Kim Gek Lin Short
The Bugging Watch & Other Exhibits
reviewed by Dan Magers
Kim Gek Lin Short
The Bugging Watch & Other Exhibits
Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2010
Rope-a-Dope Collaborative, 2010
Kim Gek Lin Short’s work utilizes narrative devices and creates a wealth of emotional layering by keeping the story simple. Her debut full-length poetry collection The Bugging Watch & Other Exhibits consists of two child-like teenage lovers, Harlan and Toland, overwhelmed by the responsibilities of their relationship, and her new chapbook Run is about a country music-loving girl named La La, who escapes crushing poverty and bizarrely antagonistic parents through fantasies of country superstardom, and who then becomes locked in a charged master/slave dynamic by a guilt-ridden pedophile named Ren. There is great complexity in both works, which comes from a layering of points of view as well as the ambiguity of reality slipping into fantasy. The Bugging Watch plays out very much as a fairytale, while Run is suffused in melodrama. There are many excellent aspects of each, but what is remarkable about both is the convincing depiction of escapism to combat the pressures of reality.
The language of fairytales has proven to be fecund ground on which to create poetry. In its three sections, The Bugging Watch & Other Exhibits uses the delicate rhythms of this language to great effect without falling into preciousness or sentimentality. Like many classic fairytales, there is an undercurrent of violence in the thoughts and actions of Harlan and Toland:
“Toland said she was saving herself because she could not help thinking that when they have their baby she would find it in the kitchen bloody with her blood or bloody with knifeblood or bloody with the stenciled blood of everlasting sleep, which is why she stopped sleeping.”
Short does not necessarily linger over this imagery or why Toland would think this, instead letting the anxiety of the sentence impress itself into the reader. The anxiety continues to build, as if emanating from an unknown trauma under the otherwise placid tone:
“At first, he put her in a chair by the basement saw, and every day by the sound of sanding read to her from his biography of dolls. He read about the Saturday doll and the Sunday doll, and then he read about the Monday doll….Harlan gave her from his quiver of needles a torn piece of wool, and then he continued. He read to her about the Tuesday doll and the Wednesday doll, and then he read to her about the Doll of the Seven Cables. And Toland in her chair by the saw sat up very straight. It was nearly time for the next doll, but Toland was not ready….It was nearly time for the next doll, so Harlan with his quiver of needles gave Toland a start. But Toland still wasn’t ready.”
The intricate use of repetitions and refrains, along with the subtle inversion of sentence structure (“Toland in her chair by the saw sat up very straight”), gives the language a languid tone while adding to the story a sense of urgency and a hushed awe that transforms the anxiety of these characters to a pervasive melancholy throughout the book.
The language of the book also has elements of the surreal or fantastical from the beginning:
“There once lived like fur forgotten in a basement corner the girl who touched everything. Her body like a ball of yarn unwound and fell from the bed into the basement, from the basement into the drain, and met with many accidents, where it did touch many things.”
The power of this metaphor is such that it overtakes in our minds what it is standing in for and makes a movement out of an inanimate object, the yarn. Sometimes this has a creepy tone (“An audience comes and often Harlan enacts a beetle. If it’s bright enough he tunnels the cold wet soil beneath. In nocturne looks for children in the flour and pancake mix open under pipes in the kitchen.”). These fantastical or surreal elements that animate objects or give humanity to insects and objects, as well as the heightened attention to bizarre and sometimes macabre detail is strongly reminiscent of the short films of the Brothers Quay.
The attention to these details is such that they make The Bugging Watch & Other Exhibits feel very curated, to use a term more associated with the visual arts. The broad outlines of the narrative wrapped in the language of fairytale; the way that Section Two, heavily footnoted, is focused on Harlan’s story; and Section Three is the “selections of Toland’s datebook”—all these give the work a deep sense of interiority, almost a psychodrama animating the interests, concerns, and obsessions of the poet. Sections Two (“The Bugging Watch”) and Three (“Sources: Selections from Toland’s Datebook”) have in common a preoccupation with theatricality and having an audience (“I was early felt for fame,” Toland writes), which are more fully explored in Run. However, the interiority of The Bugging Watch is very different from Short’s chapbook, and the delicate melancholy of the former will in no way prepare the reader for the hellishness of Run.
In Run, Short works with much more volatile material. The Bugging Watch, while steeped in sex and violence, is always safely tucked in fairytale. Run, at least on the surface, looks like a first-person confessional. The story is (hopefully) as fictional as The Bugging Watch, but the characters and circumstances of La La’s life are close enough to reality that the reader immediately feels there is a lot more at stake.
The dynamic between Toland and Harlan and then Toland and her mother in Section Three of The Bugging Watch mirrors La La’s struggles with Ren and her mother, and yet Run’s page count nearly equals that of the entirety of The Bugging Watch & Other Exhibits. Short is able to take the structure and dynamic of the last section of her first book and sustain it at a greater length in the story of La La, who daydreams of country music superstardom amid a jealous mother, criminal father, and a life of poverty:
“There was that suitcase of records Baba brought home from work. Work was supposed to be driving typhoon-stranded tourists from airport to hotel. Work was really taking the tourists to an alley stabbing them stealing their stuff. La La’s job was to listen to the radio all day music music during typhoon season for the Royal Observatory to interrupt TRANSIT SUSPENDED. When they did she woke up Baba he went to work. La La liked to listen to music music all day she played her records. Loretta Lynn Patsy Cline Emmylou Harris beautiful cowgirls…. La La never asked or anything but one day she asked for a guitar….Her mother blared COWGIRLS DON’T HAVE FLAT FACES gave her daughter a clothespin.”
She thinks of running away, but is then either kidnapped or otherwise finds herself imprisoned by Ren, a sad-sack who is also a pedophile/murderer.
Ren is a family man when he takes La La he wants to be her father or something commensurate….The suitcase is empty but La La wears all her clothes anyway like Heidi…La La wants to impress Ren with all of her clothes on she can’t do even one cartwheel. She falls onto the mattress.
The fairytale language of The Bugging Watch is by and large missing from Run, which is much more direct and visceral. Just as the former is steeped in fairytale, Run is given a certain removal from reality by Short’s reliance on violent melodrama, which elevates the emotional pitch, but also offers a veil of unreality. But like The Bugging Watch, Run also uses the surreal and grotesque to sharp effect:
“The afternoon La La does not come home from school her mother goes into La La’s stash and eats all of her American cereal….When her husband gets back gone drunk he leans-shut the door behind him. With his body slides to the floor. Keeps sliding underground just as the singed head of his wife emerges from the box of Fruit Loops.”
The characters in Run are generally sketched more sharply (though with the exception of La La, that is not to say roundly) than in The Bugging Watch, particularly La La, who is by turns boastful (“Y’all I would’ve been out of your league at 12. I’m only tattlin’ now, cause I would’ve been 20 today”); fey (“She [La La’s mother] caught the child squinting at her through crib bars and her hair began to fall out”); and deluded (“The only way she can stand it is she convinces herself those soapy fibers sticking in her throat will make her a better singer. She tells herself voice exercises every Tuesday during the typhoon off-season.”), and who is locked in a strange power struggle with Ren:
We are illimitable, he thinks, look at my angel sleep. Incarnate. He tells Bill that nobody not even Pet embodies her essence like La La. She wakes…“Don’t just lay there y’all,” another sneeze, “get me a tissue!”…”I want cereal, Lao Ren.” He will do anything. He pulls on his pants. He begs, “What kind do you want?”
The misery in Run is particularly savage, and it is spread to La La’s greedy and provincial mother and father as well as her feckless captor (“Ren does not know why the little girl won’t be sweet to him not even once but he lives hopefully what else can he do.”). The world in Run is unremittingly bleak for everyone involved:
“She reaches into the house into the bathroom and pulls out a jar of preserves. It has public hairs in it. She giggles. On a patterned shard of Lucite she spoonfeeds the curled sticky hairs to Ren and then smears a dramatic helping onto a square of used toilet tissue and licks.”
The deep reliance on exaggeration and melodrama is such that it can be argued that Run is just as much a psychodrama as The Bugging Watch. But what comes across more strikingly, and what makes Run so successful, is the way Short is able to depict the inner life of La La, and how seamlessly she can work back and forth between the reality of the story and the dreams and desires of La La, as in one of the best poems in the chapbook “Patsy Clone”:
“When I get to America I will have my own room children in America have their own rooms. It will have a lock on the door like when I’m famous and have curled hair….When I get to America pale skin shape of perfume bottle fuzz underpanted pink dots my nipples. When I get to America cowgirl ears pierced sterling silver headphones loud so I don’t listen. Hear that name they read off my tag? I don’t answer to it anymore, when I get to America.”
For all the melodrama in Run, what comes across as most authentic is the fluid movement of La La’s cognition retreating back and forth into daydreams and fantasy. From the shifting tenses (“Hear that name the read off my tag? I don’t answer to it anymore, when I get to America.”), to the adroit use of run-on sentences (“When I get to America pale skin shape of perfume bottle fuzz underpanted pink dots my nipples.”), as well as how content-less sentence fragments can bring comfort to one’s mind (“Please it is so much like hell. I promise. In my new life.”), the disconnection between La La’s daydreams and her reality is ironic, and finally tragic.
“Patsy Clone” also makes explicit something that is implied in the rest of the book, which is the idea of racial passing. There is a tradition in the poems and stories of the immigrant experience that puts an emphasis on realism, with the thought that the immigrant story is underrepresented in the dominant tradition of English-language literature. America abounds in immigrant experiences, but each new wave of ethnicities coming to America has a new variation and emphasis, and it has been the idea that these should be accurate accounts of storytelling. Kim Gek Lin Short has introduced into this lexicon the idea of exaggeration, fantasy, and melodrama, which acts as a different prism in which to view these stories, but is also a demonstration of a restless talent trying to tell a more personal story, which is not always the same thing as a true story. Both The Bugging Watch & Other Exhibits and Run are wonderfully original examples of this.