Toxic Flora by Kimiko Hahn
“Above all, I adore the language of science. Language, itself, is the attraction,” Kimiko Hahn declared in an interview with BOMB magazine’s Susie DeFord, regarding her eighth poetry collection, Toxic Flora. Anyone familiar with Hahn’s work is accustomed to seeing scavenged language embedded and transformed in her poems, but Toxic Flora employs this method with a deliberate focus, each poem crystallizing around a piece of information, most of which Hahn credits to specific articles in the New York Times Tuesday “Science Times” Supplement.
“Now when my friends read about Darwin and something like sexual cannibalism, they immediately expect a poem.” The book opens with this beginning to a conversational paragraph, the first in an untitled, diary-style sequence which is interjected to divide the more formal poems into thematic groups (insects, birds, outer space.) These scattered pieces, reminiscent of a diary’s occasional entries, employ the metaphor of sexual cannibalism, an evolutionary puzzler, to consider Hahn’s own writing process. This narrative acknowledges its predatory strategy, homing in on science and watching the metaphors multiply, but continues,
Whatever the pressure, that the female mantis “devours the head of the still-mating male and then moves on to the rest of his body” is a shocking bit of information.
Shocking, too, are Hahn’s links and leaps between bits of information. Almost every poem begins in a tone of playful reportage, forgoing emotion for interesting Latin terms, names, or numbers. “The armadillo eats ants / and possesses a tough exterior.” “The Madagascan moth alights on the sleeping Magpie / insinuating its proboscis between the closed eyelids” and “Galileo first observed the rings as rings in 1610 / but did not know what to make of them / suggesting that Saturn possessed ears.” Making metaphor out of the natural world is nothing new, and Hahn knows that. She avoids the expected, however, by allowing cutting-edge discoveries to embolden her to examine the unexamined in herself.
“Many fish in the murky ocean caves / of Mexico, Brazil, Croatia, and Oman / have no eyes” begins “On Being Coy.” A dozen short lines later, the poem has evolved into an internal argument over whether a blind suitor might be best, concluding:
See—a little coyness can work
to cloud the current.
Those black lizard boots instead of mules—
that Manhattan tourist spot.
And the reader is left to wonder what chance events brought about this mutation. Despite the public authority projected at the poem’s beginning, “On Being Coy” lives up to its name, proves an irreducible formula with the variables of memory, private language, and emotion.
Most of the poems in Toxic Flora follow a variation on this pattern -- beginning with science, flirting with personal disclosure, sometimes giving enough to paint a picture, sometimes just enough to pique. In the last two lines of “Pink” we momentarily meet “the town coroner who ruled against rapture two nights in a row / and couldn’t abide slinky blouses.” And it brings the poem alive -- the insistent return to the personal, the resistance to full-disclosure. The sometimes puzzling, but straightforwardly egotistical, leaps.
In “Maude,” Hahn envisions naming a planet after her mother:
To imagine qualities would be to suggest
the obvious attributes
a daughter might bestow on her mother,
my mother. But rather than be obvious
I could take pleasure in naming any planet after her—
though, if pressed,
I imagine one as petite, habitable, remote,
and owning a number of moons.
An atmosphere surely.
In this case, it’s a planet and “a number of moons” Hahn unabashedly strong-arms into models of herself and relationships. And with this very human gravity, the poems assure and threaten us: we’re natural.
Toxic Flora by Kimiko Hahn
W. W. Norton & Company