Small Hours by Ilyse Kusnetz
Typically, a first book of poetry is just that: a first book, suggesting a hope for more to come, but also something about how much the young poet has to overcome, all that chattering, that throat clearing before she can confront herself. She, as Richard Howard keenly observed, is in the vexing situation of the artist who must move from the suburbs to the center of civilization, the center always being the most isolated place, on her own steam. Yet, with Small Hours, Ilyse Kusnetz demonstrates that her devices are remarkable, and the steam she gets up is often powerful enough to break through to considerable art (witness that the book won the T.S. Eliot Prize from Truman State University Press).
From the first poem, "Match Girls," we view her whelming sympathies as she exposes life's inequity by juxtaposing girls working in nineteenth-century American factories to make matches, who dip "match ends/ into a chemical vat, then/ lick the tips to make them stiff" with Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang who "built the Great Wall, unified China and in his quest for eternal life swallowed pills/ laced with mercury," and was later buried with that vast terra cotta army that toured the US. But for Kusnetz, death does not bring recompense, or maybe I should say recognition, because the factory girls, who suffered from phosphorous poisoning, teeth and jaws rotting, "their bodies/ burning like forbidden books," remain unknown.
There persists in our poetry a tension between myth and fact. Sallustius, in characterizing the myths of Attis, described the accommodation of life by myth: "This never happened, but it always is." But happening is what occurs uniquely in time, to be observed, and Kusnetz shines her clear light on the detail and the detritus to reveal the injustices we allow, in poems like "Enola Gay," "At the Yushukan War Memorial Museum, Tokyo," and "The Emperor Commodus."
Her commitment to what happened is exemplified in the tenderly offered title poem, "Small Hours." Her mother, a "life-long enemy of stray threads," is sitting at the Thanksgiving table "in pajamas," not "wearing her wig." She's dying and later collapses on the bathroom floor. At the hospital, the narrator hears her mother explain her predicament in the small hours with "Oh, well." And isn't it in that "Oh, well" where the human is revealed, trapped in a failing body, but still a self, shouldering through? Here Kusnetz offers insight into a private loss, revealing from her language that by confronting occurrence, she is earning her way toward a full heart.
Loss, of course, is a favorite (easy?) subject for our current crop of poets, some making a considerable career dining at its table. But Kusnetz faces loss with an upturned face, as in "Before I Am Downloaded into a Most Excellent Robot Body." Kusnetz, imagining her own demise, gives us a self portrait: "I'm just ware, silicon." And when she becomes "negative" (dead), "you'll know we are/ among you -- still-breathing inhabitants of a doomed planet --/ by a sudden glow, a questing thought, not visible, but felt."
No less than John Ashbery observed that he was a "bag of feelings and nothing else." Kusnetz is taking her simple, recognized feelings, and her flaws, and doing something remarkable, making a tour of her own properties. Such explorations can be dangerous, even destructive, but for Kusnetz the result is transformative. In "L'Annunziazione," she declares: "every flawed,/ graceless thing we must/ take into ourselves and transform." We hear the expression of the one longing for rebirth, and in that detect a longing to gain a sense of identity. It is only where we have identity that we can be transformed.
And it is this transformation that I wish to home in on now, focusing on two poems, from the final section of the book, where Kusnetz shows that she is moving -- has moved -- from those suburbs far toward the center, boiling off the dross, exposing -- what else? -- love. "Come to bed with me tonight," Kusnetz invites in "A Hampshire Field At Sunset," portraying a secure, co-equal lover, displaying a discipline (I dare not say "control," for that is too severe an observation for the nuances displayed here) over the idiosyncratic stanza that we come to expect from our best poets. Yet on a deeper level we see that she is not hampered by abjuring incantations as voiced by, say, Anne Sexton ("Men enter by force, draw back like Jonah"). Rather, she invites for purposes of a collaborative experience, a making.
This making is extended in the last poem in the volume, "Holding Albert Einstein's Hand." Here Kusnetz elongates the form, releases it to create a dreamlike sense of floating through the fragments of her experience, "The corpse tree full of wasps," the "hospital window," allowing a format for her mind to take off, weaving a song of love she instinctively feels. Alan Ginsberg advised that the poet should not set out to make poetry, but should set out for the burning bush, for the voice from the burning bush, that that is the only poetry. When Kusnetz declares, "I am becoming a bird," we sense that she is taking flight and is now soaring heavenward, a meaning brought home at the poem's end:
I want to hear
what the sweet executioner says.
My bones like burning matchsticks.
Sometimes when I sleep,
the world shapes me.
Once, I was energy
hiding inside the light,
or the shadow of light.
Love rooted us.
After, we spoke in tongues.
Our fingers cupped the universe like water.
The poems in Small Hours -- surprising, tender, tear invoking, accurate -- achieve by this last poem a miraculous height, having progressed from the hard facts to become, by book's end, and by accident and law, a charred prayer sent aloft. Kusnetz finds formulations that seem to hover above fragmented life. Kusnetz is revealing her promise and we are the better for it.
Small Hours by Ilyse Kusnetz
Truman State University Press