Myung Mi Kim
Omnidawn, $15.95 (paper)
Tiresias: The Collected Poems of Leland Hickman
edited by Stephen Motika
Nightboat Books and Otis Books/Seismicity Editions, $14.95 (paper)
The cold: like her previous book, Commons, Myung Mi Kim’s Penury, her fifth, is oddly devoid of fantasy. In its atmosphere, the word “drives” would be almost obscene. Kim does not write as a woman or even as a mortal; she writes solely as a writer, so much so that her poetry effaces her. In fact, it effaces almost everything we customarily find in poems: scene, syntax, punctuation, rhythm, argument, affect; a touch of will, a bit of noise, connectedness.
Like a classical poet, Kim appears reluctant to expend more words than she has to; she planes, chop chop, against the grain of the kind of poetry that her work nonetheless echoes, namely, the sometimes-logorrheic combinatorial new poetry of the 1970s and ’80s. “Combinatorial” as in horizontal Steinian garrulity; as in process rather than epiphany; as in freeing the poem from a closure-bearing compression; as in dispelling the myth that the sacred material of poetry is really silence. As in poetry that forsakes, or even rebels against, the power of any singular through-line (logical, narrative, descriptive, etc.) that would force a text into coherence and fixity, emphasizing instead the relatively free interplay of its word combinations and other constituent parts.
Kim’s word combinations are tiny, mere twigs: witness, “Pick at root out”; “That hand placed on”; “Water without water third day wait,” which is Beckettian. On several occasions, Kim bunches words up nonsensically, as, say, Susan Howe does, pushing her paratactical method to the extreme. In a mild example, “expert shores toppling hunt / continue hunt Bull Dog help hunt,” the end words all point to the bête noire of the book: to wit, the exploiting class common where poverty is prevalent (“hunt,” “prohibit” “scrutinize,” “control,” etc.). Kim also lists in thin columns single words and even para-phonemes (e.g., ks), this being her main concession to the old vertical axis of poetry, anti-compositional though lists are. But her true unit is the intelligible phrase.
It is the accumulation of these meticulously laid-down observation-fragments—some of them relatively dull and obvious (“Clock-tower and bulwark”), a few of them sense-quickening (“Got up to cut meat / stood in that smell all day”)—that sketches, rather than paints, her subject. Which, it turns out, is nothing less than world poverty.
Tireless compassion and sorrowing memory must underlie the selection and engineering of Kim’s phrases, but you, reader, are not to reflect on that. A law of muteness has been imposed, a law of minimal (not gleaming) nuance, a law of linguistic scarcity to match the material and emotional deprivations of her anonymous human subjects. Look in the direction of these last and there is no one there. No one stands out, no one has will, no one is happy, no one even openly grieves; everyone is displaced by the bare mention of things, some of them brute: “stinging nettles . . . machines hunch / vehicles in and out.” You see how it is.
Characteristically, the poem or poemlet (and to economize space I will put its three lines closer together than they appear in the text),
That which is forced outside flesh
Draped in the last affection
may leave you looking on at this “affection” as from a balcony in space. Why “last” and who is doing the draping, and who feels the affection, the draper or the drapee? (Kim is a poet of the generic detail: colorless, hardly tolerating contextual contingency and its limits.) The other two lines are even more problematic. “Cloven,” for example, is a wicked choice, in more than one sense: a tease. In fact, the whole book is a tease. Kim sneaks up, as it were, on this or that point in her thousand-fragmented subject and, in the fewest possible words, says something cryptic about it, if often with deceptive plainness.
Is she protecting herself from emotion? From sentimentality? From vulgarity, certainly—she would hurry by without leaving her interested fingerprints on everything. Penury has remarkable distinction of bearing, plenty of delicate subtlety, and vast sums of covert intelligence. Kim is one of our better poets; this has been recognized for some time. And Penury is ever so much finer than the usual somewhat chatty new book of poems. But it may have too much dignity, too much composure (as opposed to composition) for its own good. Like the subjected peoples it implicates, it lacks force. It has neither emotional persuasion nor analytical bite. Crafted as a sort of kit made of numerous tiny kits that the reader’s imagination can go to work on, it comes across as intellectually, affectively, and politically passive.
So much is suppressed from the actual structures of human interactions (as from the resources of poetry) that the reader is required to reach down, so to speak, through a vacuum, and lift the writing into a semblance of, well, resemblance, if not of coherency, still less of a “whole.” Combinatorial poetry makes short shrift of the idea of a literary totality. But whereas much of this poetry at least hints at its own aesthetic aims, Kim’s book is mum about them. Understandably, it would rather say “Humpspine blackened with flies,” a horrifying partial-picture of a neglected domesticated, if not wild, animal, than say (from Commons), “Swerves, oddities, facts, miscues, remnants—threnody and meditation— / the perpetually incomplete task of tracking what enters the field of perception,” or “The book emerges through cycles of erosion and accretion.”
But these last are useful: they open up the ground and sky of the book. Which is what Kim in fact does, belatedly, in a sort of appendix to Commons, in several pages of terse comments that apply just as helpfully to Penury.
“The inchoate and the concrete coincide”; “the fragment is that part of the totality of the word that opposes totality” (here quoting Adorno); “to give form to what is remote, castigated”: could not more than a shadow of these lights have been infused into the fastidious work of “nuance and gradation” in Penury, so as to give it the breathable air of speculation?
Kim’s compositional theory lies outside her compositions, coldly apart, as if refusing to corrupt them with (imperialistic?) form or purpose. But meanwhile, in both Commons and Penury, there is a famine of form, thanks to fragments that constantly “oppose” totality. Consequently, contrary to Kim’s theory, form is not “actuated” in them as an “ensemble of movements.” In the absence of dynamic syntax and infectious rhythms, movement is negligible in them, and even “ensemble” may be pushing it.
Whereas Kim holds herself way back, Hickman doesn’t let you breathe any molecules except sweaty Hickman’s.
The hot: Leland Hickman’s very welcome Tiresias: Collected Poems (Hickman died in Los Angeles in 1991, at age 56) is the diametric opposite of Penury, excess for excess. It is rhapsodic, not experimentally cool; a generous flood of language, not verbally stinted; metaphoric, not solely metonymic; painfully autobiographical, not impersonal; lustfully focused on a father and penises, not an aperture wide open to the global poor; and masochistically undignified, not dignified to death.
One thing the books share: they are both series, even if Kim’s is composed of insect-like fragments and Hickman’s of long, bearish rampages through personal underbrush. An outgrowth of the combinatorial way of writing, a hypertrophy of the horizontal axis of composition, series are more and more taking over the country’s poetry (have been since Robert Creeley’s aptly named 1968 collection, Pieces). They are a staple in Hickman’s great magazine of the late 1980s, Temblor. There are two positions to take on them: (a) they are a rot in the classical model of the single poem of memorable turn and burn; (b) they are sensitive, even “inevitable,” responses to the modern sinking down of language onto the material, metonymic textures of plural worlds.
What is excessive in Hickman’s Tiresias series (less so in his shorter earlier series, evidently dating back to the ’60s—the collection needs a chronology) is, at bottom, the rage of his erotic fantasies, his dreams and descriptions of ontology-busting ecstatic sex with men, a juggernaut of desire that was rather terrible to experience. Hickman felt his rage as half-tragedy, half sacred privilege. On the page, this founding excess fountains up as verbal excess (repetition, multiple modifications, series of present participles, breathless parataxis, hyperbolic diction) and a self-beating drama of accusation and torment. Here is a passage from “Picasso Deathday Night” (also from “Hay River. September 1973”; many of Hickman’s stanzas appear twice in the volume, but this huge overlap is too much to go into):
I drop my belt, he stands there shaking, is it over? is it all over? wasn't it real? no,
kid, playacting, joking, playacting, begins to cry & I hold him, this song hates me,
wants me to stifle its life away, safe/unsafe his terrified way, doesn't want to be
born or sing of me in dirt near azalea branches, sick to my self, hung-over,
breaking, tearing, swallowing my bright pure petals & I wonder is it over, I curl up
on earth under flowers, I wonder, is it all over?
& pinkster & cardinal & salmon-
rose & snow;
& how can I go on;
& curld 38-year-old foetal position
ear to my dry ground crying;
& bitter azalean tiresian song;
& how can I go on
Whereas Kim holds herself way back, Hickman doesn’t let you breathe any molecules except sweaty Hickman’s. He’s a musician who has a full orchestra of effects, all of which are, so to speak, thoroughly Hickmanized, and he’s a magician who draws out of his hat a tortured rabbit.
Hickman is compulsive reading because he himself is both compelled to “sing” and so very good at it, as well as jaw-droppingly confessional. He entices with his eagerness for romantic afflatus (an eagerness which, however, the circumstances of his life beat down like a blinding air bag). More, his vocabulary and free verse were enriched by literary Modernism—for instance, by large-motioned Dylan Thomas and archaizing Ezra Pound. His limitation is, in part, that he hardly wrote poems, he just wrote poetry, somewhat batteringly. (He can’t easily be anthologized, but that’s no great loss, except in exposure and reputation, inessentials). And, further, his work suffers a little in that its range is as narrow as it is aflame.
In particular, Hickman was imprisoned in one of Freud’s discoveries, the “A Child is Being Beaten” phantasy. I say “imprisoned” even though, according to Julia Kristeva in This Incredible Need to Believe, Christianity itself is rooted in it—ingeniously, with massive seductive and healing results. Contrary to popular impression, the “beaten child” and “beaten” or “murdered father” of Freudian analysis point to incestuous desire for the father, not Oedipal desire for the mother. All too briefly, the argument is that the father has to be killed and idealized in order to be a bearable object of desire. Meanwhile, the guilty child (a “turd blossom” in “dadspace,” in Hickman’s words), knows he ought to be whipped, and weeps, and swallows his “bright pure petals” (the supposed innocence of desire, the wafer) and curls up in a defeated fetal position or asks for punishment, if not atonement: “in / shitsong in self wallow I / beg you beat me let me swallow you & strict eyes of my Lion please search me how to kill. / this furious beating beggd, / judgd abject we go” (“Aphroditos Absconditus”). Or, less sincerely, he asks for purity: “Jesus save me from my badboys make me good amen.”
Hickman’s poems cruise, slaver, protest, beg, apologize, in a near parallel to ‘unedited life’—‘o bad movies,’ he calls them.
In Tiresias Hickman is both the beating father and the beaten son, but mostly the latter. Yet how recalcitrant he is, what a bad boy! He can’t keep his desire down. Better find a replacement for the Tough-Love God. But who? Why not Apollo, as the god of poetic inspiration, “Apollo wherefrom / words sprout where words were not / Apollo who come [sic] in a mind like a desert / & here plant messages from the vaster / far emptier heart-space spermpollen /stark against dream drought”?
With unparalleled completeness and turpitude, Hickman exemplifies Modernism’s downshifting of a religious infinity into a sensual and verbal one, pagan-dense. Dylan Thomas still had a sort of transcendence, a supposedly cosmic vitality to cling to; so did D. H. Lawrence. Jean Genet, whose lyricism is hurt and homosexual and proudly ashamed like Hickman’s, had a “higher” to look toward, too, thanks to vestiges of Catholicism. And so on, with Hart Crane, Rimbaud, Allen Ginsberg.
But Hickman goes it close in and falling down: “show me my blue-lippt children stilld & curld on the stone teat.” He has only the “spermpollen” of words and their imaginary father, an Apollo to inspire his Tiresias, Apollo’s blind prophet. In Hickman’s “Tireasian poems,” which descend into desire’s underworld, walking on the heads of snakes, all the components of the Christian structure are there, except for the fatal absence of an Ideal Father thoroughly cleansed of the son’s sickly abjection. As a “fierce lord of inwardness thrusting / meatbeam sunrays thru skullcunt,” Apollo is a rapist.
Hickman’s poems cruise, slaver, protest, beg, apologize, in a near parallel to “unedited life”—“o bad movies,” he calls them. In them, form isn’t a discrete absence, as in Penury, but a sprawl that is usually contested by structurating anaphora. But the man could write and then some, and even if he is a monotonous poet of sexual yearning and cruelty, he makes it all seem real. Memories of childhood, the streets of Hollywood, Griffith Park, hustlers and tricks, all run through the soft matter of his words like tank treads. Memory, that death, dominates. Hickman is like the famished dog in the Chinese story who chews and chews on old bare bones until his gums bleed, then he has a taste of what he’s after.
Hickman is one of those American writers who is at once enormously gifted and an awkward bundle with respect to fitting into a canon. Nightboat Books and Otis Books have put us in their debt by this fair rescue of his “breath unhushing a long ghost story,” with that story’s “dung to be heavend” and its nonetheless stark despair of life: “the / beak lets the wind have my throat.”