Jennifer Kronovet’s "Awayward" is Way Inward

Approaches To Reading Avant-Garde Poetry

By Jake Marmer

Published October 28, 2009.
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Reading Jennifer Kronovet’s recent collection “Awayward,” you may think she’s translating from another language, transposing foreign syntactical structures, turns of phrase, rhythms, tonalities — a whole unfamiliar psyche — into English.

Kronovet’s speculative original is forever inaccessible, and can only be known through her translation. “Known”, though, would be to overestimate its accessibility because, while at all times confident and articulate, her poetry remains exotically alien and outside of the normal conventions of meaning.

If anything, it is the language of interrupted daydreaming, free-associative thought fragments, cut up and juxtaposed images — both moving and still. French philosopher Jacques Lacan claimed that the unconscious is structured like a language; Kronovet shows us a language structured like the unconscious.

Consider this poem:

Faithfulness

A whole place changes in a month
like a man marrying a horse.

You don’t want to stick your face
into this new intersection

Even though it doesn’t smell
like rubber any more:

A face quickening into faith
that you’re still either syrup or golem.

While admittedly, there’s no right or wrong way of reading this piece, I’d caution you from trying to crack it like a riddle: however we might force it, our traditional meaning-making techniques are not particularly helpful here. Just let the images and the sound of the language pass through you. As well as the connotation of “life” that its synonym “quick” has (as in the phrase from the First Epistle of Peter, transformed by modern cinema into “The Quick and the Dead”), the face that “quickens” into faith is as much a grammatical, alliterative image as it is visual. One can imagine a cartoon-like face actually stretching out, transforming into a faith — a result of self-operating metaphysical surgery realized externally.

Both syrup and golem can definitely be the unfortunate side-effects of such surgery: the latter as a mode of robotic human automation devoid of creative thought, and the former as a manufactured sweetener of New Age-like angst-free self-deception — a high-fructose corn syrup for the soul.

What exactly does betrothal to a horse have to do with faithfulness, I can’t fathom, but I do agree with the author’s thinking that it is not an intersection I’d want to find myself upon. It reminded me of the horse’s head in the bed from “The Godfather” and Lenny Bruce’s piece “Psychopathia Sexualis (I’m in Love with a Horse From Dallas).” Not only because of the obvious correlation of images, but also because, ultimately, they are both grotesque, even if Bruce is also comic, though in a much more cerebral, avant-garde way. In the next verse, the riddance of the smell of rubber implies some sort of post-industrial transcendence. The elusive subject rises above the constant smell of machinery, burnt rubber, polluted air and other such odors, or at least believes it has done so.

My attempt at reading the piece is avowedly subjective. With a poem like this, a product of an abstract dream, the best we can do is to try digesting it, too, as a dream — to glide through it, and enjoy the vistas of free-associative landscape it opens up. The great thing about the piece is how well it lends itself to such process, not only opening the doors to readers’ imaginations, but also providing a funky door-mat, mischievous irony that cleans off our interpretation-dirtied shoes, offering a whole new start for thinking about thinking.

Here are some more poems from Jennifer Kronovet.

The Uniforms. Heh. Waitress, Nurse.

Wheel as wheel.
Bull as bull.

A kind of clean.
The dirty kind.

A line reaches
from one person to another.

Army-style staff meeting:
You could do better.

Irony? Irony stored
in my stomach like toast.

We pee squatting
with our butts so close

to the ground. Us girls.

Sediment

We met at the bottom of the river.
We you lie, your teeth fill with lead.

Here is a handful of current.
When your teeth are lead, your mouth sinks.

Read it properly: scar tissue.
You repeat yourself: mud mud mud mud.

We met at the bottom of a thought.
When your mouth sinks, floating = the little walk away.

Where do conversations go?
You cannot swallow enough to lower the tide.

Sky Bridge

I name the railing where
I stand like myself before:
Hebrew lessons or
tongue on the roof
of my mouth. Or teams.
Each paper thought
attached to the next
with wax to become
by myself or seeing
myself stopped
on the bridge.
Now,
I am willing to undo
safely, one ligament
at a time – but then,
you’re in a funny hat
and we stare
down at the traffic
like animals who never
went to high school.


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