Book Reviews, Recent

just want and the present / of its emergence, which repeats

by Caryl Pagel | Contributing Writer

Kirsten Ihns
Propeller Books, 2020

Though there’s been a copy of Josef Albers’s Interaction of Color on the desk by the window for a while now, I wasn’t familiar with his 26-year-long project Homage to the Square until reading Kirsten Ihns’s first collection of poems, sundaey (Propeller Books), which references Albers’s color studies in several square-shaped visual poems scattered throughout the book. Albers’s series is composed of over 1,000 paintings and, like so much of his life’s work, serves as an investigation into color’s power and how relationships between shades can shift point of view, emotion, and psychology. The paintings (go, go look at them now! . . . ) consist of three or four nested squares, one inside the next, with the smallest middle square sunk low to the bottom, giving the pieces a weighted, proportionally asymmetrical three-dimensional appearance. Think: a frame of a frame of a frame of a box, Montessori shape sorters, or a right-angled liquid ripple. 

Created during the era of geometrical obsession and mechanically produced soup cans, the exercise of Homage to the Square could present at first as pure, robotic, repetitive—an undergrad’s painting class syllabus, which it certainly also was—but, given a moment, it reveals the opposite effect: a complexity which demonstrates that tonal combinations are social, with countless tempers and outcomes. The squares surprise! Canary yellow is not the same canary yellow when settled next to slate or burnt orange; the variances provoke unique moods. Albers’s paintings suggest the rapport between colors is as profoundly fluid as it is moving, and we might be reminded of the heat that roils within theory (or practice) when reading Kirsten Ihns’s work, which prioritizes the energy of the interaction between numerous rhetorical approaches over static content or expression. 

The poems in sundaey make several shapes. There are the text boxes previously mentioned, in which a word or two is repeated to create robust forms which  juxtapose ideas or break a single word into multiple units of evolving meaning, as if a riddle or drawing. One of these poems, “dissolution,” is a large square consisting of the repetition of the word “ion” (an electrically charged molecule, a minuscule unit, and the fourth syllable of the poem’s title) hugging a 3×11 block of the word “object” (with a few fallen “objects” below) pressed against a column of the word “objection,” an inevitable product of the repetitions and a (hopeful) reaction to the title’s content (OBJECTION TO DISSOLUTION, a phrase that flashes through the mind like a Jenny Holzer sign) or implied commentary on the physical world. The mind tries to make sense (or sentence) of the text’s meaning, but this poem is no strict equation; Ihns desires an experience of her work that is more about using text as material than prioritizing denotation or employing the visual as metaphor. 

There are other adventures: a multi-voiced epistolary chorus, Marianne Moore-ish animal fixations replete with YouTube video commentary, tech-saturated explorations of our media-weighted (mediated) image-obsessed contemporary culture, fashion flurries, desire statuses, and pronounced aesthetic inquiry. Ihns’s poems are composed of performatively fun speaker-centered physical situations (“in all my limbs i zittern / in all my limbs i refuge like my body is adornment”), bursts of wry assertion (“just learned its terms / to repeat them exactly / in the style of a mastered language”), tech and social media-related jokes (“sunbeams, what if i don’t get to talk to you // in all this good lighting // we have?”), and opportunities for the reader to catch a looping phrase for a moment, not to hold it, but to roll it around and let it go. What’s not to love in the weird meter and show of the first lines of the first poem—“yes, hello”—odd in their antiquated diction, lyric in their ecstatic boredom: 

i sate like sum dome creature in the sun 
and i lied there, all spangled, neither truth nor hungry

Rain ovi was taken out to dance and click 

obedient, i slip into Vast Amusement Model Picture 

One becomes immersed in Ihns’s lively, mischievous sounds, which reflect her poems’ desire to receive and throw voices from anywhere / everywhere (coding, architecture, photography, philosophy, paparazzi, etc.), creating a “specular erotics of construction…culture / the kind i can freely lounge inside of / kick my feet in          feel so soundless.” Ihn’s work is concerned with the relationship between textures, texts, and vibrating networks of language all tangled in a vast, inseparable performance knot. When reading sundaey I find myself less interested in the accumulation of individual confession-like statements than the collective reverberations they create by appearing in pulsing proximity to each other. There is little linear understanding to be had here, if that’s your thing. Instead there is inference, correlation, and humor (“what is the source of the light in this painting / -the police”). 

Just as the colors in Albers’s Homage to a Square paintings diminish, advance, or form distinct tints when adjoined, the lines of Ihns’s work suggest an alternate “site” of experience, one that exists off the page, perhaps separate even from the mulling mind of the reader. Her poems create unexpected space, sometimes literally via their architectural designs, but also through the throwing of various voices, attitudes, or rhymes. When Ihns shifts rapidly between different kinds, or depths of language, imaginative area is created; when the reader moves from interiority to abstraction to description to naming, they’re caught in a bounce between surface level reference and multifaceted, cavernous or metaphorical phrasing, all of which generate room. One might find themselves thinking of the wave-shape of a mass of dancing bodies, a group chat after the group’s left, or the onslaught of storm clouds on a posted home video. Ihns writes: 

i want to believe i am 
the shapes i make with my life

Rain ovit didn’t seem to have “sprung” or to have come
from anywhere but its suddenness 
Rain ovraino vand its suddenness

Rain ovRain ovRain ovRain ovwas in there like a quality

If one mode of writing poetry is to express oneself from a single subject-position into a somewhat static set of assumed cultural circumstances via a handful of “unique” (on brand) and stylish flourishes (a “demonstration” of an “understanding” of “craft” as a vehicle to disclosing the irritants of the soul), we might appreciate that the poems in sundaey resist that stability (linguistic, textual, personal) on most, if not all fronts, while also reveling in (revving) a theatrical engine. These poems create a communal circumstance, one familiar to anyone accustomed to curation, however professionally or casually, and the expanse that opens between the image and its endless representations. “[H]ard to know where to put the belonging,” writes Ihns, “you live with the object / differently, after you’ve made it / carry the shape of something else.” The drama in these poems is crucial and always seen (cropped, re-lit, refreshed, and ready for clicks) through managed frames or screens:  

Rain oRain ooh i am ready, they say
Rain ofor my action: 

i am ready to be used all the time 

Rain o/this is what the world keeps doing through me 

[ . . . ]

i am ready to be user all the time
& thereby 

the event i fashion
sometimes it’s hard to know one is

Rain oRain oRain oa creature
Rain obc one feels so wholly precedent?

Ihns is a poet who makes one yearn for an increasingly visual, social, multi-modal compositional approach or even a friendly podcast on the poetics of accumulation. One could have an enthusiastic conversation about sundaey’s relationship to other expansive, architecturally complicated work such as Rosbud Ben-Oni’s Turn Around Bright Xyxs, Shelley Feller’s Dream Boat, LaTasha N Navada Diggs’s TwERK, Candice Wuehle’s Death Industrial Complex, Craig Santos Perez’s from unincorporated territory trilogy, or Carrie Lorig’s The Book of Repulsive Women. We might think of Ihns’s collection in the context of a poetics of piling (or, as Douglas Kearney would call it, “Mess”), a mode achieved via the heat of multiple voices, languages, cultures, networks, codes, and strategies; muddy, intricate, overwhelmed semantic strata cultivated by writers prioritizing sonic complexity, the obscure and layered, other art forms, documentary tactics, simultaneity, the sourced, the stylish, and the repeating. 

Caryl Pagel is the author of two collections of poetry, Twice Told and Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death, as well as the essay collection Out of Nowhere Into Nothing (FC2, September 2020).