(Oxford, OH: Miami University Press, 2018)
In the spring of 2011, I underwent a tympanoplasty to reconstruct my left eardrum and the bones of my middle ear. I had damaged the ear about a decade earlier while water skiing on Lake Michigan; the Eustachian tube collapsed and a small plastic tympanostomy tube was placed through the eardrum to drain the lake water. For whatever reason, my eardrum didn’t welcome the tube and, after dozens of attempts, it detached from its proper position and clung to the walls of my middle ear like a piece of wet tissue paper. The operation rebuilt my eardrum using cartilage from my tragus: the stiffer tissue would not vibrate like a typical eardrum, resulting in permanent hearing loss.
Sound becomes suddenly much more significant once you lose it. Soon after I recovered from the tympanoplasty and bought my first hearing aid, my husband played a favorite album, Elliott Smith’s XO, for me. For the first time, I heard the layered vocals, the twink of the piano at the start of the second verse of “Waltz #2.” I had to stop listening midway through; the emotional consequences of the album were overwhelming. I needed space to synthesize.
My tympanoplasty and XO were very much on my mind as I read Scorpio, Katy Bohinc’s most recent poetry collection. April has been an unhappy month for me and, after a particularly bugged out night of teeth-grinding, my eardrum retracted. For the first time in years, my hearing is amorphic, and sounds are nebulous at best. I have been searching for poetry that has opposite qualities to the cacophony in my head — logical, metered, emotionally balanced, maybe even a predictable rhyme scheme — and assumed that Scorpio would give me all I needed. Bohinc is, after all, a pure mathematician and data scientist. Of course her poetic aesthetic must reflect the (totally incorrect) cliché of the cogent, sensible scientist.
Bohinc does not waste time shredding that misconception. Scorpio opens with “Water?” a single word poem that floats at the center of an otherwise blank page and then moves on to “Kernels” — a multi-page, all caps, sonic trip-scape of a poem that disorients and re-orients at dizzying speed. I was, initially, despondent: I can’t handle this. Perhaps Bohinc anticipated the overwhelm “Kernels” could (and should) trigger. On page three, she writes:
RHYME IS THE DIRECT DERIVATIVE OF
DYING BRAIN CELLS
I felt like Bohinc was snapping her fingers impatiently inches from my face, scolding me for my lazy craving for easy poetry, quiet sounds. I try to be an obedient reader so I started over, this time allowing the sonic elements of the poem to carry me along. As I re-read “Kernels,” the lines “CRITIQUE A WEAPON / WE LOAD TO CONSUME // A BRICK AND A BLOOD BLISTER / SO I DIDN’T” rose up from the roil of the poem. The repetition of softer “c” and “b” sounds culminate in the awesome cuff of “didn’t” and result in a gorgeous musicality totally disconnected from any semblance of narrative or logic.
This is not to say that Scorpio is without narrative elements or echews temporal anchors completely. “Obama’s Speech” approaches the announcement of the Iraq War’s end directly (as evidenced in the title); the poem’s speaker watches Obama’s 2010 speech in a bar and intermittently reminisces about the end of a romantic relationship. Bohinc writes:
Nobody in this bar seems to care
Guess they know it’s
Just another break-up
Just another jukebox tune
To burn the salt of over
Dressing up with eye-shadow
And patent leather penny loafers
As if it were a funeral
As if there were ever really
Dead enough, baby girl
The juxtaposition between the end of the war and the end of the speaker’s relationship is interesting, but I am much more compelled by the words “jukebox,” “penny loafers,” and “baby girl.” The poem has a distinct 1950s vibe that calls to mind the decade’s crooners and early rock n’ rollers. Repetitions (“just another,” “as if it were / there were” and “not with / while”) and lines like “I’m thinking ‘bout our sex, somehow / cause it’s never really over” evoke pop refrains and teenage sexual angst.
“Hung Out” straddles an interesting line between pure sound and narrative. Like “Obama’s Speech,” the speaker attempts to make sense of the end of another romantic (?) relationship:
[…] It’s all absurd, forgive my
mathematician. I still want some resolution,
I still want some rhyme. Because I go to so many
bullshit meetings all day long, I want
a literary song.
I want it dripping because fucking you
dry, I’d rather be in my cubicle.
I’m drawn to these lines – not only because they’re rife with a bitchy attitude that I absolutely adore — but also because the speaker expresses a desire for a “literary song” to help heal the pain of a failing relationship. At this point in the poem, the speaker is explicit, direct. Soon, though, the speaker self-fulfills their need for song. The poem moves on:
But I still believe it starts with
you and me
and the crimes, the crimes the
tears in the lockbox, fears
in the soft spot, the hard swallow
to fate, the surrender or hate
Here, the poem becomes increasingly rhythmic, chant-like; I hear, especially in the slant rhymes, a cadence resembling hip-hop or rap (even though “Hung Out” is technically neither). Interestingly, the poem’s unexpected resolution echoes my own compulsion toward simple sounds and predictability during life’s bedlam moments: “Dear baby, // I have an unfortunate thriving towards symmetry.”
An unfortunate thriving towards symmetry. This was not, perhaps, as aggressive a mandate to drop the pursuit for order (in poetry, in life) as in “Kernels” but it similarly made me pause to reevaluate my instinct to self-insulate. “Hung Out” reminded me of listening to XO with my hearing for the first time intact and how I cried, pathetic, as I turned the volume down. The poem urged me to open up to a sonic landscape that, sure, is overwhelming and a bit terrifying — but, in the end, exactly what the doctor ordered.
I’ve now read Scorpio six times. It is not an easy book, nor does it aspire to be easy. In fact, I don’t think I’m off base to interpret these poems as a direct challenge to the reader to open up, let in, let go. In each of my re-readings, “Water” has stood out to me as particularly emblematic of that charge. Bohinc writes: “And a want to keep you as calm as / this baby, mind own self I have known, and be kept in / a way, in a box, an adjectival box (we’ll / get to that later) of, of, from /.” I don’t know what it means — it makes me feel nervous, actually — but it sounds lovely. All I can do is close my eyes, keep reading.
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Lisa Grgas is the Supervising Editor and Associate Poetry Editor at The Literary Review. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Adroit Journal, Luna Luna, Fractal, and elsewhere. She lives in Portland, OR.