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Contemporary Verse Novels: The Anxiety of Reading Poems and Kimiko Hahn’s THE UNBEARABLE HEART

This book undoes a lot of the anxiety I have as someone who has to read a lot of poetry and has yet to discover more than two or three books of poems that I actually like and would want to read again.

Does that sounds shitty and ignorant?

I mean it, though. And this is one of the reasons I’m so drawn to book-length poems. I like narrative. I like characters. And plot and setting and drama. And while some may argue that these exist in poetry collections, I’ll say they’re easier to settle into and enjoy in book-length poems (or contemporary verse novels, which I have written about a lot here).

I mean, I have a lot of anxiety. Am I alone when I say that poetry is hard. It’s not like you can just pick up a book of poems and dive in and just read, and when I say read I mean, you know, read, like the way you did when you were a kid, or the way you do when you pick up a magazine or your favorite guilty pleasure novels (mine are those romance novels that feature neurotic career women who find love in the most unlikely suitors). These books fly by, you know? They’re easy, they offer a better world to escape to, and they don’t take forever to read.

Poetry, though. Sooo different.

If you’re someone who has a lot of experience reading poems, then this probably doesn’t apply to you, but I have to read more poetry than the average person and poetry still baffles me just about all of the time. So this is why, if I have to read poems, I like them to be chapters in a novel rather than poems in a collection. Still, it’s nice to have learned in poetry classes that poems don’t always have to mean anything; they can just be about sounds or images or associations between lines. What poetry school teaches is that the poem offers a personal reading experience to every reader. If you think you get what the poem is about, or if you think the poem is just about sounds, or colors, or a single image, that’s fine, as long as you can make an argument for it. And as long as you can make that argument convincing, your reading of the poem is no less valuable than someone else’s, even if it’s something the poet never even considered. And that’s nice. That’s comforting to know. Poems can just be poems. They don’t have to be hard and confusing and frustrating, and they certainly don’t have to be about one “right” thing. (It’s infuriating, isn’t it, the way poems tend to get taught in junior high and high school? Like there’s one right answer. Like the poems are about some thing? Some right thing? Why would there ever be a wrong answer when it comes to poetry? Seriously!)

OK, so, Kimiko Hahn.

I feel like this book, The Unbearable Heart, has a lot of those baffling poetry moments (for me these are poems with strange lineation or lineation I just don’t get, poems that aren’t narrative or bounce around from line to line, poems that are basically anything other than lineated prose), but at the same time, just when I was about to get confused or upset or frustrated in this madness that is poetry, Hahn would re-ground me in familiar territory — either a prose poem or a confession or an essay-like passage or, if nothing else, a few sentences or lines about “characters” I’d come to recognize. The “characters” in this book are all family members (which, as I wrote before, is always a great way to orient readers, because everyone understands family and issues surrounding family, not least of all the death of a mother).

I think this is the beauty of this collection. It is about so many things: family, yes, but also sex, garlic, boats, fathers, daughters, lovers, cocks, Orientalism, Said, Flaubert, sailors, tattoos, jewelry, and the list just goes on and on. Hahn has said that she likes her poems to feel spontaneous, surprising, and I didn’t quite get what she meant until I finished this book. There are surprises everywhere, moments of clarity or confusion and then clarification of that clarity or confusion and then tangential information provided or seemingly thrown in for fun or for serious theoretical reasons that seems no less important than those initial moments of clarity or confusion.

I could go on and on, but I won’t. What I’ll say instead is this:  I could read this book again and again, and I will. And I look forward to it. And this is probably one of about two or three times I’ve ever felt this way about a book of poems. (Then again, I’d definitely call this a Contemporary Verse Novel, especially because it’s so wonderfully subversive.)

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