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Poetry, it comes in colors (with apologies to Love [the 60s band, not the emotion]).

February 2, 2012 \pm\29 7:42 pm

An accomplished poet friend coined the term “beige poetry” for poems that have no life, no sense of risk, no “edge”; he believes it applies to much of what sees publication today.

Little Winter Theater, a chapbook by Nancy Kuhl (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011), isn’t beige. It’s red, and not just red, but scarlet and crimson. It’s blue, and not just blue; but cobalt and indigo. It’s gray, and not just gray, but metallic gray (think of something sharp). If it’s white, the chances are somebody in a poem is wearing a hospital gown.

The poems in Little Winter Theater communicate an unrelenting impression of breathlessness, panic and unavoidable hurt, both physical and emotional.

Scraped bloody, skin splint palm

and ache, the given fabric of twilight

 

coming away in ribbons.

 

So read the opening lines of “Love Story.”

Kuhl infuses her writing with a litany of uncomfortable and even harsh nouns and adjectives. If you like your poetry to be the literary equivalent of shiatsu, look elsewhere. The first poem, “Echo’s Voice,” begins barefoot and stricken and stumbling. The second, “Talking Points,” starts off, Wasps through the crumbling frame, droning. The parasitoids make an encore appearance two poems later in “Morning Provisional”: wasps let themselves in without asking.  The insect images may strike another reader as colorful detail, but for me it has sinister overtones in light of my personal frame of reference. My mother was allergic to wasp stings.  A wasp in the house wasn’t just annoying; it was potentially dangerous.

The telephone in “Ring” doesn’t simply have a mouthpiece. It has a “pocked mouthpiece.” The mind’s eye may instantly picture the mouthpiece’s tiny apertures, but consider Kuhl’s choice of “pocked.” A related noun is pockmark, a disease-induced disfigurement.

Night’s appetite is “furious.”  Air is “sweaty.”  We become aware of “sound decaying within the ear.”  The poem called “Broken Rib,” probably my favorite of the chapbook’s 22, reads like a free-association narrative of someone who is drugged, delirious and doubled over in agony because she’s suffering from the titular fracture.  The entire poem follows:

 

Breath caught stiff now

interrupted by teeth by

lips breath stretched near

panting near sobbing cleft

bone announces obscure

and jagged crush and rupture

beneath burning skin blush-red

the body’s tender appeal no

hesitation regardless lung’s

range muscle’s transaction

flex or force and air submits

to suggestion rushes in fills

the break the certain aftermath

describes a critical seam

 

The chapbook’s title, Little Winter Theater, is deceptive. It evokes sugar-candy scenes from The Nutcracker. What words, however, do we associate with “winter”?  How often do we speak of a “pleasant winter” or a “nice winter”?  Winter is usually “brutal” and “miserable.” The title poem ironically is the collection’s most tranquil, a momentary truce with the tough goings-on that precede and resume immediately after it; still, the poem isn’t so tranquil that we’re afforded a false sense of security: Narrow / windows—sparrows and wind / rising and finally snow, unlaced / shadows, the dread and sensibility / we reach across.

Little Winter Theater concludes with an unsettling promise. The last line of the last poem, “Nightly,” is I’ll tell you everything. Kuhl may have told us more than we expected to know, but with these parting words, she hints that her story isn’t over.

Beige is ideal for a bedroom wall. A beige shirt offsets a black suit beautifully. It’s not an ingratiating color for poetry, though. I prefer the colors of my poetry to be stark and demanding, like scarlet, cobalt and metallic gray.

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