“Thou couldst have loved this / what the fuck.”
Few things fascinate me like trying to understand the process by which we humans fall in and out of love. I think Elaine Kahn might feel the same. In her latest collection, the poet exploits the power of language to try to convey the complex emotion that often acts as a foil for “the American religion of loneliness.” From refusing to forgive “the rareness of a perfect kiss” to admitting “all my life I’ve only wanted someone,” Kahn’s work bravely commits to the tragedy of romance as “the fear you can believe in.”
Romance or The End. By Elaine Kahn. Soft Skull Press. 2020. Paperback.
How did I get the book?
I was doing something on the Internet and stumbled upon Kahn’s work. Although I had sworn off poetry after having my heart broken this summer (an experience that taught me something I wrote about in Kreaxxxion Review), the excerpts I read of this collection left me spellbound, so I decided to dive in. Plus, the cover is gorgeous.
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What did I think?
Kahn admits when it comes to navigating love her philosophy is, “I don't know and so I write about it.” Depicting desire with brutal honesty powers this collection, a fuel Kahn qualifies as “simple” but that comes off as anything but. “I can’t exempt myself from wanting,” Kahn admits. “The warmth of my heart is hard and unending.” Kahn insists her lover’s objections are less passionate than her desire even if what she wants won’t last, even if her drive is baseless. “I can't transcend a thing if I'm unable to desire it / Stay there allow me my emergency,” she writes. “I did not consent to destiny.” However, even as Kahn “want[s] to be more than anything [she wants],” she also acknowledges that this state of mind rarely brings peace nor is something she can remember correctly once it has gone. “I hate it and it makes my heart wet,” she confesses, going as far as to name a poem, “I MISS YOU AND I'M GLAD YOU ARE NOT HERE.” At one point, Kahn claims honesty isn’t really possible, but it’s hard to believe that when she so boldly confesses something like, “I'm depressed because my orgasms alone are uninspiring,” a fact anyone masturbating with a newly broken heart knows to be painfully true.
The negativity of romance is given much space in Kahn’s work. The collection sharply argues that love offers as much sickness as clarity, something women only engage in when they’re poorly. Kahn thinks this is because love is all-consuming, that it requires a sacrifice of being. “I don’t know how I used to write or used to live,” she says in one poem when under love’s spell, feeling removed from herself as she thinks of her lover over and over until everything she conjures somehow is and is not about them. “I decide. I decided,” Kahn insists. “You can do pretty much anything to me.” But Kahn also shares how quickly this becomes toxic, comparing the feeling to entertaining the idea of being on vacation when you are only on the plane to the destination, half-asleep. “It seems extraterrestrial in hindsight,” she writes, seeing retrospectively “there are those who protect us from the possibility of good.”
What prevents such heavy thoughts from pulling the reader too far down are Kahn’s brilliant insertions of dark humor. Her droll details such as “Maria serves Paul's emotional and sexual needs in exchange for pizza,” or “The most money I have ever made was when I got hit by a car” add necessary air, and the hysterical rhetorical question, “Do you think the reason babies love rattles is that somewhere in their softest infant brains they know that's what a Xanax bottle sounds like?” can only be met with a snorting laugh. When the comedy takes on a more tender tone in Kahn asking for one more poorly connected FaceTime call with a lover or researching plastic surgery while eating lasagna in order to get through loneliness, it only adds intimacy. “I have googled existential crisis so many times in the last month,” she shares. “It only matters how you moved on from it. I'm not judging.” Neither are we.
🌟 4/5 — Great
Although the collection can easily be devoured in one sitting, it’s much better if savoured. Absorb just how the poems build entire moods through small, intricately handled images, such as “AUGUST,” which paints a perfect portrait of a day at the beach with a lover, and “I BRAIDED PEARLS INTO MY HAIR BUT I DID NOT HAVE A WEDDING,” a whispered confession of how marriage is actually amongst the cruelst of requests. Other favorites of mine were “I WOULD LIKE TO HAVE” (a list that includes “you / hell / the problem of loving a person”), “UNFUCKED IN THE BED WE FUCKED ON” (with the haunting line “When you loved me life was real / When you forget me”), and “OUT OF YOUR LOVE” (“I don't know what would have happened if what happened hadn't happened”—a statement I cannot forget).
I was also fascinated by the numerous “ROMANCE” poems throughout the collection that reflect Kahn’s evolving understanding of the subject. “I have heard it said that love turns people soft but I have never been more brutal,” she begins, though as she falls in love, her tone is far more submissive, depicting the lost sense of her body alongside a deep need to be touched. At the height of her romance, Kahn proclaims, “People say / I love you / I don't care / and I am never tired,” but as “a silent expiration” sets in, Kahn can feel her body leaving the space, too, gaining back control. “When I tell myself a story I decide the end,” she insists. It seems to me this might be romance’s ultimate goal.
Beyond the book.
Back in February when the collection was released, Kahn read with Coco Gordon Moore and Bridget Talone as part of The Poetry Project. It’s sort of terrifying but also delightful—as many good things are—to have the work come to life in her voice, the humor and heartbreak mixing in the crowded space.
When she isn’t writing poetry that cracks the soul open, Kahn is teaching the craft. In 2016, she formed the Poetry Field School in Los Angeles, an idea born out of a Tweet. During quarantine, the workshops have moved to video conference. Kahn spoke with NPR in June about how the nature of the class and their work has changed during the pandemic, her decision to make the course non-hierarchal, and what role she thinks poetry plays in the global health crisis.
See you again soon!