The Sore Throat & Other Poems
by Aaron Kunin
Reviewed by Sumita Chakraborty
In the introductory "Note on Method" to his second book of poems, The Sore Throat & Other Poems, Aaron Kunin outlines the structure of the collection. Using a vocabulary of 170 words (the idea for which, Kunin writes, "derives from a nervous habit"), he first provides a series of poems that he terms "a translation of Ezra Pound's 'Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.'" "Instead of using 'Mauberley' to go outside myself ... I wanted to inhabit my personal 170-word vocabulary as fully as possible," Kunin writes. In the second series of poems in the book, Kunin expands his vocabulary to approximately 200 words and translates Maeterlinck's Pelleas et Melisande, writing that he is specifically responding to its "obsessive sensitivity to nuances of feeling."
I am not sure if I would describe what Kunin does to "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" and Pelleas et Melisande as translation. It may well be: these two works are relevant to and present within The Sore Throat & Other Poems, and certainly Kunin does not write in Pound's myriad tongues (even Kunin's English is deeply different from Pound's) or Maeterlinck's French. But the Pound and the Maeterlinck come across more like triggers from which Kunin finds a way to delve into the compelling and rigorous work of this book: the work of burrowing deep within his own psychological interior and teasing out the limitations, functions, and significances of each word he includes in his curtailed vocabulary.
In the collection's concluding piece, a work titled "Knowledge Blobs" (and subtitled "A Dossier") which seems part prose poem and part autobiographical essay, Kunin describes the process of writing in this vocabulary as a "direct connection between my unconscious and my hand." What Kunin has really translated in The Sore Throat & Other Poems is that direct connection into the language of forty-four poems. In fact, because Kunin has successfully "inhabited" his vocabulary with his own "obsessive sensitivity to ...feeling," that psychological interior and that vocabulary are one and the same. Each word he uses, whether innocuous-seeming or otherwise, begs the question of why it is lodged inside the mind that created this volume.
Take the word "machine," which first crops up in the collection's first poem, "You won't remember this": "You were like a machine of weeping." The simile in this line is a particularly evocative one, and the definitions of the words seem perfectly clear. But as one continues to read, it becomes more difficult to say exactly what "machine" means here. It is as if Kunin, deep in an unnamed and somewhat ethereal place in his mind, has found the word "machine" and is now prodding it, dissecting it, trying to figure out why it is there and what it means to him.
Indeed, by the end of "You won't remember this," the "you" is no longer a person being compared to a machine; the machine itself becomes the "you." Later, the speaker of "I had you here with a wish ..." states, "I like you. I like the machine" and "Machine, heal yourself! A wonder: / Why am I talking to the machine?" And in one of the many poems called "The Sore Throat," Kunin writes:
I'm inventing a machine
for concealing my desire.
And I'm inventing another
machine for concealing the
machine. It's a two-machine
system, and it sounded like
"Machine" is only one of the words that Kunin investigates in this way. Cumulatively, in The Sore Throat & Other Poems, Kunin effectively translates tension, aggression, grief, shame, and the occasional bout of pleasure into a distinct poetic voice. His many typographical experiments sit organically beside his less experimental formulations; laid out before us are the places within the mind where perfectly-formed stanzas trail into long lines of words with large gaps between them and back again, where high diction gives way to cursing and graphic thoughts of unbeautified sex and back again. The Sore Throat & Other Poems is something of an aggregate ars poetica: it is a series of poems about the process -- from trigger to thought to artifact -- of writing poems. Fittingly, it is strange, challenging, and delightful.