The nondescript title of Kirsten Kaschock’s first collection attends to some of the most gratifyingly weird poems in recent memory. Identifying Calvino’s Invisible Cities as its aesthetic matrix, the poems of Unfathoms avoid the breeziness of literary surrealism by saturating their fantastic images with allegorical weight. “The Wallflower Giant,” for example, imagines an obsessed surgeon bouncing on a prostitute-giantess’s mattress-sized heart:
He flew into a swan dive, onto
the organ. The muscle recoiled, pulsed, and shot
his body off of it.Again. Again.
While the reworking of fairytales is an established feminist genre, Kaschock creates perversely beautiful originals, inlaid both with images of unrelieved brutality (“He saw his body, then, ground down by pestle—/and, by her giant’s hand, sifted into clean flour”) and emotionalism:
For another hour
the surgeon dove on, battering himself
against the hard large wetness of her heart, against
the aloof knot of its refusal.
The adjustment of gender roles in this semi-pornographic scene goes beyond a mere exercise in reversal. Here the female heart is rendered an unrapeable sexual organ with characteristics of both sexes, yet the giantess is prone, her resistance involuntary. Meanwhile, the line ‘For another hour’ ensures that the content of this poem be not treated as mere signposts to allegorical interpretation, by insisting on non-thematic matters of plot.
The peculiar predicament is Kaschock’s first principle and her philosopher’s stone, to which she adds precise diction and a fearless, macabre imagination to concoct an unnatural product that frequently resembles gold. “Imagined Births: a Collection of Disturbances” has goriness (“I watched them eat my son. They were/ so hungry. It was as if I had delivered bread.”) and also gorgeousness; characteristically, these moments are often indistinguishable:
Feathers plucked but not cleaned and glued with lard and sap to cloth. Insects
crawling all over, and me, knee-deep in silt, working at this as if I were just shelling crabs, pulling flesh and waste from the hard edges, scraping remnants of it from machinery. I was not familiar.
This passage represents Kaschock’s aesthetic in embryo: the ornately disgusting physical detail; the unnameable activity which is parsed out via comparison; the carefully-crafted sentences; the range in tone from lush to flat; and the witty yet devastating succinctness of “I was not familiar,” which somehow manages to gesture both toward the bizarre aestheticism of the poem itself and toward the feeling of failure experienced by women who have miscarried, lost a child, or are suffering from other post-partum syndromes.
Though the concerns of individual poems may seem more aesthetic than political, it would be difficult to miss the distinct feminism of Unfathoms. Contortion worked upon the female body and mind through parturition, maturation, illness, sex, rejection, beauty customs, dance, and household chores is shown in this book to be relentlessly damaging, always unnatural, but also the grounds of loveliness. Female figures are accompanied by interrogators, analysts, surgeons, brothers, professors, and whole docksful of men who view them as “each man’s my daughter— a person of certain authoring.” Yet such distorting circumstances also prompt these women to contrive ingenious means of resistance and preservation. A St. Teresa-like figure stores stones in her mouth like Demosthenes, but rather than orating, she uses them to symbolically wall out and exert power over a rapist deity. The entirely male myth of Icarus is subverted by the Woolfian technique of awarding him a sister, who, as a woman, can sympathize with Icarus’s firsthand knowledge of “what bodies are capable of, denied flight.” Surprisingly, however, when that shibboleth of literary revisionism, Ophelia, finally enters the volume, her fate is merely recounted, not altered.
Also ironic, given the charged status of gender in this book and Kaschock’s aesthetic concern with complexity, is that the poems which gesture most directly toward a male literary ancestor are the most comfortable, brief, and unambivalent in the book. These poems, which echo the project of Invisible Cities, at first each pursue a single image and train of thought. "Guilt is a City" traces the pun of guilt and gilt, and concludes “All over, things are/ dying, especially trees,/ whose gold is trash.” "Moon is a City" is populated by lunatics who prize fish: "The way fish/ braid and unbraid and rebraid/ the water, all open/ eyes and puck’ring." The literary puns which provide the ground for these poems are pointedly conventional, and their comparative simplicity is in keen contrast to the rambling untidiness of, say, Kaschock’s "24 Definitions of a Professor and a Whore," or the twelve-part poem-in-dialogue which revolves around inkblots and which claims, somewhat willfully, to be an "Autobiography." The eight "City" poems form a fine filigree through the more dire modalities of this book, and are also distinguished by italicization (a buried pun?), which emphasizes their manneredness, their contained gesture. Yet even these pretty poems grow more complicated as the book progresses and they come to intersect with its themes and imagery (as in, especially, "Bride is a City"), adding another allegorical overlay to the Unfathoms. It is not in these overtly signposted cities, finally, but in the additive, torqued and baroquely allegorical quality of this volume as a whole that Kaschock appears a plausible heir(ess) to Calvino.