Monday, April 11, 2016

Trapped Inside an Altered Body

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 69
Elisabeth Kuhn, Average C-Cup: Poems

It's a shame nobody reads poetry anymore. Because when readers dismiss poetry as something inscrutable out of the past, they are losing the chance to introduce themselves to forward-thinking word crafters like Elisabeth Kuhn.

German-born and Berkely-educated, Kuhn takes the same world-wise travelling mentality in her verse that she takes in her life. She is also wise enough to recognize something that many academic poets these days have forgotten: that formal verse exists because people like to read it. Kuhn crafts verse in accessible forms like villanelles and sonnets, forms that a poetry audience will read for pleasure, and uses these forms to address difficult issues.

The issues Kuhn wants to address emerge from her own life. Foremost is her battle with breast cancer, culminating in a partial mastectomy which leaves her with two very different breasts—thus the title. In a world that values women according to their appearance, she struggles to decide where that puts her. Different poems show her in different places, but she remains generally optimistic, strong enough not to be broken by anybody looking at her body strangely.

Some poets are primarily storytellers, like T.S. Eliot, and some bare their sins in the Sylvia Plath style. Kuhn approaches poetry with the aplomb of a creative memoirist. The most important element in her poetry is herself, but she is not just flatly telling her story, she is telling us why her story should matter to us. And for the most part, she is telling us her story well.

I admit flinching when I began reading. The very first poem, "Palpitations," is a sestina, a form where key words repeat according to a geometric schedule across thirty-nine lines. It's a very difficult form, and Kuhn judders markedly on this one as well. Occasional pieces like this, which suggest they were written for an MFA poetry class, don't jibe well. When one such piece opened the collection I got a little queasy and thought I was in for a bad ride.

But I'm glad I stuck with the book. There are real treasures in this book, insights into being human as well as insights into being Elisabeth Kuhn. Consider these lines, from "The Pleasure Is Mine," discussing breast reconstruction:
...I'd feel as if he fondled
molded jello, glued
to my chest.
Elisabeth Kuhn
This deceptively simple analogy contains within it such nuance about human relationships, sexuality, sensuality, individual identity, and the human body. The author feels partly adrift inside her altered body, but she refuses to be prettified just to satisfy an abstract individual she might never meet. These lines are very direct, yet freighted with all the depth and complexity that human language can bring to bear upon them. And these are just three lines in a much longer book.

Kuhn’s struggles dwell in the present, but also unfold into the past. Her conservative German Catholic upbringing, one she addresses directly rather than hiply walking away, presages her adult difficulties with relationship and identity. Church and family should be the first place young girls learn trust, yet that frequently isn’t what she learns, as in “Sin”:
My sister had been good.
She was allowed
to pick a woolen thread
for Jesus’ crib so he would be
warm and comfortable.
I had done something to anger Mother.
I had to pick a needle.
Jesus would have to suffer
for my sins.
The poem gets only darker from there, not only from its actions, but from Kuhn’s innocent incomprehension. Her base poetic voice is the eternal, bewildered Even being born German carries weight. As a bilingual, bi-cultural woman, Kuhn brings outsider perspectives to nearly every situation, including this from “Original Guilt”:
When we were teens, we’d sometimes
flash the Heil Hitler sign
as a joke. It always upset the adults,
like questions about sex, and that forbidden
stanza of our National Anthem
we’d sometimes roar at parties, drunk:
Deutschland, Deutschland, ├╝ber alles!
Some poems ring hollow in this volume. Kuhn is a journeyman poet, and even great masters don't succeed every time. But on balance, this readable book offers rewards for experienced poetry readers and casual bookworms alike. I would go out of my way to recommend a book like this to other readers.

These poems let us glimpse a woman’s heart, and together they give us a banner insight into the complexity of one person's life experience. She promises much in the future, and on the evidence of this first book, we have much to look forward to.

To hear Garrison Keillor read Elisabeth Kuhn's poem "Bathrooms," click here.

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