Aaron Kunin, The Sore Throat & Other Poems
Publisher: Fence Books
2010, 125 pages, paperback, $16

aaron kunin’s new collection, The Sore Throat & Other Poems, translates Ezra Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” and Maurice Maeterlinck’s play, Pelléas et Mélisande, into two series of poems that require no knowledge of their sources. Even without their broader literary context, these poems hypnotize, humor, pain, and lull the reader into the peculiar world they create and inhabit.

It is no small compliment that Jack Spicer would have liked this book; among the reasons, the book’s vocabulary is limited to around 200 words (170 in the Pound translation). Using this limitation, Kunin generates a poetry that is meditative in its musicality. I first heard Kunin read from The Sore Throat at a pub during the most recent AWP conference in Denver. While it was somewhat difficult to hear him through the drone of hushed voices and bartending, his selection was almost metronomic in its use of the word “you,” which assonated through the whispers to achieve a mesmerizing effect. Kunin’s method works toward a number of ends. Since his restrained vocabulary often produces entrancing effects, moments of unexpected clarity, rhyme, or word choice can be a real pleasure, as in “A Can of Rats”:

Begin—can you cope—

“Oh, say can you see”—laughter—

Applause—can you cope—

I know—before you were, I am—after

You are, I am—but what I am—I don’t know—

Your eyes are the machine of all my woe—

The broken meanings, layered sounds, and philosophical verges that begin this passage serve to emphasize the lucidity of feeling in that final line of the excerpt, which otherwise might not evoke such emotion. Similarly, I received a jolt of delight the first time I came to the word “Ahem” (not until page 28). It took a few moments to realize that this word functions as a well-deserved clearing of the throat that I hadn’t even known I needed, me being under the spell of Kunin’s technique. The sensation reminded me of the first time I came to the words “Sea cucumber” in Ron Silliman’s Ketjak.

While Kunin’s language is mechanical (“Why am I talking to a machine?” he asks early on), it is rarely, if ever, mechanical to its own detriment. Even in its most down-to-earth moments, his method produces poetry of great yet subtle beauty. Consider this from “No Word, No Sign”:

There’s no word for you. There’s no word
for what you do to me. For what you do,
somehow, and you don’t know you do it,
to my mind with just your voice, so that

everything I once was sure of seems wrong;
for what you do to my way of seeing,
so that I start to doubt my own eyes if
what my eyes report isn’t just like what

I hear you say; and for what you do to
my voice to keep it from talking, to keep down
every word somewhere where I can’t remember
it: for this, there’s no word. To me

you’re like a machine without a purpose,
whose purpose is to cast doubt on every
idea that my mind is thinking, and
the end of every idea is you.

These stanzas suggest the emotional core of The Sore Throat. Kunin uses his limited word choice to suggest the clichés of love poetry while using that same limitation to rise above cliché and to inspire true emotion. The above passage is all the more moving for appearing halfway through the book, at a point by which the delicate nuances and persistent musicality of Kunin’s mantra have more than likely lulled the reader into a dream-like state. Suddenly, the familiar language of relationships wakes the reader before the fall back into reverie.

Still, the preceding passages only hint at the satisfaction that comes from the sheer weirdness of this book, much of which seems to have been pulled straight from a dream. Rats (one of the more distinguishable images) run amok, remembering ages of wonder and weeping, demanding change and dancing. Jesus makes a number of cameo appearances; he is earth, he is wrong, he fits in a can. “A Business Idea” offers one of the book’s more humorous passages, in which the speaker and his brother decide to “invent a machine / to can laughter, and anybody / can have [their] laughter / for two dollars a can…” By simultaneously referencing such broad fields as religion, business, philosophy, and language, and while making very few articulate claims about them, Kunin establishes an unusual and permeating sense of consequence. “How about someone from another planet?” Peter Gizzi asks on the book’s back cover. But The Sore Throat & Other Poems is very much of Earth, and despite its more otherworldly moments, Kunin conveys the strangeness of this planet. “It’s a pleasure to be on earth in the age of talking rats,” he writes. And I agree.

—James Knippen