A Roomful of Machines by Kristine Ong Muslim
Searle Publishing, 2010,
Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom
Kristine Ong Muslim's first full-length poetry collection reminds me of the first useful definition of good writing that I heard, which was my father's (intentional or inadvertent) paraphrase of Samuel Johnson's quote, "The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new."
In A Roomful of Machines, Kristine Ong Muslim demonstrates her ease with the latter by taking for her subjects inanimate objects and viewing them from the inside out, making a reader care about their isolated, sedentary existences and even mourn their seemingly redundant demises.
This sort of project requires a fearless leap of imagination -- the kind of agile imagination that adult writers often struggle to access, and so it's no surprise to read that the author has a previous collection of children's poems to her credit, making it easier to understand why she is not afraid to take the leaps necessary to really see things -- non-sentient things -- with new eyes and offer real surprises.
Over and over again, I found myself envying the poems in this collection, not for their success, although they do succeed, but for the originality of the spirit that animates their subjects.
In "Tea Cup," a chip signals that the object in question is headed for the dumpster, and so it is warned: "Chances are, you will break yourself/ sliding down the garbage chute./ At least, you will not be alone./ Your shards will share your pain." As in many of these poems, the lines sound straightforwardly simple on a first reading, and take on depth with each rereading.
"From Scratch" takes a slight departure from elucidating the secret lives of objects to elucidating the secret lives of authors, and it seems oddly fitting to place the authorial voice in this context: There is no way/ to stop me from/ confessing to murder/ in poetry.// It is all right with me/ to have the tunnel inspected;/ it is where all/ the secret blood must go." In the same way that a handmade implement cooperates with its owner by surrendering itself for the sake of its intended use, the author cooperates with the reader, surrendering herself for the sake of the text's intended use.
We return to this territory again in a later poem which asserts a role for the author that is self-protective as well as nurturing to the reader, ending with "Voice is a city that pilfers pain,/ quiets us with its tiny lights."
In another poem about language, "The Distant Tongue," the immediacy of "Each uttered word will smell of rapture,/ of the insistence of suicide," while in the silence that follows "... we will all be shrunken to the size/ of a box of salt, a mouthful of dead fish..."
The next poem, "And," captures just as movingly the larger, more oceanic feeling from which a poem is seized and then whittled down to size.
In "Still," for another twist on the main theme of sentient objects, a man on a bench is compared to "... a glove fashioned out/ of winter's skin. Spent and hardened. Like an/ unfinished interview. His right hand is shaking." Somehow the picture from each angle is the same: the reader is jarred into empathy.
Other poems jar in other ways. "Sudden Elsewhere" begins, "Assume you have/ nothing to lose/ and cannot dwell in/ a favorite memory." That is the sort of beginner's mind that permits an author to share a new way of seeing things, and it explains what make this collection so enjoyable, as well as haunting.
"Departure" imagines death as a soft place of deferred fulfillment: "One day, the hills in the distance will disappear,/ and the sunset will explode into reds and grays--/ the only real colors we know. We will walk,/ hand in hand, out of whatever room we have wanted/ to own. Each wish will become a want./ Each finger will unravel the cold/ until there is nothing else left to touch."
The poem that follows, "Balancing Act," is taut with dread: "Summer is a snapped twig/ glued back in place./ But it will dangle again./ You'll see."
The final poems, placed in the section entitled "Eulogies," are also disparate in stance and tone. Written from the point of view of the object in question, "Death of a Firefly" is personal and heartbreaking. Written from a demolisher's perspective, "Death of a House" is observant and analytical, even as it speaks of scooping out and swallowing hunger; and "Death of a Cereal Box" is sensuous and whimsical.
The eulogy to "Nothing" is the least moving among these (good riddance to Nothing, I'd say ... who would miss it?) until the final stanza: "For years, no one has ever heard of Nothing/ and what has become of its body, the husk/ that is so empty every one thinks it is/ impossible to destroy."
Nothing, antithesis to sentience in all its manifestations, real or imagined, still permeates the realm of objects and beings. But naming it seems to put at least a temporary dent in its power, and that's just one good reason to give these bravely original poems a look.