October 2010
A review of

The Sore Throat
& Other Poems

by Aaron Kunin

Central question: Am I a machine? If so,
does my programming language require
more than two hundred words?
Description of author’s previous book, from its preface: “a value-neutral Paradise Lost. In other words, someone who is not God tells you to avoid a certain tree, and you disobey the instructions; the result is shame.” Reviewer’s reaction to previous book: total bafflement; Author on misanthropy: “What happens to the world when the misanthrope withdraws from it is that it becomes two worlds. There’s the human society left behind, and the new and potentially better society that the misanthrope projects”; Author on his relationship to poetry: “I am not completely opposed to treating books as people. But I still think that love between people and books is not a good idea.”

Here is perhaps the most disturbing, initially unpleasant collection in years; it’s also among the most original. All the poems in Kunin’s second book confine themselves (like The Cat in the Hat) to a small set of words, 170 to 200 in all, including I, you, know, somebody, but also moron, rat, dick, laughter, machine. The poems in one section use syntactic or formal patterns from Ezra Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” The poems in another “translate” (i.e., rephrase parts of) a play by Maurice Maeterlinck; some adopt visual or metrical schemes from other, older poems. Yet none seem old-fashioned. They seem bizarre, as befits their derivations (explained in Kunin’s preface and conclusion) from the poet’s nearly lifelong habit of “transcribing everything I say, hear, read or think… into a kind of sign-language,” a set of hand movements unintelligible to anyone else.

These “binary hand-alphabets,” mimicked by the verbal repetitions within the poems, suggest (though Kunin never says so) the fidgets and tics of compulsive disorders such as Tourette’s syndrome and OCD: “How hard it is to change your habits,” Kunin writes. “Or not to have habits.” He seems compelled to shock us with four-letter words: “Your dick in my ass, / music, and I don’t like it, but I desire it… At last I’m sore down there, and I must // have it again.” Pseudo-Tourettic coprolalia, the poem as fidget or tic? Or Catullus in loose translation (odi et amo), revealing the contradictions of the soul?

How close are involuntary tics to the idiosyncratic verbal behaviors of poetry? Closer than we might think, Kunin suggests, and both come closer than we might think to the everyday repetitions of conversation. Malfunctioning people repeat themselves, like robots; but so do the all-too-normal people who spend their lives chasing instinctual gratification. “For the moron, what’s good is a hard-on,” Kunin writes in “What’s Your Pleasure, Brother?” If you are not a moron, you must desire “more than pleasure, more than talking… But what you desire is not on the earth.”

Some of these poems sound as if nobody speaks them, as if they are the product of mere procedures, or programs. More often, they conjure speakers upset about how procedure-bound they sound, how little they can reconcile themselves to their predictable existence, how little (as if they all had one “sore throat”) they can say: “‘The god of the sore throat is not a just god,’ she complained.” Kunin sees—as Samuel Beckett saw—the thin line between a wisely cultivated indifference to the world’s repetitions and an emetic, instinctive disgust: “Pleasure is but a can / Of earth, and the soul / No more than / A great bladder.” A bladder: for urine, but also for air, wind, voice.

“I hear your voice as if it were my own,” The Sore Throat ends, meaning not that Kunin’s I finally understands his evasive beloved, his sexually unavailable you, but that your and my, I and you, have lost their meanings. Through poems in dialogue, essays, and lyric stanzas, the book presents not characters, exactly, but “a complete system of bad habits,” language-games that might be nothing more than “a machine / for concealing my desire.” And yet this book does not feel mechanical, and most of the time it does not feel predictable. It feels sad, repellent, fascinating, paradoxical, the work of a human being dismayed to see how much like other machines (badly programmed ones, too) our brains and behaviors can be.

—Stephen Burt

Stephen Burt is the coauthor, with David Mikics, of The Art of the Sonnet, out now.

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