Cold Genius by Aaron Kunin
Fence Books, 2014; 80 pp
Long and Short Review by Paul French
Metapoetry is the enemy of the image. There is the diamond. There is the crowd. There is the soft grass that hugs the rusty scallop of sand where we run & slide. And then there is the rulebook.
But in this dyad of hot and cold, body and mind, one must not abase itself to the other. This struggle is what drives the arc of Aaron Kunin’s latest book, Cold Genius, whose poems (as can be inferred) sit far out from the foul line, with eyes locked on language, as they try to figure out the game.
The promise to love something is
Provisional. It “is” a kind
Of lawlessness. Thus “the” demand
For “love” also
“Is” unlawful since “it is” not
The contemplation does not stop. The speaker’s mind will not die as long as the body lives, weighting Kunin’s verse with dense self-conscious analysis. Cold Genius is more concerned with questioning meaning than making it--examining each word of an incantation while unable to speak, unable to conjure; this is the book’s prime frustration, as many poems convey a desire for warmth despite the speaker’s inability. The reference of the book’s title is apt here, as “cold genius” is a reference to the name of a character from the Henry Purcell opera King Arthur. In the opera’s story, Cold Genius is eventually warmed out of his cerebral cage by the power of love:
“What power art thou who from below
hast made me rise unwillingly and slow
from beds of everlasting snow?” ~from King Arthur
The above from the opera (this piece written by John Dryden) is featured on the inside flap of Kunin’s Cold Genius, introducing the book’s theme of trying to dig out from the burden of mind. And Kunin does some excellent word-work in portraying this initial interment. Whether the speaker is successful in shoveling out it is a different matter.
If you read the first stanza I quoted (from Kunin’s poem “For” “Shirley”), you’ll notice an interesting formal strategy. Every word that Kunin repeats, whether it’s “is” or “love” or even “the,” is put in quotations. This process refreshes for every new poem, so that every first stanza is relatively clean. As Kunin says in his prefatory “Note on Punctuation” (which is unnecessary and overdetermining, if you ask me), the “usage follows a new rule. I am using [quotation marks] to track repeated words and phrases.”
The effect of this simple measure is incredible, especially when just starting the book. Kunin’s emphasis on repeated words begins to isolate them from the discourse, in effect disassociating them from the sentence’s meaning. Those familiar with the work of Gertrude Stein will be familiar with this dynamic (most accessible in the famous “a rose is a rose…” piece). When words are jolted out of their respective sentences, they become the subjects of our interpretation. Just like puzzle pieces, once removed from the picture, each word can be studied for its own shape, its own dimensions. Thus every one of Kunin’s poems has the potential for (and indeed demands) numerous objects of analysis--crafting Cold Genius into an embodiment of Bakhtin’s concept of “living hermeneutics.”
The distance enacted through this use of punctuation enacts both the cold command of Kunin’s speaker and the implosive themes of the poems themselves, the majority of which refer to the process of writing poetry in one way or another. Furthermore, Kunin’s speaker (neurotically academic) is skeptical of the value of the poems whose language is slid beneath the microscope:
“A” cut from “an” ancient knife-point.
Most of “the” writing is done on
Post-it notes. Meanwhile certain words
Appear in poems. “Inadequate
To what I felt.” (11)
Kunin’s formal process is one of inexorable accrual. The snow of the mind falls and falls, forming berms and mounds of language ad nauseum. And at no point does Kunin stray from the cold form constraining his speaker’s genius. The blizzard continues until we’re snowed-in.
Take it from me, Kunin’s quotation tactic makes Cold Genius very hard to read, especially when considering the book’s length (128 pgs). As with Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette, I found myself ignoring the quotation marks so that I could read the poems. Unfortunately though, unlike Descent (which contains a through-line of epic narrative), there’s very little to hang on to in Cold Genius that doesn’t ultimately refer me back to the formal gimmickry. More positively, there’s a perfect marriage of form and content here. More negatively, the form and content become tiresome (and fairly repetitive themselves after the first thirty pages).
I kept hoping for Kunin’s speaker, like the Cold Genius from the opera, to shuffle off his frost and find a way toward earnest expression. It’s possible that this was the goal of the book’s later poems which seem to (as in the opera) uphold love as a possible means of escape from the prison of the intellect.
However, despite the thematic fancy of poems like Fourth, the chains remain. I found it hard to believe that the speaker was able to overcome his mental chill, when the formal signifier of the chill (the quotes) remained intact. Imagine a bassy, gritty, dirty song, Tom Waits or something. Imagine that midway through the track (about a hobo killing puppies) the lyrics begin to explain that the hobo has changed his ways and that love has conquered all, even while the beat and tune remain gritty and low. Would you think of triumph?
I’m not saying that there has to be, of course, and, in fact, I think what makes Kunin’s book so unique is an ability to resist such a resolution. However, this resistance doesn’t change the fact that the poems eventually conspire toward monotony and tedium.
Intellectually (appropriately so), Cold Genius is a successful book. The poems evoke the right ideas. Your brain will hum with questions about the mechanisms of language and repetition, and about ingrained perceptions of love, sexuality, and labor.
Emotionally, Cold Genius has no heartbeat. Surprisingly (I thought the book would try to overcome the bearing of its title), the genius never warms (or tries and fails). The constant pull of analysis and distance prevents the reader from fully investing in the substance of the poems, and the formal quirk of the quotation marks goes from being intriguing, to distracting, to irritating due to the lack of variation.
Cold Genius is an example of one of those interesting books. It’s smart and well-written, but in the long-haul it’s an ultimately pleasureless read. I would recommend looking at individual poems, like the title piece, Third, Fourth, Frankie and Albert, and Title: Tremblingly Alive. Whether you should read the whole book depends on your answer to this question: Is a successful experiment always a successful poem?
1. Cold Genius stays true to its title.
2. Kunin’s formal experimentation is intriguing and provides a perfect enactment of the poems’ substance.
3. Images do not drive the meaning, because the book is less about meaning and more about the skepticism of meaning.
4. While philosophically interesting, Kunin’s metapoetic focus, and the formal performance thereof, may prove monotonous for some readers over 128 pages.