Reviews / September 2012 (Issue 18)

Aesthetics of Imperfection: Paine's The Sounding Machine and Kitano's Birds of Paradise

by Alice Tsay

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Christine Kitano, Birds of Paradise, Lynx House Press, 2011. 58 pgs.
Patty Paine, The Sounding Machine, Accents Publishing, 2012. 78 pgs.

In 1936, W.B. Yeats lineated Walter Pater's prose description of the Mona Lisa and included the following in his edition of the Oxford Book of Modern Verse:

She is older than the rocks among which she sits;
Like the Vampire,
She has been dead many times,
And learned the secrets of the grave…
And all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes,
And lives
Only in the delicacy
With which it has moulded the changing lineaments,
And tinged the eyelids and the hands.

Reading Christine Kitano's Birds of Paradise and Patty Paine's The Sounding Machine, these lines came to mind as a predecessor for these two recent collections of poetry. Famously controversial, Yeats' decision was an assertion that poetry can be retrieved from unexpected sources, a project that Kitano and Paine have taken on as well. Aside from a few poems, all three share the free verse form deployed in similarly hefty lines. Beyond the superficial, however, they all have a haunting quality that derives from the way they give new intention to familiar people and familiar words, the way they reveal the accrual of human experiences that linger just on the outskirts of the visible and articulate.

In the manner of Yeats, Paine and Kitano both incorporate a range of found documents, quotations and overheard voices into their work. For them, however, these pieces are often fragmentary, as if they are shards of a broken mirror they are trying to piece together. Paine's "My Mother Stepping from the Tub" even offers its own discovered poem, an epigram whose words come from an issue of The Annals of Surgery dated 1905, just between Pater and Yeats:

Cancer invades, conquers and destroys
the body of its victims, not by uniform
arithmetical progression, but in a geometrical
or constantly accelerating ratio of progress.
The late stages are manifold more rapid
than the early stages … the disease radiates
in a sphere … like light, heat and all
radiations, it follows the laws of cubes.

Where Pater's description surprises by veering from the myth of La Gioconda, the joyful one, Paine has chosen a scientific passage that throws a curveball with its unexpected turn to abstraction and light. Both transform the human body by seeing it outside of time.

Of course, the tenor of Kitano and Paine's poems is not quite the same as in Pater's Victorian gothic, and comparing the two is more useful than maintaining a dialogue between all three. For example, the two poets share an affinity for using images of animals, with "use" perhaps being the operative term: oddly enough, though animals are everywhere in both collections, no particular love for them emerges. Kitano describes a dishwasher's overheated red hands as looking "like two orange koi/swimming in and out/of the cup's mouth" in "Luis's Hands" and recalls drawing pictures "of squirrels shot dead with a pellet gun" by her father in "Birds of Paradise." Later in that poem, tomato "blooms div[e] out/from wrinkled shells, unfurling/thin petals—pale, wet butterflies," a metaphor that transforms the blossoming of a flower into something mildly repulsive. More viscerally, the poem "Gut Strings" considers how

…The cello's gut
strings are made from sheep
intestines; the guts are pulled
streaming from their still
pulsing bodies. To allow
the organs to cool risks
the honesty of the string.
But too many gut strings ring
false, something goes wrong
between the death and the uncoiling…

The strings are made, the guts are pulled. The passive voice in which slaughter is related here helps it become secondary to the narrative arc contained in the slippery rhyme of string/ring/wrong. Though the poem powerfully depicts a musician's empathetic connection to her instrument, death gets lost, or perhaps misplaced: where at first the sheep's bodies are "still pulsing" when their intestines are taken out, a few lines later death precedes "the uncoiling." Death returns as a theme in "A Girl Visits the Bedside of a Dying Man," in "Drowning," in "Untwinned," but as with the animals, signification functions at a slant.

The Sounding Machine, whose cover shows a flock of oil pastel doves converging viciously on a point, employs comparable images of human and animal bodies, battered by life and often dead or verging on that state. "Prey" describes a victim "sliced/from the herd, dragged/from the din of hooves." In "My Mother Stepping from the Tub," Paine describes her mother performing the action of the title, "a rain-drenched bird, feathers clinging/to the ruined architecture/of her body." The poet retreats from emotion in "Ars Poetica," the first poem of the collection. In it, the narrator declares that

Even in death

a bird is not a blade that cuts
to the quick of our loss, it's just

a splayed thing, something to be
stepped around, for decomposition to have

its efficient way.

This insistence on the physicality of the animal, the refusal to let it become a metaphor, has just the opposite effect. A bird may not be a blade, but it is never just a bird. "[S]omething to be/stepped around," however, is a telling phrase. Intentionally or not, it offers the possibility that things lend themselves to the work of language not only when placed into simile and metaphor but, like the empty spot in the sky that one must look at in order to see fainter stars at the periphery, provide a point of focus around which meaning can be arrayed.

Alongside these liminal states and fragile forms, The Sounding Machine and Birds of Paradise offer us the waking dreams of the insomnia-plagued Kitano and the reconstructed voices of Paine's mother and father, descriptions of photographs and fragments of medical records, news reports, immigration documents. Each poet delves into her family history, probing at her own hybrid identity—Kitano as Korean- and Japanese-American, and Paine as the child of a South Korean woman and an American G.I. Breakups, divorces, deaths, partings, illnesses and sufferings run through each book like a trail of hurt—but to what end? "I crushed my chest and pulled out a string of songs," Paine quotes from a line by Cheng Mengjia. "[S]omeone is waiting for me to die," Kitano writes in "Gut Strings," "to crack my bones open in search of music." It is not quite the sound of lyres and flutes emerging through a succession of graves, but Pater would have understood.

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