Photo: jeici1

Brain Fever
Kimiko Hahn
W. W. Norton, $26.95 (cloth)

A characteristically disjunctive turn marks the end of “The Dream of a Raindrop,” from Kimiko Hahn’s latest collection, Brain Fever:

“aggregates of water molecules
that have condensed around specks of dust or salt”—

until gravity has its way
and circle turns into chandelier-crystal:

drizzle, downpour, tempest.
Come inside Kimi, before you catch your death.

The objective language of scientific explanation gives way to subjective rumination, and intellectual fire is replaced by the warmth of kinship. Hahn has been practicing this kind of bouleversement over the course of her previous eight collections, and it now lands with conviction it did not before possess. Most poets are unable to hide their allegiance to their preferred mode: they are confessional or aloof, lyric or mimetic, declamatory or circumspect. But the ease with which Hahn now modulates among modes suggests that she is neither here nor there: she inhabits the atomic spaces within molecules of water as well as the consciousness of the familial relation offstage, calling out to her. It is a display of newfound power that, for its strangeness, is equal parts disconcerting and thrilling.

The poems in Brain Fever were conceived as a string of responses to articles in the New York Times science section. Although each of the eight sections (“consciousness,” “dream,” “time,” “puzzles,” “the teenage brain,” “circle,” “conveying love,” “memory”) has a prevailing formal structure, the conceit never burdens the work—with the possible exception of the blacked-out redactions in “the teenage brain.” Like Toxic Flora (2010), Hahn’s previous book, Brain Fever is a project collection: it is composed with an overarching conceptual basis or methodology that—to some touchier critics—might seem overly predetermined. In the case of Brain Fever, the rigorously limited source material, often incorporated verbatim, constitutes the conceptual constraint. Toxic Flora also gathered its inspiration from the Times science section, but its patently metaphorical use of natural phenomena was often clumsy. The strains of poisoning, invasion, and predation became a one-note commentary on the dangers of parenting.

Hahn's poems glow with concentrated energy.

By contrast, the mission of Brain Fever—exploring the metacognitive process—is seamlessly wedded to its form and content. Poems repeat their structures with the recursiveness of recalled memory, thereby underscoring emotional truths borne of subjective experience. Erasure poems enact the fearful loss of the self at the same time they allow its facetious rewriting. In earlier work Hahn wrote of a willingness to incorporate the “flat language” of opaque description (see “Orchid Root” in 1999’s Mosquito and Ant); in Brain Fever, this flatness emerges in drier quotations. It takes a brave poet to risk boring her audience, even for brief stretches. In Hahn’s work these lulls are necessary moments of rest adjacent to more energetic ones, such as the pyrotechnics that punctuate the final three lines of “Fiero”:

“[the profound transformation] we can learn from games is
how to turn the sense that one has ‘failed’

into the sense that she ‘hasn’t succeeded yet.’” Oh, fierce pride!

Oh, kanji and swan dive!
Oh, lecturing on Emily Dickinson year after year to

Hahn has long favored word association as a compositional strategy. It can either explode etymologies or underwhelm with a cheap, punning quality. Two outliers aside (“Balls,” “Riddle”), the associations in Brain Fever are poignant and subtle. In “Wake” the rousing of the verb form touches off a gaggle of geese, which seems to circle and preside over the poem’s restive considerations of mortality. We land, finally, on the noun, the funereal wake of the body on the gurney, the wakefulness of something like the soul leaving the body. In “Figure” the first figure—the fetus on the sonogram—is implied. The final is the verb “to figure,” to make sense of the ways in which one consciousness (the mother’s) can become two (that of the mother and child), forever and necessarily severed. Hahn muses about the origins of selfhood and the difficulty of metacognition. Her associative flights make sense in the context of brain science, where the rational, conscious mind is often undermined—to hilarious and distracting effect—by the subconscious.

Hahn has always tried to discover effective forms for unruly thoughts. Her earlier work—wide-ranging in mode and theme—often aspired to the long-form zuihitsu, a diary-like monologue incorporating textbook definitions, email responses, exclamations, recalled speech, loose associations, declarations and reversals. These contemporary zuihitsu evinced an appealing honesty, replicating as they did the mind’s clutter. By allowing readers to see the various tacks between and among subjects and recalled speakers, they typified Hahn’s mantra: “Lose the intellect” (“Pulse and Impulse,” from 2006’s The Narrow Road to the Interior). This is not to say that Hahn’s earlier long poems discouraged logical thought; rather, they suggested that there was untapped potential to be realized in allowing the mind a relatively free reign to “lose” itself in inquiry. These ruminations had the advantage of being unfixed in time, which is part of the reason Hahn’s lists of “hateful things” (modeled on Sei S¯onagon’s lists in The Pillow Book, and appearing at least as far back as Mosquito and Ant) transcend their places in each longer poem and collection, instead reading like an ongoing conversation, a running tally of pet peeves. The consistency of these segments gives us the sense of familiarity with the writer’s persona, an intimacy that strengthens over the course of her work.

But the zuihitsu form presents some serious challenges, including a sense of purpose that is as likely to deepen as it is to disintegrate the longer the poem is allowed to go on. As touched as the reader may be by the glimpse into the writing persona’s thought process—a generous gesture, to be sure—that reader may also be unnerved by the apparent haphazardness, the transparently associative mechanics at work. More akin to visual collage—at times astonishing but also incorporating the murk and slackness of daily existence—these are sprawling poems that test an audience’s ability to recall their most salient features.

Brain Fever opens with a nod to these earlier preoccupations with collage. “[Kimiko’s Clipping Morgue: BRAIN file]” is a collection of what appears to be folders and file names, with items such as “BRAIN dreams (see DREAM THEORY)” and “BRAIN DRAIN: [empty].” Here we have the architecture of the writing mind, filtered through technology—the file folder drawer or computer directory. The idiosyncratic capitalizations and exuberant list-making assure us that there is a person behind this system, which ends up being a perfect opener for a collection centered on the brain, its science and enduring mysteries.

Eventually Brain Fever does away with much of the clutter. Its anchoring form is the short poem in couplets, with the occasional single-line stanza. These poems glow with concentrated energy, and their dense arrangements usefully contain Hahn’s previous meandering tendencies. Consequently, these new poems exhibit the “gemlike” quality Hahn avowedly admires (see “Sewing without Mother” in Mosquito and Ant) but which eluded her in the zuihitsu. “Porch Light” is an example of this late potency. Measuring a mere eleven lines, it begins, “Barley. Poppy. Then pomegranate. / Now front porch light.” In two lines Hahn effectively establishes the speaking persona as Demeter, the goddess of harvest (associated with barley and poppy), and her concern for her daughter, Persephone. As we know from the myth, Persephone is wedded to Hades—and a seasonal death—through consumption of the pomegranate seed. Any parent of a teenager will recognize the hope for safety and return symbolized by the left-on porch light. The estrangement, hopefulness, and hurtfulness of the mother-child relationship have long been Hahn’s themes, but this assured opening does more to address this theme than have whole poems in her previous work. The end of the poem is devastating:

I must unlock the door, leave it ajar,
since by degrees

the son-in-law rations my weather.

The poem “Figure” briefly precedes “Porch Light” in the section devoted to “consciousness,” and it asks us to imagine the simultaneously split and unified consciousness of mother and fetus in pregnancy:

murmurs through the wall abruptly

concrete, what makes the birthing room pronounced:
forfeiting grays

from mother’s pulse
to wattage. The infant faces such passage

before figuring out significance.

The newborn and mother share the same eerie pallor, as though the mother’s life force, her “wattage,” is barely enough for either. The confused simultaneity of enclosures—the uterus and the birthing room—contributes to the sense of a life both halved and doubled; the passage from pregnancy to birth initiates a shared but undetermined consciousness, as though the parent-child relationship were the entity that negotiates its subjects. The semantic difficulty of this idea complements the emotional difficulty in a poem such as “Porch Light,” and the two poems’ formal similarity speaks to Hahn’s compositional mastery.

Hahn treats this collection as an occasion to ask big questions: How do we avoid fixation on particular memories? How do we conceive of home, independent of place? If time is marked by a series of remembered events, is their ordering necessarily fixed? At 111 pages, there is a fair amount of chaff, but a curtailed collection might have missed some of the bizarre recesses of the mind—such as an objective correlative in the form of a mermaid letter opener—and unflattering thoughts that few of us are brave enough to admit we share. We are bound even by this ugliness. As the final lines of “erasing The Biology of Memory” attest, “we’re all / horrible shapes,” implying our capacity, even appetite, to wound, alongside the grace of being beheld by others.