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A review of Kimiko Hahn’s Brain Fever.


Review, Kimiko Hahn, Brain Fever, Jennifer Schomburg Kanke

Kimiko Hahn. Brain Fever. W.W. Norton Company, 2014.

The other day a friend of mine was lamenting the lack of heart in experimental poetry. She feared that because of the conceptual and intellectual nature of erasures, found poems, and compressed associative images recent experiments with form in poetry could reinforce a poetry of the head while leaving the heart to languish. She had clearly never read Kimiko Hahn’s work, more specifically her tenth poetry collection, Brain Fever. A recipient of a Guggenheim and the PEN/Voelcker Award, Hahn’s latest work challenges readers with the juxtaposition of current scientific research on brain function and cognition with personal memories while inviting them on a lyrical daydream of loss and resilience.

An example of Hahn at her best is the poem “erasing The Biology of Memory,” a five-part poem that is, as the name implies, an erasure of the New York Times article “A Quest to Understand How Memory Works” by Claudia Dreifus. The poem interfuses the science of memory with Hahn’s signature wry wit, exemplified in the poem’s fourth section:

         one at a time                           a hippocampus nerve cellcommunicates with other cells     named Brenda

            but alas, that didn’t give insight

Another poem that stands out in this already outstanding collection is “Fiero,” inspired by a New York Times piece about why video gamers continue to play games that have no real world reward system. The general insight “Here, anyone can fail over and over / and persist” leads the speaker to a more personal one, “Oh, lecturing on Emily Dickinson year after year to / undergrads!” This is a move that Hahn deftly makes throughout the collection, which sets her work apart from that of many other poets experimenting with form. These personal moves provide a space for the readers to rest, to feel, to challenge their hearts in the way that the rest of the poem has been challenging their minds.

In a February 2014 interview with the Kenyon Review, Hahn gave some insight that might explain how her poems achieve these moments: “I like to give the language some space to be experienced. Almost as if one stanza could be a poem in itself.” The poem “Resilience” opens and closes with just such stand-alone moments. The poem starts with the science of the image:

A single drop of rain can weighfifty times as much as a mosquito and yet

the insect flies through a downpour without injury.

And ends taking the readers into the personal in a way that will forever change the way you see these bloodsuckers:

         A tough exoskeleton helps.Also a happy-go-lucky heart even though

his mother was strangled when he was seven.

“Top Hit” also gives us a moment of pausing and experiencing when, amidst an explanation of how genetic transcription and birdsong work, Hahn slips us this gem:

The indigo bunting’s changeable love song

contrasts with the zebra finch’s single versionbecause, though the latter is capable of a larger         repertoire,

the cells control the song. [End Page 33]

I like something about nearly every poem in the collection, even those with delayed punchy gratification such as “Frank?” and “Madagascan Hissing Cockroaches.” However, I have a weird aversion to blackout poems, so many of the pieces in “The Teenage Brain” are visually unappealing to me. Interestingly, the poems themselves are not blackout poems, only the titles are erasures from a 2010 article in Parade by Judith Newman called “Inside the Teenage Brain.” The linguistic effect is interesting, mimicking the experience of being inside the highly distractible mind of a teenager. And I could spin a case for the thick black bars across large sections of the title, one that has to do with presence and absence and liminality, but none of that would make it less, for lack of a better word, ugly, to me. In a collection that elegantly blends scientific fact, personal memory, and cultural critique with variable spacing within and between the lines, the visual is an important aspect of the lyrical experience in this book and blackout poems just don’t do it for me.

Hahn ends this collection with a short essay, “Luminous Vapours,” originally written for The American Poetry Review regarding the poem “A Dream of Toast,” but also serving as an insight to and overview of the function of word play within the collection as a whole. For me, the essay takes away the pleasure of reading the collection. To know that Hahn aspires for her work to “burst out of linear experience” and that she considers them to be a “set of quirky lyric poems,” is a bit like dissecting the frog. Yet many readers might appreciate the essay for the clear way it draws parallels between Hahn’s work and Japanese aesthetics. It’s an interesting piece, but it ends the collection squarely in the province of the mind and the collection might have been stronger leaving us in the heart.

Jennifer Schomburg Kanke

Poems by Jennifer Schomburg Kanke have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Spoonriver Poetry Review, and Nimrod.

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