by Jennifer Karmin
flim forum press
Reviewed by CJ Laity
At the end of aaaaaaaaaaalice (that's eleven letter "a"s, the same number of "cantos" in this "travelogue"), Jennifer Karmin explains that the poems in her book (that are actually collages derived from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and a book called Beginning Japanese Part 2), are "word scores for polyvocal improvisation" that are "intended for reading, sound, and performance experiments." The author suggests, "every reading of this text-sound epic should produce new results."
Well, that may be the intention, but the bottom line is this is a book of poetry. Since it has two covers and is made out of paper, I am going to look at Karmin's book as a book, a book that will be read by its audience silently like any other book.
What we have here is something extremely experimental and completely anti-narrative. But just as it is within the chaos of subatomic particles that everything physical is formed, even within the randomness of these words a story develops. This story may be different for each reader, as the author seems to be suggesting, so I can only share with you the story that I get out of it.
While reading aaaaaaaaaaalice, I experience the story of a child growing up in Russia during the horrors of World War II, a child who escapes reality by means of fantasy. I sense the child's fantasies are exaggerated by some slight mental illness, as the language in this poetry often suggests manic thought patterns and the inability to concentrate on one thing at a time. If I stretch this theme out a little farther, it even seems that the fantasies absorb so much of the child's energy that they lead to something supernatural, that the voices swimming through the mind of this child are the result of reading the minds of others, others who are thinking similar but slightly different phrases, suggesting that we are all connected by our thoughts. If I take another step into the rabbit hole, the notion pops up that the thoughts are not from different people, but from many versions of the same person existing in parallel universes, in which one version of the self is thinking "it's never high" and another is thinking "it's not very high" and yet another is thinking "it's not at all high." In the last chapter of this book, the child seems to grow out of (or more precisely explode out of) her fantasy world to accept and understand her emotions as best she can.
That's the story I experience while reading Karmin's book. The question I have to ask myself is, how does Karmin tell this story without using any complete sentences or punctuation? She accomplishes so much so mysteriously. There is no way to completely describe the process during which a poem transcends the sum of its parts. All I can really do is describe the style of writing.
In the first ten chapters, Jennifer Karmin creates two styles of poetry. Open this book at just about any point and you will see an example of the first style on the left page and an example of the second style on the right page.
The poems on the left pages are mini debates about what is action and what is thought, what is internal and what is external, what exists in the rabbit hole and what exists outside of it. I really had to make a conscious decision about how I would read these poems. Each example of a left page poem is contained within lines printed in bold letters, either creating a sandwich by existing at the top and bottom of the poem, or wrapping around the left or right of the poem, sort of like a semi-circle, making the poem appear pregnant. The decision I had to make as I read each poem was whether to include the bold words in the poem, to read them as they appear as I viewed the page from left to right, or to read them as a poem or thought that exists independently from the rest of the poem. I ultimately chose to read them independently as if they were poem titles. So first I would read the words printed in bold face and then I would read the rest of the poem. Doing it this way turned the title of the poem into a metaphor for the rabbit hole, as the poem then existed inside the title. And since, for the most part, the poems are constructed of thought fragments about what we see, how we gesture or other random trivia swirling around in the head, what was inside the rabbit hole was composed of mental energy and the title of the poem appeared physical, like a cranium.
The poems that appear on the right pages always take the shape of a tree, which makes perfect sense, since Alice's rabbit hole was indeed at the foot of a tree. When I say the poem is in the shape of a tree, I mean that quite literally. Here's an example:
The right page poems are untitled list poems (perhaps even meant to be a continuation of the left page poems) about what we are, what we do, what we think, what we like, what we want, what we need, what we say, what we plan, what matters to us, and so forth. Once again, these poems are constructed primarily with thought fragments: "it matters / whether / we go / or / not / it / matters whether / we / want to go / or not / it matters whether / we use it / or / not / it matters / whether / we write / it or / not" (entire text of page 65). These poems suggest that the mental can be something physical (in this case, a tree) and they also serve as a great metaphor for how our thoughts branch out.
In the final chapter of this book, these two poetry styles abruptly disappear. The tree vanishes. The rabbit hole is filled as the text grows larger and bolder. On the final pages, the text can't even be contained on the page anymore. The thoughts are too large to be expressed adequately. I'm not exactly sure why, but I found the last chapter to represent acceptance, healing and freedom. I sensed a great release of something bottled up followed by great comfort. The voices in the head are finally silenced with a series of blank pages.
I found aaaaaaaaaaalice to be a truly a remarkable achievement. This book is different than anything else I've read. In it, Jennifer Karmin quite literally "plays" with words.
Information about how to purchase Jennifer Karmin's aaaaaaaaaaalice can be found by clicking here.
Sunday, May 16, 2010, 6 PM
Aaaaaaaaaaalice book release party
Cole's Bar, 2338 N. Milwaukee Avenue
Free / 21 & over
Note: Click Here to read the full review.