Saturday 27 November 2010

A Roomful of Machines by Kristine Ong Muslim

I don't read much poetry nowadays, and I am probably one of many readers who lament this fact, and wish that they had the time to read poetry, only to find, when they do sit down in front of a poem, that what they lack is not time but patience. Generally I am a slow reader, but not slow enough to absorb anything other than the most superficial verse. So having spent the last few months chewing through large chunks of short stories and novellas submitted to Theaker's Quarterly, faced with Kristine Ong Muslim's first full-length poetry collection, I struggled to find the right pace to avoid literary indigestion.

A Roomful of Machines is a fairly lengthy book as poetry collections go, but given that the author has been published in over 400 journals, one can imagine that her hypothetical Collected Poems would be an intimidating prospect indeed. Glancing through her publishing history, a lot of Kristine Ong Muslim's poems have appeared in genre publications: horror and science fiction zines, and she has sometimes been described as a "science-fiction poet". On the evidence of the poems assembled here, I didn't see that as a useful label. None of these poems have a speculative or futuristic, or scientific bent, but many could be described as "object oriented" to borrow a term. She organises her poetic investigations of the world in discrete, often domestic, objects: carpets, doorknobs, cups, sinks, socks. These are not riddle poems: the subjects are usually flatly named in the titles. Instead, the author invests these household items with desires and plans of their own, often either sinister or quietly despairing: the carpet eagerly awaits its fate as the breaker of glass ornaments, the ice cube doesn't want to be parted from its fellows in the tray, the bed gets us ready for death by summoning us to horizontality, books wait anxiously to be found or mended.

There's an obsessive, microscopic quality about these "object" poems, and I quickly formed a mental image of the poems' speaker as an agoraphobic, a shut-in surrounded by possessions that have taken on lives and ideas of their own in the absence of human interaction. Even when the dissecting eye takes in a group of teenagers playing basketball, they are at a distance, watched, one feels, through window blinds. There's only one line of dialogue in the sixty-odd poems in this collection, and precious few other people, either in the present or past. Only when we get to a series of poems set in hospitals and institutions, in the section entitled "Dark Clocks", do we see anything resembling a dialogue, and these prove to be some of the most interesting, certainly accessible, pieces in the collection. There are some evocative lines here exploring the inertia and timelessness of institutional life:

"She saw the afternoon as just another
morning seen from the other end of the day."

And a few pages on:

"Pain is measured in years, I think.
Most of the time, I try to run, but it always catches up
on me. Now, I just lie down, do as the doctor says."

It's the colloquial tone of these poems that makes them successful.

Elsewhere, I found the poems habitually reaching for cherished "poetic" words. "Vestigial" appears three times, there are a great deal of "ghosts", and a recourse to academic and bureaucratic verbiage that reminded me of my post-graduate struggles with Foucault and Deleuze and Guattari: "death's mnemonics", "an inventory of things left behind", "the folded catalog of night", "this is the negativity of form", "annotated sacrament", "this almanac of breathing methods", "epistemology and diction", "a discourse on continuity". There are statements that read like parodies of philosophy's abstract precision. "It must then speak of what is imaginary, what is yours". "we decide by means of tactile stimuli".

I appreciate that poetry needs to be able to speak in different registers, but these tactics, whisking everything off to the cold realms of the terse and abstract, distance the reader. In between the microscopic investigation of domestic objects, and the macro level of abstract philosophical assertions, there seemed to gape a hole left by the absence of anything at the level of human relationships and emotions.

There are, as I say, exceptions: "The Fan" is one of the very few poems that deals with two people in the same room together, but the real focus of the poem is the television set that separates them and prevents communication. Elsewhere, many of the poems express an ambivalence about humanity: "A man is only a prop, a lesser evil in an / abandoned room." "The man on the bench is a glove fashioned out of winter's skin. Spent and hardened. Like an unfinished interview." "The agile bodies move: so many branches, so many leaves, so many years left to break them all." These are powerful lines, but their apparent attempt to reduce people to the same status as the dissected objects doesn't wash. There's a current of unease about other people, about the emotional turmoil they entail, that runs underneath most of the poems in this book. It's not openly expressed, but a line like "loneliness and the iterations thereof" seems to want to speak about emotional pain, only to attempt an immediate retraction of the confession in the by now familiar verbiage of "the iterations thereof".

The Self gets almost as rough a ride as the Other, and I was surprised on a second reading to notice how many of the poems ended with a line that was, while not despairing, aimed at a sort of poised negativity, a stoical gritted-teeth, and expressed the idea of the Self being reduced, squeezed, limited, stilled, denied: "Voice is a city that pilfers pain / quiets us with its tiny lights."
"Then we will all be shrunken to the size of a box of salt, a mouthful of dead fish."
"Teach us to slurp silently, slowly. Teach us restraint."

There's plenty of wit in A Roomful of Machines, but little irony. For the most part the poems take themselves and their pronouncements rather seriously. Infrequently one glimpses a voice undermining its own gloomy gravitas with humour: "Summer is a snapped twig / glued back in place / But it will dangle again. / You'll see." As before with the hospital poems, the informality of "You'll see" saves this poem ("Balancing Act") from pomposity.

On a technical note, these poems are all, as far as I can see, unrhymed and mostly unmetered. Stanzas are of equal lines, but most seem to me to have been snipped to make patterns of lengths on the page, rather than syllables in the mouth. The clue that alerted me to this possibility was the frequency of little connecting phrases like "it is": metered poems don’t always have the luxury of speaking in such regular grammatical sentences. There were a few places too where I felt that compression would have been a good thing. In "The Fan", we have:

"The overdue bills are unfurling
where the whirling electric fan
hits them."

I would have edited that to:

"The whirling electric fan
Unfurls overdue bills."

There seems to be a loose consensus that poetry is a very "personal" thing, whatever that means, which sometimes precludes reviewers from saying whether they think a poet's work is really any good or not, on the basis that somebody somewhere might get something out of it, particularly if the poetry is rather dense, concentrated and open to wide interpretation, as Kristine Ong Muslim's collection certainly is. On balance I doubt whether I would recommend this collection to others. It didn't speak to me in the way Alan Bennett describes the best reading experiences: when you see that others have thought and felt in ways you had thought were yours alone, and which are like a hand reaching out to yours. I'm certainly very glad I've read it, and forced myself to take the time, to marinate my mind in the words on the page, rather than just ploughing on through them. It also gave me to opportunity to think again about the purpose of poetry, what sort of things poetry should talk about, and if there are even things that poetry ought to leave well alone. The poems here seem to leave a lot unsaid, or shut off, but that realisation was in itself an interesting reading experience. For her part, Kristine Ong Muslim writes, "real poetry must be indistinguishable from regurgitated hunger pangs". Typically, this raises more questions than it answers (for one thing, can a hunger pang be regurgitated?), but it does seem an apposite description of her technique: writing out a lack, bringing back up the meal that was denied in the first place. And perhaps recognising new types of questions is one of the pleasures of poetry that I am still discovering.

A Roomful of Machines by Kristine Ong Muslim. Published by Searle Publishing, 2010. Paperback, 103pp.

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