Women in Public by Elaine Kahn
City Lights Books, 2015; 100 pp
Reviewed by Carleen Tibbetts
“What does the world hate more/than women/in public,” asks Elaine Kahn in her debut full-length collection, Women in Public. To exist as a woman in public essentially means the reliquishment of any and all expectations of respect. Kahn’s poems manage to dismantle and deconstruct the female body—or rather the standard notions of an eroticized female body. The speaker insists she looks like a woman but her narrating voice has “a long, white beard” to seem capable, experienced, familiar, nonthreatening, legitimate, gentle, credible, and world-wise: in other words, a man. It’s a funny image to pop up, but Kahn likely puts it there as commentary that even in a book written by a woman from the lens of female experience, these poems are lacking the right amount of force, clarity, and believability simply because they are a female narrative. Poems such as “The Myth of the Female Orgasm” riff off the male need to quantify female pleasure as the speaker admits, “when we talked about it/our lips touched/and we were faking it.” These poems range from intimate and sensual to graphic and functional. Pus get squeezed from nipples, the speaker imagines “A perfect toaster/sitting on the street/To hold my cum.” Her poems bend and contort between seduction and repulsion—the attraction of and to a female body and simply becoming mired in the “deluge” of inhabiting it.
Of course, with inhabiting a female body, one comes under the scrutiny of the male gaze and the struggle between wanting to be seen/noticed and rejecting/rebuffing visibility. Kahn manages to inhabit that frustration and anger that comes with being an objectified and fetishized body-object while at the same time refracting that voyeuristic gaze and projecting it back on to men. In “By the Time I Arrived,” Kahn speaker declares:
of any man
The language in Women in Public warps in and out of coherence and conversational tone to distorted and dreamy imagery. Frogs squat in peels of light, eyes “slack/their poodly plastic clap,” and “Time is a mouth/a toothy orifice. In “Love Mom,” Kahn takes a beat to think on etymology:
a word meaning nothing
like what it sounds
crepuscular has to do with dim
light or things
like animals that are active at those times
Although, as Kahn notes, society is more tolerant of the “anorectic female head-case” than bold and self-possessed women who know both their own strengths, selling-points, limitations, and weaknesses, the reader doesn’t need to be told to read these poems with the tone of an elderly man. These poems are all about the credibility and truths of women’s lived experiences. Truths such as one’s fertility being one’s “single insurrection in this life.” Truths such as one’s mother telling her it’s not wise for her to feel too good about herself. Truths and standards that women are either expected to uphold or rally against.
“Writing is a form of/throwing out,” Kahn rightfully asserts. Writing is a purging and recycling of experiences—a sifting through and repurposing of the ejecta of our days, the minutiae that in reality comprises our many selves. Women in Public is composed “in the gentlest font of sick,” and from the compost heap of her poems of burnt hair, jerking off at night, car impound lots, and fuzzy green Jesus pictures grows a self in all its rich capacity.