The first thing you notice about Elaine Kahn’s poetry is the priority it places on disarming the reader. This is usually a sign that communication itself is central to the narrative, and Kahn’s poetic mode is the kind of heartbreaking offhandedness typically reserved for coworkers and confidants (not necessarily friends), but applied here to all of embodied reality: “I have seen a million / pictures of my face / & still / I have no idea.” This line, snapped into four carefully broken pieces of thought, is the poem “I Know I Am Not an Easy Woman” in its entirety, and alludes to both her strategic approach in A Voluptuous Dream During an Eclipse and the tropes she sorts through like the rubble of something alien and of compromised value.
Kahn’s poetic condition, as it were, is that she can’t not stare at the reality of reality as a set of protocols and limits, whether technocratic (“in a house filled with machines”) or ontological (“in the deep flit of your eyes”). It absorbs Kahn’s poetic attention to the point of imprisonment: “My little baby eyes sleep in a chain.” The truth here is that we are all fundamentally not free, and it’s this truth that catalyzes an undercurrent of discontent in Kahn’s poetics, powering all the qualifications and deflations that define her approach, e.g. “It felt worthwhile though not exactly great.” She proceeds this way because there is no other way — but more significantly, she proceeds this way because she wants to proceed: “We couldn’t stand each other & / we didn’t want to give up.”
The early refrain “no one honest ever cared” reverberates across a couple of poems (“no one honest ever bothered,” etc.) as if to say you must care, you must be bothered if you want to be honest — that is to say, if your goal is a kind of purified communication. In its most distilled form, the function of Kahn’s poetry, and probably all poetry, is to cross time and space. This is meant literally, in communion with a disembodied reader from the future (whoever you are, reading this right now) — but also politically (“cross” as in “to go against”), resisting the false objectivity of history by embodying a more “voluptuous” and subjective, timeless “dream.” This is not the listless atemporality of the worldly and mundane — “like doing laundry all day long / he is being nowhere” she says in the titular poem — but a conscious, creative and present force, where “yesterday is gone” and Kahn’s poetry is free to “break / the hymen of his ear.”
This brand of cunning sexuality is deployed liberally by Kahn, from frank and perfect admissions like “I will fuck the face of any man who looks away” to quadruple (?) entendres like “if I baked you a pie / you would sweat / while you ate it / with your perfect lips.” It’s a liberating maneuver but a qualified one (“your dirty jokes aren’t miracles”), complicated as it is by the minefield of interpersonal desires — “god you are / the softest / kind of jerk” — and the damage we do to ourselves and each other.
There’s a thread of disfiguring throughout that’s benign enough to be ominous — “I am cutting myself / out of a piece of paper”, “when I am cutting your hair in my mind” — but all of it comes back to time, which in Kahn’s work becomes the material and subject of human life: “Time is a mouth.” “It happens on you”, she says, referring to puberty and her indoctrination into the global system of lascivious, gendered control (“& the whole world stares / how the world does stare”), but she’s also referring to time as a condition from which we all suffer. As she sardonically puts it elsewhere, “You think beauty / is a good thing / to forgive,” with beauty reduced here to a cruel reminder (remainder) of what time does to it. But it’s also a reminder that human beings are defined on Earth by their intrinsic timeness — not just in their mortality but in their technology of language, which above all else is a means of communicating with the future. No other creature has access to history as a kind of virtual genetic code on which to build empires.
We are temporal, “crepuscular” beings, to use Kahn’s term, and the astrological sign of temporal upheaval, as Kahn notes in her collection’s title, is the eclipse. But what is prescribed here is a resistance to the ecliptic cycle of control and collapse, toward a new temporality, whatever that is: “What is pleasing to me / is what I cannot mind,” that is to say, what doesn’t come from within and can’t be absorbed in full. The poet prefers instead to make meaning out of the temporal field, leveraging it like a force in the service of some TBD form-of-life: “It is best not to transform / rather: irritate & signal,” or as she says earlier in the same poem, “piss soft into the shower.”
Or abscond altogether: “I think about taking a vacation” she says in the final poem, “Yesterday Is Gone and I had Nothing to Do with It.” This is subtraction as a positive prescription, as if a new eternity already awaits us somewhere in this life. The immediacy of today is our voluptuous dream.
by Dan Hoy
Dan Hoy is the author of Glory Hole and other poetry collections. He contributes to the multidisciplinary blog Montevidayo, and his personal website is www.thepinupstakes.com.