Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Aaron Kunin first caught my attention back in April 2003 when he sent a note to Kasey Mohammad concerning John Milton & Leslie Scalapino. The idea of younger poets talking up such a conjunction struck me as an enormously hopeful thing – I didn’t even mind that Kunin, who argued that Scalapino was comfortable with the English language where Milton was not, got it exactly wrong.¹

Since then, Kunin’s name has been everywhere – the author of a PDF volume via Ubuweb, an audacious project that “translates” Pound’s Mauberly into something akin to Dolch’s restricted vocabulary for the English language², reviews appearing in Jacket & Rain Taxi, multiple appearances of several different poems all entitled “Sore Throat.” He presents himself as a “poet, critic, and novelist,” and generally doesn’t note where he’s teaching (Brown & Wesleyan that I’ve been able to discern) nor where he fetched his degrees (Brown again, for the BA, Johns Hopkins for an MA, PhD from Duke).

I like ambition & audacity & it’s easy to see that Kunin understands that where you publish is more important than where you studied. So when Folding Ruler Star arrived in the mail, I dove in right away. A jacket-flap note says of the text inside,

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 instruction: the result is shame….

The measure is a five-syllable line arranged in three-line units. Each poem is mirrored by another poem with the same title.

Which isn’t precisely accurate. The text is, in fact, continuous from beginning to end. Titles, the lengths of poems, and the decision to board two of each onto this ark, are functionally independent – I can imagine an SoQ reader thinking “arbitrary” – determinations. They cleave the work into digestible units & one of the tests of reading, I would think, is the point at which a given reader recognizes that these aren’t “individual” poems & what that recognition does for/to his/her reading from that point onward.

If this sounds rather like Oulipo on steroids, Kunin lets you know early on that he’s paying attention, letting the demands of the “individual poem” dictate key choices, as when, in the third poem (or, first half of the second pair, depending on how you read this), entitled “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

– Kunin lets, right at that critical moment at the end of the fourth stanza, the line depart from the five-syllable rule. In this sense, he differs completely from a “new formalist” like Geoffrey Brock, who would have to puff that line up another couple of beats. Further still, the book has two key sections that have no “twin,” both of which occur also outside of the ongoing text – one is a comment on software, a writing medium as such, the other on the integrity of the book, or a book at least, both using what sounds like found language, and both having titles that appear only in the table of contents. I’m convinced, by the way, that “False Nativity” as a title describes the role of titles in giving rise to content.

This is an inspired project, one part Christian Bök, the other Barrett Watten, with echoes of Mac Low, Mark Peters, Brian Stefans & others, yet with a presence that couldn’t possibly be any of those other poets. If I have any qualm at all about this book, it is only that the metrics of a syllabic line (whether five syllables, as here, ten as in so much SoQ writing, or whatever) resolves into a kind of white noise – the advantage of counting words rather than syllables (viz. Zukofsky’s five-word line, Bob Perelman’s six-word line) lies precisely in the metrical variety available. Folding Star Ruler³ is a poem (not a book) for the mind & eye, if not the ear. Reading it makes me hungry to see what Kunin will come up with next.


¹ Once you get it that Milton always hears an undertone – almost in the same way that Zen monks or other singers train in the dual-note phenomenon of Tibetan or Tuvan throat singing – and that his tone is Latin, envisioned almost as tho it were a locomotive of syntax, absolute force, the drone of an unceasing barely conscious stream of thinking, Milton’s ease with overtone of English is without peer. Scalapino, on the other hand, is driven by an ethical vision that demands a level of precision in language almost impossible to sustain – her syntactic shifts occur right at the instant of maximum tension as a result. That is why commas are so important in her work.

² The project echoes Kit Robinson’s The Dolch Stanzas as well as Steve McCaffery’s translations of Marx into lower class English dialect.

³ It would really constitute a spoiler to tell you where the name fits into Kunin’s text, so I will say only that he has employed David Ignatow’s favorite naming strategy here.