Thursday, May 10, 2012



“Ligature Strain” from Ligature Strain: Poems by Kim Koga
(Tinfish, Kāne’ohe, HI, 2011)

OK. My worst fear has been realized. I have come upon something I simply don’t know how to read WRITE OR SPEAK ABOUT CLEARLY. I can read all the words, and can even make (some) sense of them, but I am left with a deep uncertainty that I have the slightest idea what is really going on here, narratively speaking. I can think of no other way to read this book EXCEPT AFFECTIVELY.

I want to emphasize that while I am unsure about the narrative aspect of these poems, I am completely struck by their affectivity. Affectivity is a way to mean. Perhaps the most successful poems are the most affective, however opaque they may be at the level of narrativity.

They creep me out, they amaze me, they are very much JUST LIKE LIFE. Who feels it knows it. Tho no one knows what it means.

The first thing you will notice if you’ve been reading this series of reviews is that I haven’t begun with a poem transcription. That’s because, while the cover calls this a book of poems, it doesn’t read like a book of poems to me, it reads like one poem. Admittedly, there are blocks of text on each page, with white space under them, which could indicate endings and new beginnings, but, textually speaking, I can’t see where one ends and the next begins. I decided not to transcribe the whole book. It’s another example of a “strange mereology.”

A ligature being what ties one thing to another, or to itself (as in surgery), perhaps this is the first ligature strain.

Ligature Strain is a series of poems (or a serial poem) (or a poem) about pregnant beavers / beaver fetuses. It’s (perhaps) a poem about birth. Though I’m not sure whether the fetuses are actually born by the end. They seem to be inside and then outside and then inside again.

When a mammal gives birth the ligatures holding the body in a certain shape relax (are stretched) (are strained) so the bones can widen and the birth take place. Perhaps that is a second strain.

My use of first strain, second strain, etc., is my narrative convenience only, and indicates nothing about priorities, etc. Perhaps all the strains are synchronous. I can’t even tell whether what I take to be the birth and or non/birth of the beaver fetuses does take place in time.

There’s a myth that male drivers, however lost, will never ask for directions. I don’t know how true that myth is, many myths are true, but I do know it doesn’t apply to me. So: I will let Susan M Schultz, editor of the series in which this chapbook appears, help me out. She describes Ligature Strain as follows:

… a fleshy investigation of beavers giving birth. The chap is quirky. Beavers? I remember seeing a documentary about beavers where the filmmaker placed a camera inside a beaver lodge. The beavers--bless them--sat around having committee meetings in their lodge. Occasionally, one would dive out into the cold waters of the river. But mostly they talked a lot among themselves when they weren't chomping at trees. Koga gives us the beaver feminine (say with a French accent; after all she got her MFA from Notre Dame), complete with pre- and after-birth pink skin, and nursing baby beavers. It’s a world like ours--full of transience, fluids (of many kinds), and “echo locations.” Here’s a quotation: 

secure tree to give birth lined in socks of
gray and swimming pink. sound is
absorbed and the pink fleshes shock and
swarm in their sacs. echo locate. echo
locate. but. you. are. lost. 

Don Mee Choi recommended Kim's work to me; it was Don Mee who translated Kim Hyee Soon’s poems spoken by sometimes pregnant rats. Perhaps Kim Koga was influenced by the other Kim's use of animals to show us our own lives, our births and deaths. In any case, it's a lovely, odd little book.

(Susan M Schultz, “Leave it to Beavers: Kim Koga's _ligature strain_ from Tinfish Press”, at Tinfish Editor’s Blog, 23 Aug 011]

OK. That didn’t help much. I get what she gets, and I get that she doesn’t really get it either, except at the same level I do. Affectively. But I tend not to believe that the main point of this book is to show us “a world like ours”, to “show us our own lives, our births and deaths.” I think, rather, that it shows us the world of beavers. Tho that’s not quite right, either. Of course there are aspects that are like ours, that overlap with ours in some most peculiar and potentially horrifying ways. But the beavers aren’t metaphors. Here’s a poem (?) a section (?) that exemplifies both the difference and the overlap … the strangeness …

(I’m going to lineate what’s (mostly) set square margins left and right)

reinsulated in winter a dawn
where the beavers live, snow wet
and dry in frozen flowing water
wherever the new pink fleshes leak
and freeze like icicles
infertile pond
the beavers leave the gate open
and hail away to cities and in habit
your water. fill cases of sewer detritus
small pipelines of little bits of pink
fleshes – come for teeth and shower
nozzles – you bathe in squirming pink

Somehow the movie Psycho comes to mind. This reads to me as if yes, there is a ligature connecting the beaver’s lives to our lives. But we are not them and they are not us, and their lives do not show us ours, or vice versa. It is rather more as if we are both trapped in some same horror show garden of earthly delights.

I suppose it’s possible to read the beavers’ leaving the gate open etc as either a) a metaphor, or b) something that actually happens: they sluice away the stillborn, which get into our water supply. I really don’t know. Beaver life is certainly not my area of expertise.

I’m going to quote one more section/poem/whatever, for two reasons, because Koga does something interesting with identity:

a scintillating beaver she was – she
sheds her skin her skin pink and
new streaked with blood and left
without its protective fur. a whole
molting process for winter and each
season the pink comes through.

the pink flesh attaches and drinks mothers
milk from your pink teat bits of red
blood cells pass too. pink gums and gray
lidded eyes paw and gnaw.

pink squirming fleshes and new pink skin
streak your blood and appetite.

The first identity “confusion” (and I not only scare quote confusion I also use it advisedly) is between the mother and the fetuses/newborns. There are so many ligatures attaching most mammals to their young, at least for a time. Hormones, etc. Which isn’t to decide whether motherhood is natural or any such thing. It’s merely to say that here, in this poem, pink is used to make it difficult for the reader to know when the babies are in question, or when the mother is, or whether it’s important to make such a distinction when the pink that comes thru is equally that of the mothers and the nurslings.

The second confusion comes when Koga introduces the you, pulling the reader into the mass of “pink squirming fleshes.” Confusion is perhaps the wrong word here (yes, I’ve been playing you); I think the word I’m looking for is ligature.

I think what Koga has done in this book is to forego the kind of narrative that makes distinctions in favor of the kind of writing that creates an eco-system in which distinctions between us are not lost but are rather somewhat moot. Beavers are no more a metaphor for our lives as we are for theirs. She leaves us all squirming, pink and more or less helpless.


[Editor’s Note: This is one of 50 reviews written, mas o menos, in 50 days.  While each engagement can be read on a stand-alone basis, there’s a layer of watching the critic’s subjectivity arise in a fulsome manner if the reviews are read one after another.  So if you have insomnia and/or are curious about this layer, I suggest you read the 50 reviews right after each other and, to facilitate this type of reading, I will put at the bottom of each review a “NEXT” button that will take you to the next review.  To wit: NEXT.  And an Afterword on John's reading process is also available HERE!]


John Bloomberg-Rissman is somewhere towards middle of In the House of the Hangman, the third section of his maybe life project called Zeitgeist Spam (picture Hannah Hoch painting over the Sistine Chapel) The first two volumes have been published: No Sounds of My Own Making, and Flux, Clot & Froth. In addition to his Zeitgeist Spam project, he has edited or co-edited two anthologies, 1000 Views of 'Girl Singing' and The Chained Hay(na)ku Project, and is at work on a third, which he is editing with Jerome Rothenberg. He is also deep into two important collaborations, one with Richard Lopez, one with Anne Gorrick. By important he means "important to him". Anyone else want to collaborate? He blogs at Zeitgeist Spam.

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