- The Gorgeous and the Grotesque
Miami University Press
71 Pages; Print, $17.00
Like the image of the scorpion menacing the cover of Katy Bohinc's third poetry collection, Scorpio, the poems inside promise a provocation of fear and an execution of language as tempting and terrible as the smooth-as-silk skin of the arachnid it explicates. At once gorgeous and grotesque, Bohinc's work inhabits both poetry and philosophy, just as she inhabits the world as both artist and mathematician. Also an engineer and data scientist, Bohinc founded THE RATIO project, which examines "the oldest thought system on earth by returning to astrology's mathematical roots." It's Scorpio, not scorpion, after all, and readers should anticipate the sensual alongside the scientific, the astrological alongside the Arachnida.
Throughout this collection, Bohinc interrogates dominant and oppressive forms of storytelling and history-making and sheds light on marginalized and silenced voices. As editor of Tender Buttons Press, which is dedicated to publishing avant-garde women's poetry, Bohinc's investment in amplifying women's voices is forefront: "Women have existed in prominent and powerful roles at every moment throughout history. We can't see them in the historical record because of (a lack of) documentation…it's absolutely about process and nothing to do with existence or excellence." As a scholar and philosopher, Bohinc adeptly avoids the temptation to slip into academic tones of condescension; her litany of historical and temporal considerations in "Kernels" is biting, brisk, and entertaining: "FATE BUT A BROACH / BESTOWED BY THE STATISTICIAN / HISTORY, UNATTAINABLE VIRGIN / MEN, FOOLS, COURTING HER WORSHIP…WELL WHO WROTE HISTORY / AND FUCK THEM / NO NARRATIVE KNEW / THE ANCHOR OF YOU." Bohinc's background in philosophy yields a pleasantly pervasive thread in Scorpio, coupling existential consideration with sensory detail, and resulting in deliciously clever questions.
Though serious in her pursuits, Bohinc's Scorpio is not without playfulness. The poet's joy in engaging and challenging her reader's assumptions appears early in the book when she asks, "Water?", a question that is the entirety of the first poem. The poems leap forward without immediate resolution, and the resulting narrative is perplexing and complex; Bohinc may toy with her readers, but she doesn't deny them the satisfaction of coming full circle. The penultimate poem, "Water," depicts a speaker pining for a mother's comfort and navigating the loneliness of adulthood: "I wanted nothing but to be empty of / all except water in my mother's house." The poems in Scorpio unfold unexpectedly, but with enough connective tissue to make the body of this book both startling and delightful.
The change in the font that appears in the second poem, "Kernals," announces early on that Bohinc's style is dynamic and subversive: she relishes upending her reader's expectations. The result is by turns delightful and distressing, as in the extended metaphor of "Towels in America." At once humorous and somber, the seemingly innocuous vehicle of towels illuminates many possible tenors: poverty, romance, even sexual assault. A houseguest nervous to ask for towels has perhaps had "A bad towel experience / In the past" and is distressed "Contemplating the / Possible towel response / Trajectories." At the same time, the host is both annoyed by and then sensitive to the guest's obsessive behavior, ironically becoming one whose towels no one will borrow because "he's too / Sympathetic to / Have friends." While these lines may elicit a laugh, the absurd becomes alluring with the speaker's sudden change in perception; inhabiting the towels' perspective, she imagines their simple delight to just "get a wash / & really grateful / If there's lavender scented / Detergent." Left dirty for too long or balding from excessive wash cycles, the towels people this poem as much as people, and the implications of this deceptively simple scenario resonate in the speaker's undulation between first and second person.
The speaker is smart and unapologetic in "Cotton in Advil," where Bohinc's poem for Frank O'Hara is no imitation but elevated to a uniqueness all its own. Lamenting a lover who is "Always bitching about your woman / We're all...