Kelly Jean Egan reviews Elaine Kahn’s Women in Public

Elaine Kahn
Women in Public
City Lights Books, 2015
ISBN-10: 0872866815
ISBN-13: 9780872866812

Elaine Kahn’s debut book-length collection, Women in Public (City Lights, 2015), is redolent with the stench of puberty. At least, this is one way of describing Kahn’s linguistically-charged foray into the aesthetics of ugly. The book as a whole functions as a grotesque carnival of embodiment, and our speaker’s performance a type of poignantly raunchy clowning, an intentionally obnoxious and uncomfortable striptease aimed at the gaze itself.

If embodiment is the cornerstone of sexuality, why does the gaze etherealize women in public? This question hovers over the whole project in which Kahn caricatures the body’s less becoming attributes to monstrous proportions. Instead of seeking composure, a word that comes to mind given the phrase “women in public,” our speaker opts to inhabit this role of the monster–which will always be ultimately more sexual than the ideal, how can it not be?–and in doing so offers up her own body and sexuality as a vehicle for exploring the paradox of female embodiment in which “Every observation is perverse” (I Thought About It So It Must Have Happened).

In the opening poem “Negative Desire,” our speaker declares “The horror of myself / and the meanness of myself.” This line represents the linguistic engagement present throughout the book and heavily employed to create Kahn’s monster. There is something sophomoric about the word “mean” that conjures up those girls in middle and high school—hormonal, angry, and ready to pounce on pubescent shame. At the same time “meanness” carries the lack of refinement that is actually at the heart of the word, which originally meant low, base, sordid, or vile. There is something almost Shakespearean about our speaker’s awareness of language and creative and resourceful use of it, and her speaking from the taboo heart of all that is common.

The poem “Asperity,” occurring later in the book, overtly reinforces the poet’s interest in words and their branching meanings. “Asperity,” from the Latin for “rough,” could be a word that stands for this whole book, and that links it to older deployments of the word, which were descriptive but not inherently negative. The prominence of this word in the book (it appears as the title of a poem and within another poem), and Kahn’s interest in holding contemporary usages of words up to their original meanings causes one to wonder if she is not, by throwing so much ugliness at the reader, asking us to examine the negative connotations we associate with the concept of ugliness, and how these connotations color our world. Indeed, from the Old Norse, the root ugg is negative, but refers to what you might not expect: fear.

As singular meditations on a word that lack the swagger of our resident “I,” both “Asperity” and the poem “Love Mom” are something of outliers in the book, but they also serve as asides hinting at the book’s linguistic fuel. Here’s “Love Mom:”

A word meaning nothing
like what it sounds
crepuscular has to do with dim
light or things at twilight
like animals that are active at those times
bunnies are
crepuscular feeders
strange word

It is quite a romantic word, meaning-wise, but in this case we get the sense that it is not the meaning that attracted the poet. The word belongs in the book not for what it actually means but for what it sounds like it means. Calling to mind pus and vascular, the word’s sonic suggestion is something quite other than romantic, and this physicality makes it a part of a larger family of words Kahn uses to create the book’s highly sensory palette. It is a palette that reminds us that not all that is sensory is sensual; by blasting us with all that we fear and reject in the corporeal experience, Kahn seems to reprimand those who would fetishize an edited impression of the female body. Here, for example, is the beginning of the poem, “Adult Acne:”

In the damp sick
In the dough
In the chewed on chew of faces

Mercilessly, Kahn follows this description, with its emphasis on “chew,” just a few lines down with:

Holding my bland sandwich
in my non-dominant hand, I think
what could be worse, I think
what could be as bad?

Swollen, slack, poodly, blubber, cum, puke, spank, slicks, rub, thigh, soft, cottage cheese—these words all do similar work as chew. But just what work is that? On the one hand, there is Kahn’s mining of colloquial language for its bank of slum words, slum by virtue of a history of vulgar usage or connotation (spank, cum), though in doing so she is also rendering a world where the vulgarity of any remotely sexual (rub, slick), potentially neutral (slack, soft), or even highly romantic (crepuscular) word is brought to the forefront. I mean, how gross is this?

Red bright jam
on soft white bread

(I Thought About It So It Must Have Happened)

The density of Kahn’s sensory world, at once imagistic and material, could be called lush, decadent, even seductive, if it were not so ugly, and somewhere herein lies the point. Thighs, featured prominently in this book, are also an obligatory feature of any erotica, because the thigh is sexy. And yet, Kahn reminds us that because the thigh is sexy, if a thigh is not sexy, it is monstrous.

I squat
like a frog
in a warm peel of light
spider veins and teeth
presidential teeth

(Yesterday Is Gone And I Had Nothing To Do With It)

This book is not sexy, but it is sexual. It is not erotic, but that’s not to say the erotic is not present. If anything, it is anti-erotic. It reminds me of a dance performance I attended recently in San Francisco that showcased productions of women choreographers working from a feminist perspective. One piece that was particularly challenging to watch was Rebecca Bryant’s Suite Female: Part XXX, which featured a group of three women engaged in a photo shoot. From the start the spectacle was awkward, and not so much because we were watching the women get sexy for the camera—we’re all pretty used to seeing that—but because they were doing such a terrible job of it. The performance turned out to be a grotesque parody of satisfying the expectation of the gaze. There were full-on crotch shots, overdone puckers, and suggestively brandished kitchen utensils. In both the dance performance and Kahn’s performance in Women in Public, the posturing of the inverse but not opposite of sexiness creates a world whose very existence is an affront to the gaze that seems to say, be careful what you wish for.

But Kahn’s collection is more than simply a retaliation to society’s ogling of the female in public. It is also an inquiry into the self situated within a Plathean lineage of women’s identity poetry, and it is this inquiry that peers at turns through our speaker’s sardonic tomfoolery, reminding us just how not-simple the issue is. Inasmuch as our speaker’s vulgar clowning seems a sarcastic play off the confessional, her bites are shot through with a real vulnerability that emerges more nakedly toward the book’s close.

I am wearing cycling gloves. I’d like everyone
to put down their bran muffin for a
moment and consider the peace that comes
from staring into the eyes of dog.
Everyone needs someone to be themselves
around. But the moonlight is not the moon.

(Name Like An Empty Bag)

As it arcs to a close, the book enacts a type of un-masking, and in doing so examines the transition from public to private self and the paradox that lies therein—that the desire to be truly seen is a desire to reveal our private selves, and yet it is just this self that the public sphere does not acknowledge, if anything shuns. And so how is one, the female in particular, meant to connect in the public sphere in such a way that transitioning to the private is not fraught with a crisis of identity?

In her review of Kahn’s book, featured in Entropy, Alexandra Wuest discusses the predicament of the woman in public, asking, “…where does that body’s flesh end and the perception of flesh begin?” To continue her apt line of questioning, I ask, how does this predicament of the public manifest in the private sphere, in the speaker’s own perception of herself? By the end of the book, after the palliative of “Asperity,” the speaker begins to look back on and reckon with her act, and we see one self peel out of another—the clown remove and look down at her mask as though to question which face is more real.

I have seen a million
pictures of my face
and still
I have no idea

(I Know I Am Not An Easy Woman)

When it comes to locating the true self, there is no resolution to be had. In the end, our speaker throws her mask away:

….I do my best, loins,
I’ve grown tired of girding you.

Despite I
Empty out I
Sleeping out I

I am attracted to me?
It is fun to sit in me?

I finish the book.
I throw the book away.

(Name Like An Empty Bag)

Resignation forms a component of, though not the entirety of this ending. The speaker has had her say, but instead of driving any point home, she throws up her hands, foregoing the pretense of resolution for the opportunity to play. Is she negating herself, as too many women seem to have been trained to do? Or, is she affirming the trickster power of her shapeshifting elusiveness?