by David Koehn
Reviewed by Scott Brennan
The poems in David Koehn’s first full-length collection, Twine, the winner of Bauhan Publishing's 2013 May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Prize, are impressive in their ambition and range. One of my favorites, “The Twittering Machine,” is a daring cross-genre prose poem. The title, taken from a Paul Klee painting, in which a clutch of singing birds stand upon the crank of a whimsical machine, frames the poem — Koehn's words, rather than Klee's birds, conveying the “song,” which comes to be a strong statement about the interconnectedness of history, art, chance, and memory. The poem initially explores the year 1879, the year Klee was born. There’s a litany of historical coincidences in each of the poem's four sections, information we might come across in an encyclopedia or deck of trivia cards. Did you know W. H. Woolworth, for instance, opened his first store in 1879? How many rounds did the longest bare-knuckle boxing championship match last?
Nice guess, but the correct answer is 136.
As the poem assembles its fascinating miscellany, the speaker tells the reader authoritatively to “turn the crank” (his language for “continue reading the poem”) of the twittering machine — a poem that initially does not seem very poetic at all. Each section advances us through the decades, causing broader and broader associations to be made as we move closer to the present. A cast of historical figures, from Niels Bohr to the pop star Madonna, make cameo appearances. Interestingly, each paragraph (we aren't intended to think of them as traditional stanzas) is pulled back into poetry by enigmatic, imagistic, three-line haikus. So, the form, perhaps inspired by the Japanese haibun — prose paragraphs attached to haikus — seems quite inventive to me, as the first section illustrates:
Turn the crank. In 1879, two bare-knuckled boxers fight the longest champion-
ship fight ever recorded. 136 rounds. Nine months later Paul Klee is born.
While Klee is in utero, FW Woolworth opens his first store, which fails almost
immediately. The intense light! "One eye sees, the other feels," he said. The first
railroad opens in Hawaii. In Menlo Park, New Jersey, Tom Edison flicks on his
incandescent lamp for the first time just as Klee crowns between his mother’s
legs. Wack.Churches of the Madonna. John Brahms completes the printing of
Tragic Overture just seconds later.
Tunisian red, box, ripe date,
The the way the poet brings his distinctive attitude to the details makes "The Twittering Machine" tweet so effectively. He refers to Thomas Edison as “Tom” and Johannes Brahms as “John” as if they’re buddies — a sharp move that calls attention to itself with its cocky, irreverent, punk-rock sensibility. The enthusiasm of voice, the imagination's confrontation with time, keeps my arm a-cranking, indeed, as the series of coincidences that signify randomness, disorder, and entropy face their counterpoint in the order art and poetry bring (temporarily, of course) to our lives.
I see such maturity of thought in other poems as well. In “The Auctioneer,”Koehn cleverly personifies Death, thus adding to the tradition of darkly comic monologues on the subject. I immediately think of "The Tourist from Syracuse" by Donald Justice and "Subtitle" by Weldon Kees. Koehn joins their ranks:
You have all gathered here to bid on what remains of one man’s life.
I am not here to tell you when he died or what he died of.
I am here to call out the items, though we have but a few,
and the rest of the goods will be auctioned off in unmarked boxes. . .
In this poem, we see Koehn’s ability to wear a mask, to adopt a voice, and to stay in character from beginning to end. (He does this equally well in another engaging poem, “The Town Crier.”) In “The Auctioneer,”Koehn demonstrates his flexibility of imagination, writing a poem that is as accessible as it is satisfying. I like his work most when he is darkly comic, as he is in "The Auctioneer." I know this is not a real auctioneer, it’s Death, and the enjoyment for me comes not in the maudlin subject matter, but in the act of joining in with him in the dark comedy. I nod approvingly at Koehn's ironic sensibility.
Koehn’s humor arrives in full force in another strong prose poem, “Spurge," which, I learned from Wikipedia, is a plant with both toxic and medicinal qualities, depending on how it is handled. The first stanza (or paragraph) begins brashly and fizzles intentionally into something we might look forward to in one of Berryman’s better Dream Songs:
I can make milk from burning spurge! From its milky white sap, from this grass
not even a cow can eat. There are studies upon studies about preserving mi-
corrhiza. . . its cortinariusglouliformis with abundant attached mycelium.
This highfalutin’mother earth network, this interconnectedness of all things. Yada,
yada, la-di-da, blah, blah, blah.
Here Koehn mocks excessive intellectual and linguistic precision — a preoccupation with always having to have the right fact, the right word — with a playfulness I begin to recognize as a stylistic trademark. In a way, such poems are as epistemological as they are delightful. There is scientific language in the poem, and we have to reconcile ourselves to it, but, as the mumbo-jumbo-that-must-mean-something-to-someone-but-is-Greek-to-me is handled, Koehn causes us to think about what we can and cannot know from language, and so in the poem I hear some of the difficult rightness of Deconstructionist theory as well as the cleverness the poet might have gleaned from writers like Lewis Carroll or Jorge Luis Borges. In “Spurge,” Koehn shows us he has internalized the strengths and limitations of the Modernists and Post-Modernists, and he’s on his way to stepping somewhere outside of their border.
Research, history, interesting facts recovered from the hurricane we know as the Information Age — combined with a cunning playfulness — they seem Koehn’s initial contribution to the wide open world of contemporary verse. We see him mining the encyclopedia and the technical manual (sometimes with tongue in cheek, sometimes not) for subject matter in “Spurge,” as well as in a number of other successful poems, including “On the Invention of Boxing Gloves” and “The Attempted Assassination of Jules Verne.” The spindle of research upon which many of the poems in Twine are spun might seem esoteric, but in Koehn's hands the out-of-left-field factoid becomes approachable, almost intimate knowledge. The history of boxing (or, in a broader sense, conflict), for instance, emerges as a motif in Twine. Koehn knows that when he discovers his triggering subject though research and anecdote rather than through autobiographical confession, the translation of his self-discovery can become as haunting as it is durable.
Koehn seems to synthesize a number of influences in Twine; I hear everyone from Catullus to Gerard Manley Hopkins to Jim Daniels to Elizabeth Bishop to Donald Justice. I only have a quibble with one habit of voice. Though I’m fond of Koehn’s muscular, Lowell-echoing lines like “Hippo-bellied/and bitter, bulbous in their bestiary masks” in “On the Invention of Boxing Gloves,” he seems less himself when he slips into the an overly poetic, almost Romantic mode we might find in a poem like Wordsworth's “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” — a much-loved poem I strongly dislike (okay, hate) in which descriptions of nature (in Wordsworth's case, daffodils), and human reflection upon it, are so gilded with special significance they seem, at least in our day and age, a little hokey. The hackneyed, Romantic sensibility so many bad readers continue to demand from poetry appears in lines describing fly fishing in “Steelhead”:
Over the uncertain stones, back-casting flies,
we waded, waderless, through the icy currents.
Our wrists using the fly rod to conduct the morning,
Feeling the weight of the four-count measurement
of air. . .
Or, a few lines later in the poem:
Three, let the wrist snap the rod forward like a wand;
Four, lay the fly, the black feather's of Ariel's magic,
down in the swift eddies of the Grande Ronde. . .
The trouble with the poem begins with the pathetic fallacy in the first line, in those "uncertain stones." (It is the anglers who are uncertain as they wade, not the stones, so when those stones are given human consciousness, the writer invites me to raise a Spock-like eyebrow of incredulity. From the get-go, the poem is too sentimental.) The casters use the fly rod, which is unfortunately compared to a magic wand, "to conduct the morning." (I wonder if the anglers are sharing one because “rod” lacks the "s" to form the plural; if the intent is to retain the singular, to transform "fly rod" into a collective noun in order to enrich its significance, the poet might be buying into what the clever advertising gurus at Orvis or Thomas & Thomas would like us to believe — that the fly rod, after you purchase it for $850, will become a vehicle for personal transformation. The result: too much specialness, more sentimentality.) In any case, now the status of anglers wading wader-less in the icy river is further glorified. They surpass even symphony conductors! They are capable of conducting the morning! Similarly, the air becomes more than air, though I doubt such profundity passes through a fly fisher's mind while he or she is casting. (The real profundity one hopes to experience is like a meditant's — to achieve the clarity of nothingness and, in exchange for the almost selfish effort of “going Zen,” to be rewarded with a feisty lunker capable of spooling an overpriced — though extremely cool — fly reel). Or, perhaps the language, which I admit is bordering on beautiful, is simply confusing to me on a literal level. How can one feel the weight of a “measurement of air” — and a “four-count measurement of air” at that? Excessive value, or not the right kind of value, is being imposed on the anglers' implements and actions. When we too intentionally single something out as being special, we inadvertently risk spoiling what is so special about it. In some of Koehn’s less successful poems, like “Under the Front Porch” and “Drift,” he strays a bit too far from what he does best — teasing the world, poking fun at (and then recovering) our place in it. He is better at out-Catullusing Catullus than he is at out-Wordsworthing Wordsworth.
Even so, it is abundantly clear the book's strengths overshadow the occasional wayward effort. A powerful attitude resides in Koehn’s consistent voice, in his distinctive cadence and eye for the interesting detail, all complemented by imagery that’s practically impossible to forget, as found in the opening poem of Twine, “The Tattooed Lady”:
One might ask what the cursive Molly
has to do with the map of Timbuktu,
or why the emperor and the dragon sit atop
a few lines of Latin.
One might even inquire as to why
the naked nymph
in the frame of the painting
has no tattoo.
But everything means
because it is part of her body.
Here, in this engaging ekphrastic poem, art and the human body are made one, and Koehn’s credible voice draws me in. I can hear an unobtrusive meter, appreciate each well-timed enjambment. There's a craftsman at work here. Not only that, but there's an interesting tension between the low and the high — between the grotesque tattooed lady and the “few lines of Latin.” My reading experience is as rewarding as the poem is memorable. Style is everything, and without it work fades quickly. Now that I have read Twine, I believe I could recognize a Koehn poem anywhere. Twine is an exceptional first book, and I am certain to revisit it often.
David Koehn's first full length manuscript, Twine, now available from Bauhan Publishing, won the 2013 May Sarton Poetry Prize. David's poetry and translations were previously collected in two chapbooks, Tunic, (speCt! books 2013) a small collection of some of his translations of Catullus, and Coil (University of Alaska, 1998), winner of the Midnight Sun Chapbook Contest. In 2015 Tupelo Press will be releasing Prosody by Donald Justice, edited by Koehn. More at DavidKoehn.com.
Scott Brennan, a writer and visual artist, lives in Miami, Florida. His work has appeared in Smithsonian, The Gettysburg Review, The Sewanee Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Literary Review, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of the 2013 Scotti Merrill Memorial Prize given by the Key West Writers' Workshop and Literary Seminar.