Folding Ruler Star
Aaron Kunin
Fence Books, $12 (paper)

“If God is dead, then everything is permitted,” reads a popular refrigerator-magnet catchphrase often misattributed to Dostoevsky. If only that were the case in Aaron Kunin’s new book, Folding Ruler Star. Conceived as a Paradise Lost situated outside of ethics, Kunin’s poems are devoted to investigating shame—a kind of naturalized shame, psycho-physical and gut-wrenchingly embodied. This sense of shame not only makes itself known overtly through the poems’ subject matter but through their formal elements as well: chained to a five-syllable, staccato line confined in turn to three-line stanzas and punctuated only by parentheticals, each of the poems is compelled to face its own funhouse reflection—a poem which, while bearing the same title, is a distortion of the original, occasionally humorous but more often warped, painful, berserk. For example, in the first incarnation of the poem “Under the Lampshade,” the lampshade appears first as a simile: “(her slicker / gave the effect of / a lampshade).” Set in a kitchen, the poem has the air of a troubled domestic scene: “(every time she does / something to hurt him / she cries no stop you’re / hurting me).” In the poem en face, everything gets reversed: “he punishes them / because he believes / he should be punished / (categorical / imperative) he / seems to be wearing / a lampshade in place / of a raincoat.” Not only are the pronouns’ roles reversed, but the hypothetical lampshade in the first instance appears to have shifted into the literal while the poem itself has switched from a concrete scene to an abstract grouping of desires. Coupled with the constant reiteration of pain, guilt and punishment, the effect of such dynamic reversals is one of swinging over an open flame, suspended by a thread of spidersilk. And while there may not be a gray-bearded Puritan god to mete out fate in Folding Ruler Star, Kunin’s carefully crafted verses keep the reader tantalizingly close to the point of getting burned.