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Dating With One-and-a-Half Breasts Aug 23, 2006
It's a shame nobody reads poetry anymore. Because when readers dismiss poetry as something inscrutable out of the past, they are losing the chance to introduce themselves to forward-thinking word crafters like Elisabeth Kuhn.
German-born and Berkely-educated, Kuhn takes the same world-wise travelling mentality in her verse that she takes in her life. She is also wise enough to recognize something that many academic poets these days have forgotten: that formal verse exists because people like to read it. Kuhn crafts verse in accessible forms like villanelles and sonnets, forms that a poetry audience will read for pleasure, and uses these forms to address difficult issues.
And the issues Kuhn wants to address are the issues of her own life. Foremost among those issues is her battle with breast cancer, a battle cluminating in a partial mastectomy that leaves her with breasts of two very different shapes. In a world that values women according to their appearance, she struggles to decide where that puts her. Different poems show her in different places, but in general she is optimistic, strong enough not to be broken by anybody looking at her body strangely.
Some poets are primarily storytellers, like T.S. Eliot, and some like to bear their sins in the style of Sylvia Plath. Kuhn approaches poetry with the aplomb of a creative memoirist. The most important element in her poetry is herself, but she is not just flatly telling her story, she is telling us why her story should matter to us. And for the most part, she is telling us her story well.
I admit to flinching when I began reading this book. The very first poem, "Palpitations," is a sestina. In this form, key words are repeated according to a geometric schedule in the course of a 39-line poem. It's a very difficult form (all my attempts have been failures) and Kuhn judders markedly on this one as well. There are a few pieces like this, which suggest they were written for an MFA poetry class, and don't jibe well. When one such piece opened the collection I got a little queasy and thought I was in for a bad ride.
But I'm glad I stuck with the book. There are real treasures in this book, insights into being human as well as insights into being Elisabeth Kuhn. Consider these lines, from "The Pleasure Is Mine," discussing breast reconstruction:
...I'd feel as if he fondled molded jello, glued to my chest.
This deceptively simple analogy contains within it so much nuance about human relationships, sexuality, sensuality, the identity of the individual, and the human body. The author feels partly adrift because her body has been altered, but she refuses to be prettified just to satisfy an abstract individual she might or might not ever meet. These lines are very direct, yet freighted with all the depth and complexity that human language can bring to bear upon them. And these are just three lines in a much longer book.
It's true, there are some poems that ring hollow in this volume. Kuhn is a journeyman poet, and even the greatest masters don't succeed all the time. But on balance, this book is readable and rewarding for both experienced poetry readers and casual bookworms. This is a book I would go out of my way to recommend to other readers. These poems let us peek into the heart of a woman, and together they give us a banner insight into the complexity of one person's life experience. She promises much in the future, and on the evidence of this first book, we have much to look forward to.
On a final note, if you want a glimpse of Kuhn's poetry before you buy, one poem from this collection was read by Garrison Keillor on his public radio series "Writer's Almanac." To read it yourself, or to hear Keillor read it to you, go to: http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/programs/2006/07/10/index.html#tuesday