Friday, February 17, 2006


I wish I would have been able to keep Forrest Gander a little longer when he was here a few weeks ago. If I had, I would have asked him what in God’s name he was thinking by selecting Geraldine Kim’s Povel as the winner of the 2005 Fence Modern Poets Series.

I’m sure I’m betraying my age, my jaded sensibilities, by dismissing this book so out of hand. I’ve probably established myself in the past as not the most effusive reviewer (a tendency I attribute to witnessing too many congratulatory reviews that reviewers write out of their own personal interest of not offending someone). So, I understand and expect readers of this review to be cautious of my pronouncements. I can hear them say: there goes Schnickelfritz grousing again.

I was anxious to take on this book from the moment I heard about it. I expected some insights about the internal gears of the twenty-something female mind. I was hoping it would be fun. Instead, what I have to admit I encountered was pure drivel. It was trite, boring and a tad bit scatological. To make it to the end seems to me to be like having to eavesdrop on 4 hours of a cell phone conversation. I admit it. I couldn’t make it. I strangled the speaker and ditched the body where no one is going to find it.

The book is a long sprawling stream-of-consciousness piece that emanates from a young Korean woman while she is attending university. While there are moments of wit and literary rumination, most of the piece is littered with inane anecdotes where the speaker sorts out her feelings about friends and family and where she explores her becoming a sexual being. Perhaps the most useful aspect of the book is to see how the speaker (almost undoubtedly Kim herself) mediates and decodes the plethora of sexual messages she encounters and the effect they have on her consciousness. The reactions she takes to many of the people in her anecdotes is disturbingly juvenile: her desire for the man checking her purse to find a dead fetus in there, her verbalized uncontrollable desire to smash into her dad’s Achilles tendon with a shopping cart (to the point where her father develops a nervous tic when he hears a shopping cart coming up from behind), not caring when John Ritter dies. Here is an example of some paragraphs.

“We thought it was cool at the time. Pretending to smoke imaginary cigarettes in wintry air. Convincing my dad to buy a Powerball ticket. The news shows a security camera video of a deer prancing through an empty subway station. I fit all the stereotypes. You knew I was going to say that even. ‘I just knew it. So predictable,’ my ex said to me." (96)

“We laugh because it’s funny, we laugh because it’s true. As pointless as phoneticized translations. My brother asks my mom to break a wishbone with him. Their greasy fingers slipping along the bone. Then my mom lets go of her end and says, ‘all you wish come true I am going to die soon.” Leaving long phone messages. Like the scene from Falling Down when the main character is about to use a bazooka and a kid comes from nowhere and asks him what movie he’s filming." (36)

“Listening to hardcore like Sworn Enemy, Full Blown Chaos, and From Ashes Rise and being unable to stop smiling. ‘Leave, or leave me,’ says the radio and wanting to bash my brains against the wall. As I ran on the track, I saw a falcon fly past and tried chasing it. My mom insisting that I go to church with her and promising with her pinky finger. Then I check the nametag and it says ‘Nick’ and realizing it’s an effeminate boy bagging these groceries. ‘Ma’am, you forgot this,’ he says and hands me a canteloupe wrapped in plastic." (81)

The book is an example (112 pages of it) of hypergraphia informed by either adrenaline or insomnia. I’m not sure which. I’m not sure the distinction matters. My basic reaction was similar to one of the characters who flies into one of the fragments of Kim’s extended narrative:

‘What if I ask them for a wrap and then they start rapping?’ I ask my friend. He smiles weakly.

Yup . . . smiles weakly. That about sums it up. Apparently, people in her own life (and we never get more than a centimeter away from Kim’s musings and anecdotes) find her commentary on what happens to be equally trying.

I did try to smile. Occasionally, I found a little sparkle in some of the running commentary:

As accessible as a Magic Eye Picture

I wonder how much my soul would be worth on eBay.

I want to have an installation in the Bad Art Museum.

From my judgment, she might be able to realize this desire, perhaps fill up a whole wing.

There is even a strange reference to a Carioles Effect on page 19. I wondered if this was supposed to be The Coriolis Effect, [Google searches on Carioles Effect seem to point to the same phenomenon as Coriolis Effect with the first being a variant(?) or mistake] and what a muffed reference like this was supposed to illustrate about the stream of consciousness. In this “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink” effect, I suppose, everything is allowable. But I wondered if this wasn’t a miss by the fact checker at Fence Books.

The term “Povel” is itself a connection of "poem" and "novel". Poem + Novel = Povel. This term is perhaps stretching both genres a bit, a bit of wishful thinking. The content seems like spaghetti blog, the daily bits of a life mixed up in a blender. The major formal constraint is that there is a paragraph of left justified text, then centered text, then right justified text, then centered text again, and so on [later on in the book there are slight variations]. My biggest question was why Kim didn’t use any right and left justified text in her pattern. That way she could have used all the buttons on the toolbar of Microsoft Word.

There are so many reasons to question the merit of this book that one is forced to ponder and parse the politics of poetry publishing. I suppose I was drawn to it because it got some attention on Silliman’s blog as clearly one of the best books of 2005. In some ways ,Povel reminds me of some of Silliman’s alternately mind-numbing and playful gestures like Tjanting and What, especially the latter.

At a beep tone, the driver grabs
the phone by the farebox: “29
on the 24” be thy name. Why that
obsolete twist? Why this
semi-metacomment? Augie’s
Basil obit overpraises, ‘ey?
Simple supper sip on seamen.
Bad pun, old song. Tweed cap’s
rim rots. Two posts, one loop
and a hanging cross
dangle from that lobe (the other
being bare forms the pair).
Toothless man roars to himself
scaring the other riders.
His body’s oils, unwashed,
stain the flesh brown. Up
the terraced hillside, lush ground cover
surrounds the boxy wood shigle condos.
I had hopes. Helicopters dot
the large sky, a perfect blue
out over the bay. (55) [What]

Sound familiar? Only Silliman’s observations are a lot more cultivated and specific. The wit extends to more than commentary on pop culture.

Admittedly, I got sucked into the blurb machine on this one. Of course, the endorsement by Gander held a lot of sway as well. Like someone on Silliman’s blog commentary said, “It’s not like it was nominated by David Lehman.”

Perhaps Forrest Gander’s selection of Povel was his way of critiquing the whole prize system in poetry publishing. By nominating a book that was so undeserving (in my not-so-humble opinion), was he, in fact, condemning the prize-winning-book-turned-into-academic-career dynamic that so often occurs? Many are deserving, but equally many leave one wondering.

Perhaps he just determined that he could do some good in the world by giving the prize to a young woman who seemed in need of some confidence building. Was this a mercy selection?

There are other questions outside the immediate text that arise as well. Does the increasing presence of the blog inject itself as a new literary form? I hope not. If it does, I submit here and now that it will be the first literary form in history that no one will feel obliged to read. Also, why bother to read it in a book when you can go straight to the source like you can with Geraldine Kim. Is there any reason to have a book version of a blog? A blog version of a book as product tie-in?

Does all diary writing rise to the level of literature? When my grandmother emigrated from Schleswig-Holstein and came to live in Davenport, Iowa, she kept a daily tab on her activities for many years. I inherited several shoeboxes of her scribbles on the quotidian life of Davenport [Hers was a more laconic hypergraphia.] I ask you, do these rise to the level of literature?

May 1, 1963 (Wednesday)

We are off to Texas, left Davenport about 3:00, stopped at the airport, had a drink in the Lounge Cocktail and watched the planes take off, a beautiful day. Stopped off at Lake Stony. I am waiting at the Depot. Dad is bringing the car away, the train leaves at 6:05, we insured our bags for $500. We had broiled fish for dinner. Dad had his glass of bier.

Dez. 1 1980 (Monday)

put the flowers by the window again, looked through all the papers, wrote some checks. I blame the check book. Went to get tickets for the show, the S & H Green Stamp Store was closed, it started to rain, had dinner with Ernst here at home. Ernst didn’t go to Chicago with Ernie and family, but is beginning to feel better. He had dinner with the Leidenfrosts at Thanksgiving. He tells me Betty Schlueter ist not very good, John is getting old looking, they tell me Betty is just like Alma.

June 19, 1968 (Wednesday)

I got up a little early to write some cards to Marg, Sallee, and Tante Marie. We are at Fort Walton Beach Surf Dweller Motel Apts. We took a dip before breakfast. Betty made bacon and eggs. We have a two bedroom apartment, very nice $26 a day. We were lucky to get this one, everything was full in the afternoon we drove out to Panama City. We like this side of the Gulf better, is more quiet. We had hamburger and pizza for supper. Took a dip after we got home. We all had a good nap in the afternoon.

As for Povel, save your money, save your time. Cruise the mall and hang out at the fountain where you can eavesdrop on several teenagers talking at once. This is pretty much the same experience as reading Povel.