by Reid Mitchell
Kristine Ong Muslim, A Roomful of Machines, Searle Publishing, 2010. xiv + 104 pgs.
Readers of Cha are already familiar with Kristine Ong Muslim's quirky, powerful poetry. They might not know that some of her poems have been nominated for the Science Fiction Poetry Association's Rhysling Prize. If they are as ignorant as this reviewer, they would not have known there was such a thing as science fiction poetry.
I doubt very much that Muslim sits down and says to herself, "This time I'll write a science fiction poem, and next time a modernist lyric." And yet a common approach runs through her poems—or should I say the same uncommon approach? Judging from her interest in science fiction poetry, and from the poems in A Roomful of Machines, I suspect that Muslim knows Avram Davidson's speculative fiction masterpiece, "Or All the Sea With Oysters." The plot and characters of this classic are only so-so, but its conceit is a revelation that seems obvious once it is made: paperclips are the eggs, clothes-hangers the larvae and bicycles the adult forms of an otherworldly species, something confirmed by the way in which at some moments you have no paperclips, and other times too many and so on. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, the first human who realizes this is murdered by the bicycles to silence him.
Choosing among her many published poems to create her first book-length collection, Muslim has selected those about "things"—inanimate objects. Except in her through-the-looking-glass world, inanimate objects are generally animated and often thoroughly alive. A number of them are talkative and quite demanding; in Muslim's world, there is rarely silence. In general, we might say that her room filled with machines is as sinister as a world filled with paperclips, clothes-hangers and bicycles.
A bowl is a "primeval mouth." A bucket is a "dirty mouth." Furniture can feel thirst, as well as boredom; and houses can feel fear. The herbs on top of a bowl of soup, the soup in itself a complete civilization, speak. "The streets and sidewalks/slurp up the pedestrians then spit them back." Seaweed takes revenge. One shoe walks off and leaves the other behind. Inanimate things can be dangerous and hostile. "Some design flaws in the housebuilder's blueprint" result in a house that has to be fed "visitors/from out of town."
Muslim's objects are capable of marvelous transformations. One poem has "a canary which could/grow into a whale." A coffee cup changes its shape. A glass paperweight offers to serve as an eye, "your pearl of bleached sun."
Others are liminal. Clothes hanging in the closet—in "closetland"—trap "light between the folds"; and the poet's fingers "disappear at the boundary between fabric and air." Yet in the poem that "Closetland" immediately precedes, closeted clothes trap not light but "a tiny packet of darkness." Doors close off houses from the outside world; doors open them up and dissolve the inside/outside distinction.
In Muslim's poems, things also die—houses, cereal boxes, coffee mugs, soda cans, tissue boxes, ice cubes—and often the poet is the murderer: "I widen the slit on its belly. I clutch/at its entrails, pull them out one by one" ("Death of a Tissue Box"). Or is this ritual suicide?
Furthermore, as we read further, flesh and blood become mere things. For example, a smoker's lung gone bad is a "whizzing, dying machine" with its own memory. Simone Weil's great insight about The Iliad is that Homer shows that death turns humans into things; in "The Beautiful Season," Muslim tells us that "Death is convenient only/because it is irreversible. The meat cuts/cannot be put back together into a body."
The final thing that haunts the volume is "nothing" itself. One poem says, "Even nothing wants in" and another poem is "A Study of Nothing."
Nothing has a spine made of nothing,
eyes made of translucent nothing,
hunger made of nothing.
In a poem later in the volume, Nothing even commits suicide. (I remember a full color Gahan Wilson cartoon that I'd like to show Ms. Muslim: priests and musicians wearing robes emblazoned with N's leading a religious procession to an altar painted with N's, and a stranger asking "Is Nothing Sacred?")
Many poets have words and images to which they frequently return, words that for them seem unavoidable. The question is whether this creates a system of words and images that draws a collection together or if it is mere carelessness. A Roomful of Machines has its own vocabulary that creates unity. One of Muslim's keywords is "husk": the dead shell of something once alive, or the shell that something alive has crawled out from. "Ghosts," another frequent visitor to this set of poems, where even fish have ghosts, are once described as "the tortured husks we inhabit." (They are also "creatures of unpain.")
Another recurring word is "ink"—ink, a thing that speaks or seems to.
We are idiots grappling at the mercy
of language, of art. Most of the time,
the pages are blank. The words area just
random ink stains made by a spinster. ("From the point of view of a book.")
Another word that crops up in many of Muslim's poems is "hunger." For example, the poet sees the reconstruction of an archaeopteryx in a museum and recognizes its hunger. Things are dangerous because they are hungry, whether they are flesh or blood, or ghosts or machines.
Among all these things, where is the poet, or the poet's persona? In one poem, the poet describes her muse as "a mechanical muse"—headless, a husk, a drone. Yet for all of its mechanism, she thinks of it as "a manifestation of the right hand/of a dead artist."
Only I am sure
it is that particular hand because
I have seen its visions, tasted
its sickness, fought against
its memory, dreamed of
Is the muse a thing or a ghost? A ghost not of a whole person but merely a hand? In any case, this muse is not one that inspires, but one that invades and conquers.
"Center of Gravity" appears, appropriately, in the middle of A Roomful of Machines. From the point of view of the floor of the poet's house, it deconstructs her body, slicing her into separate pieces:
The floor sees
what it wants to see: toes, limbs,
the torso, the white of the scalp
where the hair parts, a doppelganger
taking a step back, transforming.
But these meat slices do rejoin into a body, a doppelganger that haunts the poet.
Muslim makes explicit reference to Wallace Steven's "The Emperor of Ice Cream," another poem about our corporeal world and the presence of death. "There's the rhythm of the emperor/of ice cream." One wonders, reading these incisive lyrics about common place things, where Death visits so frequently and The Soul makes an occasional house call, if Emily Dickinson is not also one of the ghosts who wanders among these poems. In Poem 640, Dickinson wrote of
a cup –
Discarded of the Housewife
Quaint –or Broke –
Muslim describes "The Death of a Coffee Cup:"
It is chipped. I feel for its pulse—
feeble through the porcelain layer
where its will resides.
And she lectures a tea cup.
A chip on your porcelain lip
means the Master will soon
That "Master" is very Dickinsonian and it would be surprising if Muslim was not cognizant of the American master of short poems that link death to common objects.
Not only a unified collection, A Roomful of Machines creates a fully-realized world, with its own rules. There is considerable though not absolute consistency of tone and logic, albeit dream logic, from poem to poem.
You may not want to experience this world, but are you absolutely sure it's not the world in which you already live?
And watch your mouth around bicycles.