Nineteen Nights in a Mountain of Feathers Means Nothing to Me

Mommy must be a mountain of feathers, Kim Hyesoon (93pp, Action Books)
Nineteen Nights in San Francisco
, Christine Kennedy
     (circa 27pp, West House Books & The Cherry On The Top Press)
It Means Nothing To Me
, Geraldine Monk and David Annwyn
     (circa 33pp, West House Books)

A phantasmagoria of bile, rats and outrage, the poems of Mommy Must Be a Mountain of Feathers set out to shock, vomiting up foul and terrifying images couched in the form of absurdist fables. Kim Hyesoon sets out her stall in the first poem, 'The Road to Kimp'o Landfill' (not one for the squeamish, this):

     I kissed in a place where garbage came down like rain
     I kissed where I vomited all night long
     Every time I sang, vomit flew in

As I say, there are rats too, hundreds of them, and it seems they're pretty miffed, often with good reason:

     A hairy leg enters our room  It's him He thrashes his body around,
     bam bam, shaking the house, but only the leg enters,
     toenails rip up Mommy's eyes, ears,
     the foot in a leather shoe stomps on Mommy's skirt
     Mommy isn't breathing
          [from 'Conservatism of the Rats of Seoul']

I like this poem. It turns on its head the convention that the narrator shouldn't die within the narrative and reminds me of a story I wrote at school about a family of worms terrorized by a robin, which ended 'and then I wasn't alive' (Mrs Cheetham didn't like my story and I doubt she'd like this poem). 'Conservatism of the Rats of Seoul' is narrated by a baby rat that gets eaten by a cat. It feels allegorical but I find it frustrating that I can't pinpoint the nature of the allegory. 

I think this is symptomatic of a larger problem (mine, not Kim Hyesoon's): I'm not a feminist critic with even a basic working knowledge of South Korean literature and society (though Don Mee Choi's excellent introduction does a good job of filling in some of the cultural background), and I can't pretend to understand what's going on in this book half the time. It all feels like sharp and nastily brilliant absurdism but I can't be sure the work isn't more politically specific in its aims than I'm able to fathom.  This isn't to say that the only people who would enjoy this book are the aforementioned South Korean feminist critics. It's just to say, well, forgive me for floundering a bit. Sorry.


Nineteen Nights in San Francisco 'is a sequence composed from text found in an out of date bed and breakfast guide to California' (see back cover - I could have re-cast the sentence but it seemed apt enough and it would have resulted in me spending lots of time trying to write something more pithy and coming up with a long, rambling, ugly sentence that said the same thing and probably also included a lengthy redundant bit in parentheses). It was written, scrounged if you prefer, by Christine Kennedy, who has apparently never seen America. If this all sounds rather unpromising, and you're on the verge of making a mental note that this Thompson fellow gets a rum lot of books and wondering what he has done to offend Mr Stride, I would beg to differ. This little pamphlet, from West House Books/ The Cherry On The Top Press, couldn't be more fun if it were bright yellow (which it is) and had pictures in it (which it has). The cut-ups and collages are quirkily imaginative and the author's joy in found language and typography is infectious. I can't reproduce the different type-faces here, but juxtapositions such as:

     Hotel Griffon

     A run-down sailors' inn of
     clean contemporary design
     attracts mostly corporate clients
     on a romantic getaway

     Quietly elegant
     with exposed marble vanities

     B e a u t i f u l   v i s t a s   o f   t r a f f i c

are hard to resist, especially since, as I say, there are pretty pictures, and the production values are so high.

But I'm haunted by the mountain of feathers, so let's recap: I've never read anything quite like Kim Hyesoon's work. It's angry and jagged and her imaginative world is brilliantly realised:

     I came to find a peach in this life
     I came to find the red stain from the bite
     of the peach you spat out as you departed
     They say you are sick in the world of ghosts
     but I am in the frozen mountain valley of a snowy night
     I think I must have been possessed by the field of snow
          [from 'A hundred year old fox']

There's a sense of being lost in an unintelligible and hostile dreamscape that pervades this book of nightmares stacked on nightmares. It could all appear rather highly strung to an ignorant outsider like me if Hyesoon were less accomplished at handling brutal images. Instead her poetry reads as a claustrophobic meditation on imaginative repression. Indeed, Don Mee Choi's introduction makes clear the effect that Hyesoon's horror of a blacked out blank canvas, haunted by a sense of literature unwritten, un -writeable or simply erased by years of official censorship has on her writing. And the pressure behind this work, drawing on a palpable need to address a historical and present crisis in a personal way, irrespective of the unknown (to me at least) details, gives it tremendous power:

     Everyone, please try to talk. Watch how speech disappears. Today's
     words walk away into the forest. They play a golden guitar, leaning
      against a worn-out wooden chair.

     Feed the fire and try talking a bit. Know how to shout? Someone is
     erasing my words. Get erased, erased, newspaper bits are blowing
     about. Green, colored, star, crumbles. Golden notes fall out, and
     from somewhere a green snake appears and eats only the pauses.
     I'm out of breath. Out, of, breath...
           [from 'WORDS 1. How the Last Words Looked']


But let's leave it there and turn to another West House pamphlet: It Means Nothing To Me approaches deletion and censorship from a completely different perspective. In this sequence of sparse fragments, the authors (Geraldine Monk and David Annwn) use crossings-out and parings-down as a means to meditate on the ambiguous phrase 'it means nothing to me'. 

It's initially difficult to get a handle on this sort of work, which relies heavily on the reader's willingness to accept that the exercise is worthwhile one without really being told what it is in advance (people watch Lost
though, don't they, so why's this sort of thing considered such a problem in poetry?). And while such concealment and conventional-connection breaking is clearly part of the concept, it makes it hard to tell whether such work succeeds as 'good writing' in any clearly definable sense: responses to this book will be more than usually different, given that there's not really even a surface 'meaning' to latch on to, so how can you judge it? All the connections will mean or not mean different things to different people. Aargh - reviewers' nightmare! 

But who cares, right? - I'm enjoying it and you might too. So let's just sit down and have a chat now we've got the 'make your own mind up about content versus concept' stuff out of the way. And anyway, from the start there's a sort of dream logic, which if you're like me you may find rather appealing and beautiful:

     full gift
     loved ones
     far-far expire

     locations redeemable

     evenings quietly
     being am
     midways up blitz

     you foxglove globe

There's a sense of words being deliberately disconnected from their usual contexts and held up to the light to be seen more clearly. It Means Nothing To Me reads a bit like an exterior stream of unconsciousness in which the fragments of found text, considered as something separate from the collaborators, appear to create their own patterns (though of course this is part of the design so you could say the authors are being somewhat disingenuous). Words mutate, 'fiction' becomes 'friction' and puns and echoes abound, giving the pamphlet an illusory musical coherence that fights against apparent textual meaninglessness. 

But setting aside issues of textual authority and authorial intention (and I think that's, to an extent, what the authors want - so hmmm, doesn't that negate the whole idea? Ah well, plus ca change), the experience of reading the text reminds me a bit of the Ouija-effect, in that meanings sometimes seem to spring from random words and letters and string themselves together, and the reader/ participant can't be absolutely certain who is in control, if indeed anyone is. But in the final analysis, you feel that something is happening and that it has a kind of significance. To quote from the most straightforward passage (no page numbers here, so I can't be more specific):

     Hold it: Is there something in

     three trillion trillion, dearies
     of our own

     flashbacker: body's a rude
     taking itself

And read in another way, It means nothing to me
feels almost like an installation piece - I can imagine its glittering transparent letters hanging from a mobile in the Turbine Hall (or something). What I'm trying to say is that it needs to be wandered in/ around and looked at from several angles (a special platform in the middle where beautiful people serve you vodka in glasses made of ice would be nice too - West House take note) with your mind wide open. 

In summary, this is a bold work, questioning the convention that poetry, whether 'created', 'collaged' or 'found' (whatever all that means these days), is a simple vehicle for verbal communication, and that certain terms of reference, such as meaning and the writer-reader role, may be assumed. It's as much about musical and visual elements as conventional textual ones. And the reader becomes a kind of observer of the work being recreated in his or her head; an active participant in the creative process in a way that they're not when they're skimming the latest Roddy Lumsden, Chris McCabe, D. S. Marriott or whatever (and I admire all three of those writers by the way). Geraldine Monk and David Annwn show us that language can be used in a more classical and detached way than we're (or at least I'm) used to and still produce something that's both beautiful and, on its own terms (which could be your terms too if you pick up a copy, and I recommend you do), meaningful.

So three books/ pamphlets, each with their own challenges (conceptual, cultural or genre-bending), but each with their own rewards too.  We're incredibly lucky to have such an enormous range of contemporary poetry available in print these days. Maybe we should show our appreciation by taking the odd chance and buying something a bit out of the ordinary.

         Nathan Thompson 2009