Aaron Kunin. (Fence Books, 2010)


When you write poems by restricting yourself to the 170 or 200 words of a vocabulary derived when a nervous habit of transcribing ambient language via a “binary hand-alphabet” mutated into the registration of melancholic phrases of “indeterminate origin” (“we have no choice, we have no choice”; “it won’t be easy and can’t be a pleasure, it won’t be easy and can’t be a pleasure”), and when you then further restrict yourself by tasking this idiosyncratic lexicon with “translating” the “prosody, syntax, and thematics” of Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” or Maeterlinck’s Pelléas and Mélisande, you run the risk of not being able to say what you want.  Released from that dubious freedom, you can instead convert habit into poetry, sequencing and resequencing your modest number of set elements into a syntax unchaperoned by familiar reason; alternatively, there’s the pleasure of finding you’re still semantically and rhetorically maneuverable even in such confinement. This is one “problem of this translation” in Aaron Kunin’s The Sore Throat & Other Poems: how and how much can the poet reload a private, nearly somatic language with personal affect once it becomes a vocabulary? Despite the Modernist aura invoked here by the relation to Pound, the volume neither says farewell to an idea nor escapes into impersonality but instead attempts “to inhabit my personal 170-word vocabulary as fully as possible.” And Kunin can, as long as we extend our sense of  “inhabit” to “use” and “fully” to “severally.” Take the word “can” for instance; it’s used both as noun (“a can of rats”) and auxiliary verb (“a moron can be right”). This full inhabitation of the term, a kind of part-of-speech alchemy, is a good way to deepen a restricted lexicon without expanding it. But it’s more than resource management—the two senses of “can” happen to denote possibility and containment, senses which might converge in a notion of capacity (both ability and volume). Here the poet’s choice demonstrates not only a resourceful dwelling within rules but a meditation on the rules themselves: what one can do with “can” within such confines. Kunin thus always ends up making poetic “sense” in that he brilliantly articulates the drama of negotiating strict form while also commenting upon it:


I’m inventing a machine

for concealing my desire.

And I’m inventing another

machine for concealing the

machine. It’s a two-machine

system, and it sounded like



Even when Kunin manages to wring logical entailment from his word hoard it’s always happily attended by the possibility of a concealed rhetorical absence, of this being one potential of the word group rather than a durable confession of person; but that itself is a confession of one’s interaction with form. And when Kunin offers logic’s opposite, an asyntacticality—“you can have, not my kind, a thing and / it it’s not, of thing if, I can have”—this too narrates an engagement with his chosen form, the pleasure of “no choice,” and thereby reconstitutes a rhetoric and affect of limits, the asyntactic capturing all the haltingness and qualification and cancellation of desiring speech. Both “message” and “mess” the “age” demands, the poems are poised perfectly between a presentation of forms and a form of presentation; when the last poem ends “I hear your voice as if it were my own,” that first pronoun, merely one of the 200 words and yet the crucial site of grammatical personhood and social action, rings both full and hollow.

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