Wednesday, March 30, 2011



scenic fences | houses innumerable by Aby Kaupang
(Scantily Clad Press, 2009)

The issue I am wrestling with is this: Aby Kaupang's two long poems, “scenic fences” and “houses innumerable”, are too complex for a single review/poetry/philosophy. A review is too short. Philosophy forgets itself and sounds ridiculous. So there is too much to write: lines, words, lyric, suffering, religion, womanhood, being and time. In 33 short pages of poetry, Kaupang develops a life -- two lives -- embodying a philosophy of suffering that rejects the excuses of theodicy; she recognizes the unraveling of bodies=souls. These poems are, in a sense, a study of the phenomenon of suffering. Everything in these two poems is real and justifies the two very fragile, very angry, very open responses to whatever cruelty is out there.... Fragility, the accident of moving forward simply by being in time and space, the fear of marriage and doctors, acts of rebuilding that are the size and political significance of miniature paper cranes, and tea and an unlocked door.... That is a lot to say, but there is more. Kaupang's poetry is not just a poetic meditation on different ways of pain. Lyrically, her sometimes repetitive phrases, sometimes broken grammar, sometimes clear sometimes purely suggestive words are active in such a way that the balance of freneticism and calm and beauty overwhelm us and carry us by their music through the otherwise horrifying stories. Kaupang's play with lineation and repetition and punctuation are sensitive to language's possibilities, promising to unfold new ways of listening to poetry and culturally mature ways of tackling our ethical/existential dilemmas/anxieties.

So the task is difficult.


A reader can pass through Kaupang's language, smiling as if the music is a light, playful piece:
to do other things:

build a hummingbird dome            wear a
hat            erase the harbourers and kepts
traffic in the garden land         loose clod

let let let {white triangles slapping a

squirrels and sweetpeas climb into your

One suggestion for reading these two poems is to do just that: let the lyric carry you. These poems are hard. A second reading is an education and a mystery, though. The book provides a guide. In each poem, the first stanza provides the map for reading through these poems.
a room evacuated
kept            unfilled has room for seven times the
demons          seven times the stilled the selved

the leaving fences

in the air         white fledglings         ladders unfurl
contract         and here scenic in the field wave
demarc        ations at the missing

This opening material of “scenic fences” is dense, but it carries through the poem and the entire book. The book title tells us, of course, that fences and houses are key structures. And here on the first page we have the stage set: “a room evacuated”. Then we move on to the next scene: “the leaving fences”. We are inside, we move outside. The “unfilled room” is not simply abandoned, but “kept”. It is meant to be empty or evacuated but the emptiness leaves room “for seven times the demons”, suggesting the notion that nature abhors a vacuum, but also recalls Luke 8:2: “The twelve were with him, 8:2as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called the Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out”. In this case, the demons have moved in and the occupant is missing.

Outside at “the leaving fences”, clouds roll by in a beautiful combination of realist and expressionist language. The fences may be bushes or small scrub oaks or cacti, as they are “leaving”. The clouds grow from “white fledglings” into ladders into domes and then the “domes/ contract”, creating a huge space by visually depicting the changes in massive objects, and now the reader is alone in a vast, open field rather than peering in magically at an empty room. Something, though, is felt in this field: “and here scenic in the field wave/ demarcations at the missing”. The field, which is either a field, as in a field of wheat, or a “field wave”, an explanatory physical structure implying invisible forces, points us “at the missing”. “The leaving fences”, which mark off the field, are a fence that marks exit. The fence posts are “demarcations at the missing”.... that is, we are somehow aware of the field needing a presence, an other, and the demarcations almost mark off who/what that presence is/was. The absence is almost presence.

The grammar and spacing and line breaks of the first page are also a template for the rest of the book. “Dome”, for instance, is set off by itself, so it can be read by itself. Dome. Towering. Massive. We see the enormous cloud, but the word also attaches itself to the lines before and after it. So “ladders unfurl/ domes” and “domes/ contract”. By setting the word off on its own while leaving it connected to the surrounding lines, Kaupang, in effect, makes the word into a trinitarian version of itself. The dome is the unfurled ladder, the dome itself, and the collapsing architecture. The word itself is in motion like the clouds. These sorts of trinities recur, either explicitly or tacitly throughout the book. Later, Kaupang cries, “rent/ rent/ rent”, and you can see the poet stumbling across the room, tearing curtains and herself. A few pages after the outburst:
so many kingdoms come without
leaving impossibles the motion

The word “joy” functions as a tacit trinity, where the word is the bridge between the two long lines as well as standing on its own as an object of desire -- joy -- and the end/beginning of the preceding/following line. So we read beneath the stanza as it appears: so many kingdoms come without joy./ joy./ joy leaving impossibles the motion. The trinitarian form reads smoothly on the surface, but underneath the surface is a stuttering repetition.... an imperfection. All reading possibilities are made valid by the form of Kaupang's poems.



Trinitarian forms, the lack of distinction between presence and absence, field waves and sevenfold demons. Religious, philosophical and quantum mechanical language and ideas move quietly under the book. The suffering of the two poems calls out to both Heidegger and Christianity.... and many others I am sure I missed. In Being and Time, Heidegger suggests that fear somehow discloses the being of Dasein. Heidegger's philosophy can be undone, like most philosophies, by taking out the hyphens between his words to expose the 'ontological structure' of being-in-fear-of as nothing more than the objectifying of a phrase. The substantive is mistaken for a substance. There is no revelation. But the kernel of truth that is at the heart of Heidegger's phenomenological silliness gets the full, deep development it deserves in the poetry of Kaupang. The damaged speakers of these poems make their worlds through their states of mind. But the states of mind are not mere emotions. They are
superpositions that reveal.... or make/contain.... the world and the speaker:
I inhabit innumerable houses
remembering I am changed

does this
        I am the others house
stop at the others house fill your mug &
with straw
        leave {alt., lease}

the marginalia of absence returns
“houses innumerable” begins here with a statement of the uncertainty principle, a metaphysical/poetic statement of an individual's being as a house and the possibility of multiple selves, the always present absence (through its scribbles in the margins.... its past causal interactions with the world), the lack of an eternal presence, and eternity. (You see what I mean here? Impossible to unpack in one reading or writing.) There are multiple states here that the reader makes real through reading the text, first as a meditation on suffering, then as notes on observation and interaction and personality, then as an examination of the lyrical flexibility of language, and finally as an exploration of phenomenology and Christianity. The text of these poems sit on the page in a superposition. Just as the speaker of the poem is in a superposition. Destructively, though, the speaker's superposition is reduced to a single reality by her feeling the world in a articular way. A way that undoes her psychologically.
faking it, pleasured} her X
like my X       {faking it, pleasured}
in remembrance
the skin         /is
an urn         / of finite modality

        in resemblance
of me         / grieve

In one way, the speaker here is self-aware and strong. She acknowledges “faking it” to pleasure her ex. She is also aware, maybe, of the possibility of an ex who may have faked pleasure. And, of course, there is the jab at every straight male's weakness, finding the spot. The speaker is aware and in charge. And not just of her sexual self. She confronts directly her mortality. Underneath, however, is a self-loathing, maybe... an undercurrent of sexual manipulation perpetrated by the ex. This sexual manipulation comes out in the earlier, longer poem, where we read:
blessed are the         multitudinous
for my flesh         on this morning
confetties the temple

An absolutely beautiful, confused statement on the use of the speaker's body sexually, a use which is both a blessing appropriate to “the temple” as well as a slaughter, where “my flesh” is scattered and “confetties the temple”. All for “him”. The sections just quoted also point to the book's reading of religion.... especially Christianity. The “blessed” passage clearly echoes the beatitudes and the notion of the body as the temple of the Lord. The moral notion of sex as a sacred act is also there. But Kaupang confronts the lame moral notions of Christianity in Christianity's own language to develop a more complex and true morality. So sex is not a simple act of procreative love, but involves the actors in something that has been probably as destructive historically as it has been enjoyable and fruitful. Yet, Kaupang does not reject the notion of blessing. She leaves it there, but rewrites it with the acknowledgment of the relevant curse.... in fulfillment of the poem's own recognition of the value of religious language and imagery, the emptiness of the metaphysics implied by religious language, and the need to use and reform religious language at the same time:
the mirror made of flesh

the manna & the fish


An appropriation mocked in a joke made by the self-destructive speaker of “houses innumerable”:
[…]                 Two principals enter an
ocular bar, one is named Grace and the
Grief.         I hire them both to pace the
Grace is insistent uncertainty and sadness.
Grief, her mi{ni}ster.

Get it! Grief and Grace are now set as employees of an empty way, a way without content. And Grace, light that is apparently made of darkness and loss, is ruled by/given meaning by Grief, who she is supposed to transform according to the old religion. True, but delivered mockingly, stripping the truth of value.

The speaker's complexity and her break down is mirrored in the ways Kaupang formally develops her poetry. For instance, we have at least two ways to read these lines:
in remembrance
the skin         /is
an urn         / of finite modality

        in resemblance
of me /         grieve

There is, obviously, the theological and philosophical discussions here of sacrament and representation and mortality. These lines can be interpreted through those theological and philosophical lenses to develop different readings. Formally and astonishingly, though, we have the traditional, English leftto-right reading or the Japanese reading of columns available. So we get both “the skin /is // an urn / of finite modality” as well as “the skin/ an urn/ of me” and “is/ of finite modality/ grieve”. There are more ways to read these lines, but the point is that, once again, we see that all available reading possibilities are at work in these pages. The speaker recognizes, as noted earlier, her own mortality. Her body is not a necessary being, but a contingent one. But she also recognizes herself, her own body, as a container of her own dead self. She sees herself as remains. As discarded. As dead. She devalues herself. She grieves in the face of her being's “finite modality”, her lack of necessity. By the end of the poem, the strong, self-aware speaker is undone, and, as in a distorted mirror (both in terms of the speaker's psychology and in terms of the poem's content and form), her strength and self-awareness develops into ugly cynicism and an emaciated body:
commodification is there to replicate and
I do
it uniquely         for such a hype girl         for
such a type girl         I’m always emaciated
this is my cred

to recognize a face
is a urinal opening         a fair port
all fake & pleasury
I love to hum fake & pleasury
        fake & pleasury

Hateful language we fall into easily and unnoticeably, hypnotized by the beauty of Kaupang's lyricism.

Interestingly, the speaker of the earlier poem, “scenic fences”, also confronts cruelty that undoes her through drinking and drugs and sexual manipulation. In a subtle hit of realism, that speaker's pain is also brought on by less destructive events, such as marriage or a fight before leaving on vacation. The speaker is weak and fragile and not clearly self-aware, taken through life more by inertia than her own internally generated force:
bodies    and    rooms    are    mostly
accidental    slowed gaits reacting at
startled pressure of trees    unisons
more    sky    than    agreement    or    bark

no where to land and to come from

Being and relationship are now the effects of environment rather than a deliberate attempt to reach out to someone else or to live in a certain manner. This is gut-wrenchingly profound, though. Kaupang develops this almost fatalistic vision into a means of confronting darkness.

By the time we have reached approximately half way through the “scenic fences”, the speaker has found some ease, and we find the relaxed garden scene I quoted at the opening of this review and the complex bedroom-scene beatitude discussed earlier. At the midway point, we reach a release of tension that begins to swell again. More pain develops. The wave form of the opening page turns out to be the form of the emotional path traced by the story. We begin low with demons inhabiting empty rooms and ghosts emerging in the feeling of a field, pass through an uncomfortable drug-induced sleep, drinks, a complicated birth made worse by the speculations of doctors unable to admit their own ignorance, abandonment by a lover, eventually coming to rest in a garden and then wrapped in the lover's embrace (though, without forgetting the history of the embrace). A resting point found accidentally. Simply by being carried along by life. But that accidental living is deliberate, an insight discovered through endurance:
surrender then is

tubas in a funereal

The speaker's surrender allows her to exhume the dead, to sift the remains of her past, in a manner that does not degrade her value, that is fruitful and avoids undoing the personality, as we see happen in “houses innumerable” when the speaker reacts to the world and tries to dominate it. The surrender leads to the sad, rich, deep tones of “tubas in a funereal/ parade”.

The wave, as I said, swells up again, but by the end of the poem, the speaker's surrender approach begins to resolve the new pains.... or at least to make sense of them. The final page begins to open out into rest, but just.... The speaker is confused a bit, skipping between singing and fear and whimpers, but she does see a way forward:
nesting beyond here    goodbye
and goodbye    and    day    don’t
back or day I give and cant and

count my Unlessings
while casing is wanting
is swept

let out the simpers       let the

She is able to see the possibilities of the future, possibilities which threaten to overwhelm the speaker and undermine her current course of action, as relationships with others that promise to open into new forms, become less compact and more revealing of the being of others as they are in themselves. The weaker of the two speakers is not undone.


Kaupang's poems allow the very strange particulars of life to come through, so that there are no grand generalizations that discount one experience while overvaluing another. Language and experience are idiosyncratic. And yet, a reader recognizes each experience as.... well, not valid in the sense of strong and proper.... real/ authentic/ particular to someone, somewhere, for real. The formal aspects of the poetry and the language play are as deeply fascinating as the multiple layers of philosophy/religion/gender-trouble/ordinary-life are in the content. Too much needs to be said to do justice to these poems. But now, right when I am getting started, I think I have to stop, because Aby Kaupang has her first full-length collection coming out, Absence is such a Transparent


Micah Cavaleri lives in Michigan, where he runs and sleeps and writes and cooks while his wife explores the mysteries of the natural world. His book the syllable that opened an eye is available from Dead Man Publishing. Poems, etc are scattered about the web, with his most recent work forthcoming in the always beautiful elimae.

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