Browsing Articles Written by

Michael Browne

Michael Browne is a music publicist and writer living in NoHo. His writing has recently appeared in Fractal Magazine, Westwind, and Entropy. He is also a book critic at Necessary Fiction.

Book Review

Poor Love Machine

by on September 6, 2016

PLMCover-1-e1460339402418Poor Love Machine by Kim Hyesoon

 

Kim Hyesoon has long been held in high regard as a master of Korean letters. Originally published in Seoul in 1997, Poor Love Machine was chosen for the Kim Su-yŏng Poetry Prize, arguably South Korea’s most coveted accolade. Recently, and with the assistance of another Korean literary luminary in Don Mee Choi, her works have been graciously translated into English. Choi’s recent translation of Hyesoon comes in the form of the poetry collection Poor Love Machine, an eloquent meditation on corporeal misery, and the crushing spaces the body inhabits.

The opening piece in the collection titled “Rat,” is packed with the overarching thematic qualities found in the collection, and is perhaps the most telling and intimate insight into the mind of Hyesoon and the temporal space her subjects reside.

Do people know how much it hurts the darkness when you turn the light on in the middle of the night?

“Rat” meditates on the speaker’s desire for a certain darkness to maintain within their life – specifically the essence of darkness that defines their body. Light is seen as something foreign and destructive to the relative solitude and solace that is found within the speaker’s bodily darkness. In one such attack the light places on the darkness, the speaker equates the experience eloquently to that of a pinned down beatle: “When the light is switched on inside my darkness, I buzz like a beetle pinned down, bzzz, bzzz, bzzz, bzzz, and shake my head wildly, my mandibles  holding onto a black string.” The body is not only a source of misery with Hyesoon, but it has also come to represent a symbol of the grotesque.

Choi’s translation of Poor Love Machine is worthy of its own critical review. The English translation of Poor Love Machine can feel opaque – with certain passages being thorny and vaguely impenetrable. This can be explained quite easily by Choi’s careful translation, and devotion to not compromising the inherent playfulness of Hyesoon’s Korean. It would have been easy for Choi to have bypassed the idiosyncratic nature of Hyesoon’s language, and opted for a more streamlined and accessible English text, but she decided to grace us with a wonderful translation that is combative, stunning, and at times challenging.

In the semi-titular poem “Poor Love Machines Trapped in Rain,” the theme of the human body being represented as something that is prone to being destroyed or “crushed” is on display:

The crushed body gets erased / then is crushed again

In Kim Hyesoon’s world the body is a consistent source of misery, and of cosmic constraint and disillusionment. In the piece titled “Driving in the Downpour,” Hyesoon lamentably asks, “why have I lived so long in the same body[?]” There is a strong thread of dissatisfaction with the body in this collection that really propels it forward at a manic, nervous pace. This feeling of neurosis bleeds from the page in pieces like “Sunstroke,” where the stylistic choice to use repetition only adds to its feverish nature:

Get submerged / get submerged in the blazing sun / get submerged in the rippling blazing sun

“Sunstroke” relies heavily on a vaguely Steinian poetic elliptical style. This becomes most apparent in the following three lines:

Hear something as I get submerged in the rippling blazing sun / Hear something then don’t hear then hear again / as I get submerged in the rippling blazing sun

This puts an emphasis once more on the body and the space that it inhabits. “Sunstroke” portrays the sun as a cleansing, almost spiritual entity, where the body is a source of pain and must be purged. Unlike collection opener “Rat,” where light was seen as something intrusive and destructive, Hyesoon attributes the sun to be a kind of corporeal reprieve. The speaker relates the sound of being submerged in the sun to that of a “voice I have wanted to hear for a thousand years.” The longing and insatiable desire for the body to enter a kind of cosmic oblivion free from the violence of the human body is at the heart of “Sunstroke” and Poor Love Machine.

It would be remiss to not highlight the cultural context for this collection’s release in Korea during the 1990’s. It’s release and acclaim represented a trailblazing moment for female Korean writers, and has long been seen as a crucial Korean feminist tome. The concrete misery conveyed by Hyesoon in this collection, is the collective misery of a turbulent Korea during the 1990’s, a country that witnessed vast cultural and social upheaval. Nearly 20 years later, and now with a wonderful English translation, this collection has the promise of being just as important and vital to the world of English letters. 20 years on, in times of great global uncertainty and misery, Poor Love Machine couldn’t feel more relevant.

 

Poor Love Machine is available now through Action Books.

Book Review

John Travolta Considers His Odds

by on July 26, 2016

img_9330-e1469550929673John Travolta Considers His Odds by Emily Hunt

 

Emily Hunt is a poet based in Los Angeles, and like many before her, has set her sights upon it–and its milieu–in her debut chapbook titled, John Travolta Considers His Odds. Hunt has put together a thoughtful collection that is often blackly humorous, satirical, naive, and sometimes all at once. There are pieces here that meditate upon the superficial beauty of the city–and its celebrities–to reveal places of sadness, insecurity, and despair. John Travolta Considers His Odds is a great and necessary indictment on the surface level beauty of celebrity, that ultimately asks us in the titular piece, have we refused to let our celebrities live?

The titular poem, “John Travolta Considers His Odds,” deconstructs–in a blackly humorous way–the vanity of the Hollywood actor, and in this case, John Travolta. The poem depicts Travolta in a state of unease and extreme vulnerability; gazing at his forehead that “blinds him in the mirror,” hairpieces that melt to mold his head, and wondering whether he will be buried in his famous Saturday Night Fever or Grease costumes. Hunt uses blunt and straightforward language, tinged with some subtle irony and humor, to relay the sadness and despondency that Travolta is feeling. At the end of the piece the mirror is turned on the reader, on the media, and on the culture of celebrity and declares that “we refused to let [Travolta] live.” The piece is an excellent reminder of the malignant influence of celebrity culture and mass media in Los Angeles.

“The Year The Cheerleaders Were Pretty” is not explicitly about Los Angeles, but implicitly feels like another indictment on idealized beauty, with a careful eye focused on the kind of beauty magnified in a place like Los Angeles. The piece is imbued with a certain gleeful optimism that is crushed fairly quickly: “it was the year before everyone started dying.” The poem paints an idealistic and almost naive sense of beauty. In this way it reminded me of a cheerleader squad that would be featured in a Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness) movie. Beauty that is so disproportionate and exaggerated that it becomes satire. In “The Year The Cheerleaders Were Pretty,” everything seems to be throbbing with idealized beauty. The cheerleaders’ hair is described as smelling like caramel ice cream, and the girls are “seventeen” and “attentive and perfect.” On the surface the piece seems to be refreshingly void of cynicism but there is a dark underbelly to the piece that transforms it into a vaguely unsettling and darkly comical read. Mixed in with the images of beauty are threatening scenes of the earth drying up, people dying, and of a dairy burning down. There is an almost apocalyptic undercurrent to the poem that works nicely to give off the faint scent of misanthropy.

“Good Enough” reflects back upon the naivete of school girls and school boys and the  pre-adolescent search for the “perfect lover.” The piece reads like a kind of alt-lit Men are from Mars / Women are from Venus in its cataloging of what boys look for in a girl and vice versa. The piece is ultimately a jarring indictment on the naivete of pre-pubescent love, and the male / female relationship dichotomy. “Good Enough” laments that boys “…didn’t lie in the dark staring into the vague shadows on the / ceiling, the shapes / of nighttime flickering, bending, twisting overhead / and wonder if that one was the one, perfect one. Or did they?” What we are left with is a feeling that one can only understand when coming to the adolescent realization that the “perfect lover” might not exist. The piece ends up cynically reclining to the idea of finding a lover as a search for someone that isn’t “perfect” but “good enough.”

The shortest piece in the chapbook, “Light,” perfectly crystallizes the overarching sentiments of the collection. It paints an image of a blond girl named Bailey that “barfs up glitter.” The piece seems to illustrate a cynical and ironic view of blond beauty. Unlike the cheerleaders in “The Year The Cheerleaders Were Pretty,” Bailey seems to radiate with a different kind of beauty, a “depressing luminescence.” This was another piece that brought me back to the work of filmmaker Todd Solondz in it’s introversion of what it means to be blond and sharp use of black humor to critique and deconstruct prototypical beauty.

Hunt’s debut chapbook works well to deconstruct and satirize the very Hollywood notion of perfect lovers, perfect movie stars, perfect cheerleaders, and perfect blonds. She has succeeded in giving us a disturbed portrait of modern life, with a sympathetic eye, and devilish wit.

 

John Travolta Considers His Odds is available now from Whitehorse and Slaughter.

 

Book Review

I am a Season that Does Not Exist in The World

by on July 5, 2016

iamaseasoncoverI Am A Season That Does Not Exist In The World By Kim Kyung Ju

 

 

 

 

I Am A Season That Does Not Exist In The World is Korean poet Kim Kyung Ju’s first collection of poetry. Upon it’s original release in Korea in 2006 it sold over ten thousand copies and created a stir within the literary world. For years an English translation had been elusive. Now, nearly ten years have passed and we are graced with a wonderful English translation by Jake Levine that is devout to the original Korean. I Am A Season That Does Not Exist In The World is a tactile and carefully constructed meditation on the essence of life itself. Ju is a master at creating rich and unique images through his poetry and in this debut poetry collection Ju’s talents are on full display.

 

Broken into four sections, the pieces here hover close to the absurd and the surreal, but always center on the personal. Formally, Ju explores a fairly loose, prose poem-esque style. Some pieces feel like intimate vignettes; brief dreamlike glimpses into the subconscious. More traditional poetic forms are here as well, and Ju works hard to evoke memorable feelings out of each and every line. The myriad structural forms found in I Am A Season That Does Not Exist In The World could be symptomatic of Ju’s multimodal interests in art forms such as theater, musicals, and independent films. In this respect, this makes Ju a very exciting and quite modern poet.

 

In this collection Ju meditates on loneliness, childhood, and family life. He also places a strong emphasis on nostalgia and an existential kind of lament for things that have been lost. These feelings are underscored by a strong sense and stylistic leaning towards the absurd and surreal. The five part series of poems titled “The Room That Flies To Outer Space” are emblematic of the kind of vague surrealism found within Ju’s work. The language is lush and reminiscent of Italo Calvino, who gave nature and the world around us a very human and organic touch. In Ju’s poetry, nature itself is often anthropomorphized, and the effect is to give everything around us a wonderfully tactile feel. Inanimate objects and vague abstractions such as the night seem to breathe upon every line.

 

In one of the more enjoyable pieces from the collection, titled “Manhole,” Ju weaves existential anxiety through the focus of a distressed spider. The spider leaves it’s home to never find home again, and the first person narrator ends up questioning existence itself as he watches the wings of a moth being slowly eaten by the spider. There is an eloquent yearning and a strong sense of angst towards life found in Ju’s pieces that is perhaps best captured through the second to last line in “Manhole” :

 

My life drags as if order in the world never really existed. Save Me!

 

“Manhole” isn’t the only poem where an existential anxiety or fear is manifested through the vantage point of a spider or small creature. In “Hear The Mackerel Cry,” weeping Mackerel are cooked and eaten to act as a metaphor for a disconnection between mother and son. Furthermore the piece is another meditation on the absurd nature of life and Ju’s feelings of angst and ennui towards it:

 

When life shows me its tail, I cut the body off.

 

In “A Life Secluded,” Ju seems to be lamenting the passage of time and comes to the realization that time is something that doesn’t only belong to him, but also belongs to inorganic objects like his clothes. Again, Ju creates a sense of sadness around something as inanimate as a set of clothes, and makes us sympathize with them by giving them almost human desires. A desire to be touched and felt. The piece evokes a certain yearning for the clothes to feel connected to his body, to feel his body’s warmth “if just for a moment.”

 

In a world that has become increasingly devoid of and disinterested in close, human contact and communication, Ju has given us poetry that breathes, and feels incredibly alive. As disillusioned as some of these pieces are, perhaps through the tactile nature of the language we’ll start to feel a little less achingly alone and a little more connected to things.

I Am A Season That Does Not Exist In The World is available now through Black Ocean Press.

Book Review

The Strangest

by on January 26, 2016

Strangest coverThe Strangest by Michael J. Seidlinger

The Strangest is a clever 21st century reimagining of the existentialist classic, The Stranger by Albert Camus. Michael J. Seidlinger (most recently the author of The Face of Any Other) has taken the difficult task of entering into a dialogue with a text that is regarded as a masterpiece of the 20th century, and surprisingly, has breathed new life into it. The novel follows the same narrative arc that the classic follows and the themes of existentialism and “outsiderness” roam aplenty here as well. Where The Strangest differs from The Stranger, however, is where it actually shines. Neither homage, pastiche, or simple parody, the novel paints a remarkable depiction of the way we communicate and function within society today and our culture’s over reliance on social media to fit in.

The novel follows the anti-social and despairingly ineffectual Zachary Weinham who works at a retail store and carries on a vague, mostly ambiguous, relationship with a girl named Veronica. Instead of playing an active role in society, Zachary spends most of his time obsessing over a social media presence he has created for himself by the name of “Meurks” (an obvious nod to Meursault from The Stranger). Through Meurks he records nearly every social situation he encounters in his day via a social media post. Zachary is more interested in the comments and likes he receives as Meurks than the actual interactions he has with characters like Veronica, his work colleagues, or the shady Rios. The notion of people connecting more with their digital selves than their actual selves is where Seidlinger really captures the current social media milieu brilliantly. By creating a digital “alter ego” it also adds a feeling of dynamism to a character that for all intents and purposes is lethargic and apathetic. As the novel carries along (albeit slowly and in a daze the first 50 pages or so) a series of events and odd friendships lead Zachary to commit murder and must suffer the consequences. Sound familiar? Sure.

Given that the novel follows the same emotional beats and a similar narrative arc as the work it is in conversation with, it is told with enough stylistic flair and filled with a contemporary idiosyncratic anxiety that keeps it feeling fresh. Seidlinger employs the same short, staccato like sentences that are prevalent in The Stranger but formally Seidlinger gives us brief little vignettes, which are set into the chapters of the novel. Sometimes the vignettes are 100 words long. Sometimes they are 500. The vignettes are emblematic of a kind of piecing together of “truth” that Zachary goes through in the novel. Sometimes painfully insightful – sometimes rambling and inconsequential – the vignettes are a nice stylistic touch that let us into the fractured and socially disconnected mind of our modern day Meursault.

Much like Seidlinger’s millennial contemporary Tao Lin, he shows us that despite all the opportunities social media gives us to connect, sometimes we are left feeling alienated, hollow and utterly disconnected from society. The Strangest successfully taps into the disorienting “otherness” that was so compelling in The Stranger and creates a harrowing vision of 21st century life. If Seidlinger is onto anything at all here, we’re all fucked.

 

The Strangest is available now from OR Books.

 

www.michaeljseidlinger.com

www.orbooks.com

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