In reviewing Donna Kuhn's latest release, Up Bluen on Baltimore's Furniture Press, I feel it would be impossible to speak the complete truth. That is, after reading her near-epic 45-poem cycle, I feel as though I have to be more clear in my own language than I have before, more precise. To say I love the cycle would be fairly accurate, but just saying "love" isn't complete, obviously. Perhaps I'm so twisted up because of how precise Kuhn is. Even what I consider the negative points of the book are interesting.
And where Kuhn is weak is where I'll start, mostly because I want to get it out of the way. Where the poetry is weak, and in Up Bluen it is not often weak, is where Kuhn refuses to fully extend an image, or to fully soak a line in the new (old) grammar she depends on. A quick example would be from the opening poem "at a certain time:"
i dont think i tell uThe tendency might be to "trim the fat" off some lines when poems go through the editing process. However, with this book I get the feeling that every second counts. Even the places where (as in the example above) I don't think the language is as much Poetry as in the rest of the book, I feel as though the poet is singing a song in which every note is necessary, if not just to get to the next note.
yr supposed to be somewhere
It cannot go without being stated at least three times--Kuhn is not writing in any common sense of grammar. That is to say, the book can only be called a cycle in imagery and content, not in form. Having said that, as a whole it relates, I believe, to a single image in the book: "picassos horses are birds only." In this one line is the beginning of every other poem--the idea behind the book, or maybe behind Kuhn's push to create in general. A brilliant notion -- at once speaking of the deceptive nature of art as a whole, a specific piece of classic art in particular, and ending the line blank so as to reference the entire work at once. A stunning climax to the book, found in the poem "picassos horses."
Where I love Kuhn's free use of language are those places where her words have taken on new meanings. This is not your English. As I said before, this is a new (old) grammar, ever mindful of the future, but with a fist in the pocket of Modernism. Her free hand with language can thrive inside poems that are best eaten whole, skin and all. From "chinese traffic:"
this earring was chinese trafficI don't think these words would work together in any other order. She could be accused here of writing a poem by math, inserting previous lines into new equations, seemingly iterating a common and single truth throughout the book; unfortunately, I can't tell you what that truth is. I've only read the book ten times. It is that all-encompassing of a read.
yr word skin god husband
yr bird skin and yr face
and theres alot of raisins
Throughout the book are flung a series of almost-Fantastic images--mountains, pterodactyls, food (especially breakfast foods), ocarinas, Asia and Africa, coffee . . . in fact it almost reads as a new kind of fantasy, a sort of Eastern fairy-tale from a Western perspective. Here is a journal of things that did not occur but are beautiful. And I'm fine with that feeling. At time she is stunningly clear ("i felt an ocarina in yr mouth") and at times Dada ("red mistake dragon traffic") but always she is pointing backwards, to some poems fifteen pages ago. She is asking if you remember that.
An easy mistake would be to label her postmodern--the quick and tidy bursts of multi-culti influence, the pop-culture quick-edit of language, the uneasy author ("poetry is words i dont know"), but I feel Kuhn owes a great debt to Gertrude Stein, and shouldn't be lumped in with uneasy po-mos--Kuhn is like Stein, who wanted to grow words and eat them. Kuhn knows that words can be manipulated into fragments of lines that build together to create a poem--something so very difficult to know. When Kuhn writes, in the title track "up bluen", "yr animated colorado splits open omelette butterflies" she knows as well as anyone what she is doing. I am working along with her to come to a sense of . . . something. Words are individual units, rather than bricks in a wall called Line, though at the same time she is ever-conscious of the line as a whole.
i wonder if a human is cleaner than a dream i think i dont see notHere, Kuhn is obviously taking advantage of an old-fashioned trick we sometimes call meter. Scan "i WONder if a HUMan is CLEANer than a DREAM". Play around with it. It is absolutely delicious.
like animals into my window i squint for i crawl around
I have read this entire book as a single unit of poetry more than I have done so for any other book. It is as if the book is a poem, and every title a line, and every line a footnote, a whisper, a toe in the door. Those who love poetry, those who love to read a book of poems with a pencil in one hand, those who want to plant a book in the ground and wait for it to come up living--buy and love this book.