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Noah Eli Gordon reviews

Folding Ruler Star
by Aaron Kunin
62pp. Fence Books. US$12. 0974090980 paper

This review is 1,600 words
or about 4 printed pages long

The Human Measure of Aaron Kunin’s Folding Ruler Star

In his lecture on dictation, Jack Spicer described the constituent elements of one’s self — including those of memories, history, cultural situation, and really all accumulated knowledge — as furniture. He thought it was more important for the poet to keep a tidy house than to worry about accumulating more desks, chairs, lamps and sinks. That way the messages could get through. But what if Spicer got it wrong? What if it were really the bed, the table or the TV talking? What would happen if one gave the furniture itself consciousness? How could one then differentiate the voice of the visitor from the voice of the home? And what if those two voices folded in on one another?

Perhaps it would approximate something close to Aaron Kunin’s new book Folding Ruler Star. In the first two lines of the first poem, we learn that “the t.v. has a / human face”, itself an echo of both Blake’s “Pity, a human face” and “jealousy a human face”. Both Blakes. That’s an interesting way to put it, as his Songs of Innocence and of Experience contain poems that mirror one another. Kunin does the same with the poems of Folding Ruler Star, although here the divide between innocence and experience takes place in the gutter, in the space between recto and verso pages, where his twin poems sit. But one suspects there’s something more blurred to the divide Kunin’s set up.

Aaron Kunin, photo by Linda Schwalen

Aaron Kunin, photo by Linda Schwalen

As he writes in the first paragraph of the book’s preface: “These poems are conceived as a value-neutral Paradise Lost. In other words, someone who is not god tells you to avoid a certain tree, and you disobey the instructions; the result is shame.” Instead of thinking about Milton here, we could go back to Blake, because he knows where that tree is.

The gods of the earth and sea
sought thro nature to find this tree
but their search was all in vain
there grows one in the human brain

Seems like it’s part of the furniture. Interesting too how the human form, so often represented by the five pointed star, the head, two arms and two legs, shares something with the five phases which form a schema of the Tree of Life: source, root, tree, branch, and fruit. Or the five elements from antiquity: Fire, Water, Air, and Earth whose collective dust form the Breath of Life spirit. Or the fact that five is a circular number, producing itself in its last digit when raised to its own power. But why is this important to Kunin’s poetry? Well, almost every line in his book is five syllables long, which, strangely enough, makes these very human poems. Take, for example, the first of the pair of poems titled “False Nativity”, where Kunin directly references Spicer’s furniture metaphor, gives “memory” a sort of Janus mask and the desk an ability to feel terror:

False Nativity

masking memory
(no current photo
available) with

furniture placement
(that memory has
two faces is true)

but what I saw then
terrified me (I
removed my glasses

I put them on the
desk) and the desk was

that I might sit on
my glasses and what
my bottom would see

It’s interesting to note the way in which the syllabic measure has given Kunin the leeway to rid his poems of punctuation; although there are no commas or periods in Folding Ruler Star, their absence isn’t particularly felt. Instead, one encounters numerous parenthetical asides, which (as they have the feel of a crosspollination between omniscient narrator, actor addressing the audience, and Greek chorus about them) add to the poems’ distinctly dramatic character. Character is, in fact, the mot juste here. Kunin explains in the second paragraph of the book’s preface:

Two characters agree that one of them is supposed to worship and obey the other without actually believing that the other posses any special qualities that would enforce obedience; the first one disobeys the second one and has to be punished.

Kunin contorts psychologically complicated situations into restrictive structures, which, because of the self-imposed formal constraints, merely furthers the dramatic elements of each poem. This creates an ominous atmosphere, in which a heightened attenuation to specificity of action is narrated via an entirely unspecific local, between unclear, unnamed characters.

Here is the second of Kunin’s “Facesitting” poems:

sitting ghost (partly
obscured by a hand
held microphone) at

least you can still breathe
through your eyes (only
your anatomy

was missing) slowly
turn your head and be
gratified (enraged

aroused) degraded
and absent (pencil)
razed lightly (scratch scratch

rub rub) rubbing to
ill effect among
the missing products

The poem ostensibly deals within the implications of mediated (or at least “meddled with”) sexuality. As Kunin writes elsewhere in the book, “these poems express my/ dissatisfaction/ with sexual life”. Yet it would be wrong to attempt to read Kunin’s work as autobiographic, especially in light of his inclusion of the preface, which rather clearly situates the poems within a sort of a dramatic mode.

In the preface’s third paragraph, he writes, “A body has five parts; each part is alarmed. Descriptions of the parts set off the alarms.” This is a reference to the poems collectively titled “Five Security Zones”, which constitute a break with the book’s use of single titles for dual facing poems. “Five Security Zones” is made up of two sets of eight poems, separated by what may be a found poem, given the title “/Local Machine Zone/” on the contents page, but remaining untitled as it appears within the body of the text; this is also the case for “/Preservation Fantasy/”, the book’s final poem. It is here that Kunin employs his training as a Renaissance scholar, resuscitating the blazon, a renaissance form in which the various parts of a woman’s body are metaphorically cataloged.

Kunin amps up the form, allowing it to catalogue the body’s alarmed zones, which are described in the first poem of the sequence as “colorful inside/ of the mouth”; “freestanding hair”; “a mask of phone/ and coffee”; “the almost complete/ absence of demands/ for reassurance/ / in your speech”; and “the shining/ mass behind the eyes”. The sequence’s second poem adds a strange twist, incorporating an abridged recasting of a passage from Anthony Trollope’s nineteenth-century novel The Prime Minister. The scene in the novel recounts the uncanny ability of guards at Tenway Junction station to read the intentions of strangers by looking into their faces. The face of Ferdinand Lopez, whom Kunin mentions by name in the poem, clearly shows him to have no destination, and he is thus accosted by one of the guards. The passage illustrates Kunin’s interest in facial expression as a form of communication, an interest reiterated throughout the book, yet given more import here in its ability to set off an alarm.

The sequence continues by reintroducing and thus redefining previous phrases, elucidating the specifics of the alarmed body parts. There is someone whose job for the CIA is simply to read books, someone standing near a Safeway in Baltimore (or maybe someone named Baltimore), and, apart from Christ and the above mentioned Ferdinand Lopez, the only other person within the book to be given a proper name: “(Aaron I/ got the keys buzz up)”.

Although it’s never certain where things take place, or to whom those things are happening, Kunin’s work does evoke a sort of intellectual voyeurism. One is made privy to the infesting of otherwise innocuous objects and gestures with meaning that often feels grotesque, sinister or, at the very least, shameful. The tension is so palpable in these poems that one feels as though one has opened a door onto an indiscriminately compromised scene; however, and this is Kunin’s real strength, as such a scene is always slightly out of focus, it is the feeling, rather than the event, that takes precedence, leaving one awash in all the attendant emotion of witnessing something one probably shouldn’t have.

There is a correlation here to the series of photographs by Sigmar Polke, entitled Bamboostange Liebt Zollstockstern (Bamboo Pole Loves Folding Ruler Star), from which Kunin has obviously titled his collection. The images in the 15 black-and-white photographs, measuring roughly 24 x 20 inches in the original, are difficult to make out in their reproduction as the book’s frontispiece. For the most part the photographs contain household objects whose juxtaposition leaves one with the sense of oscillating between a child’s having abandoned them after turning them into playthings, and something more inauspicious in nature: a pickle in a drinking glass; another stuck through paper; a blanket whose folds form a human figure; a spoon strung between two cups; a tube in a bowl of lettuce. What these images do evoke is the detritus of event, the awkward aftermath of something out of the ordinary having happened. It is the same feeling one is left with after having read the compact, formally inventive and astute poems of Folding Ruler Star.

Noah Eli Gordon

Noah Eli Gordon

Noah Eli Gordon is the author of The Frequencies (Tougher Disguises, 2003), The Area of Sound Called the Subtone (Ahsahta, 2004), and chapbooks from Margin to Margin, Anchorite, and Duration Press. He publishes the Braincase chapbook series and is relocating to Denver, CO in August of 2005. He has published reviews in Rain Taxi, Boston Review, The Poetry Project Newsletter, The Poker, Slope, Wordforword, Verse, Jacket, Xantippe, Sentence, and elsewhere.

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