of the 1 September 2000 issue of The New York Times) is the most extreme example of an appropriation of the news into literature, a project which Hahn’s poems could be read as critically responding to in how they foreground the process of selecting materials from the welter of information. Hahn’s procedure makes her reading process visible, and, rather than effacing her ability to comment upon, reflect on, and offer judgements on what she finds, she creates an implied author who does just that, and puts the practice of writing poetry radically into question at the same time. These poems indeed make the news stay news, and perhaps achieve more than that. What I’m left with is this remarkable image from ‘In the Spirit…’: ‘her tears washed the ants / out of her eyes.’ The way in which this appropriated material evokes a hopeful potential for self-healing following trauma ultimately makes an identification between the news, poetry, and the new both possible and desirable.

 

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