A Pure Bowl of Nothing
by Mary Kasimor
BlazeVOX [books] 2006
Reviewed by Melinda Wilson
The Walrus-Price of Go(l)d
A Pure Bowl of Nothing is an odd book from start to finish. Its physical presence efficiently represents the diverse body of poems found between its covers. There’s no author photo, no information about the author at all, no table of contents. Very few poems have titles. There are no clues for the reader, nothing from which to form any preconceived notions. The poems themselves are all one has to work with for better or worse, an admirable move in my eyes.
But as one begins to read, it becomes evident that the title of the book hardly does the book justice. A more appropriate and equally predictable title, I think, might have been A Mixed Can of Nuts. Each poem seems entirely separate from those that surround it. I also would approve of employing the first line of the poem “Price of Muse” as the title of the collection: Pricey the Walrus. But, if we must stick with the “bowl” image even “a bowl of beans” from a later poem would have been an improvement or at least more accurate.
Title aside, the poems in Kasimor’s spacey collection allude to a certain chaos or detachment from anything that has roots or stability. There’s nothing to orbit and nowhere to land; in some cases, this will leave readers frustrated and unable to connect with the words on the page. The large amount of white space throughout the book and the gaps between words and lines, caesuras for instance, contribute to this experience of free-floating. Though Kasimor does have a few repeated images and ideas that she works with, these consistencies are hardly enough to thread this mish-mash.
For example, the odd and perhaps mysterious repetition of a poem titled “deceptive personals.” The poem first appears early in the collection on page 14 and then reappears verbatim on page 28. The repetition seems unnecessary, possibly a mistake? Could be a vague philosophical notion I guess, but difficult to justify in such a long book, which weighs, in by the way, at a whopping 126 pages.
Kasimor consistently works to be philosophical throughout the book—and when she’s successful at it, her poems shine. One of my favorite examples comes from a poem early on in the collection which offers a repeated theme for Kasimor. She deconstructs the human body and all bodies for that matter: “a sleeping bag / a dog in the river / belly up in the water / our bodies don’t need bones.” This array of images subtly makes available the likeness of all bodily forms from sleeping bags, dogs and rivers, to the human form. This is not the last we hear of bones either. Kasimor repeatedly employs bones and their purpose, the idea that though bones are what physically allow our frames to stand erect, to be in motion, in the end, we don’t need them. What is most important is the non-physical. Though it may be an obvious idea that brainpower is more valuable than physical prowess, Kasimor’s rendering is like hearing it for the first time:
the brain spoke to
my brain swelled and then I became more of myself
Impressive because the brain recognizes itself as a part of a larger being but also as being separate from that being. It is powerful enough to see itself as one and yet two individuals that sometimes contradict one another, disagree, and face endless division until the day it stops.
As for Kasimor’s other tactics, she likes the clichéd inverse cliché, or the attempt to give life to a long dead image. I am not convinced of her ability to do so. Take the first poem in the book as an example. There are two instances in just the one poem in which Kasimor tries to revitalize a tired image. The first reads: “organic coffee swan shaped origami.” Now, I’ve never actually counted how many times origami has shown up in poems that I’ve read; a lot, but still I’d be willing to accept the ancient art if not for the fact that the swan is hardly impressive. I don’t know anyone who can fold origami into any other shape. My guess is that Kasimor tried to refresh the swan using a visually based technique rather than focusing on the content of her words. The words “organic” and “origami” share five of the same characters appearing very similar on the page, creating something like bookends for the line, a nice thought that hardly warrants the result.
The second example appears near the end of the poem. Check it out: “(another tip of the iceberg.” So, can an iceberg technically have more than one tip? I don’t think so, and even if it were possible, simply adding the word “another” doesn’t even come close to making over the image or saying. She would have done better to relay some interesting fact about icebergs; perhaps that some of the glacial ice that forms icebergs is thought to be over 15,000 years old. Unfortunately, Kasimor also ends a poem “and he lived / almost happily / ever after.” Again, adding one word doesn’t do it.
Perhaps her most severe offense in the book is “the moon’s sultry ass.” Many poets attempt to use the moon as a major image in their work and regrettably I am allowing Kasimor to take the heat for them all here. Oh well. But let’s face it, the moon has been a fingernail, a hunk of cheese, a fair porcelain cheek, and finally, an ass…whatever. All I get from this is a somewhat fond memory of Nicholas Cage and Cher’s ridiculously dramatic roles in Moonstruck, a good movie by the way.
There’s a striking contrast between the length of Kasimor’s book and her other more minimalist tendencies. It takes quite a while to accustom one’s self to her use of punctuation, which is erratic and often missing altogether. For Kasimor this seems to be yet another visual convention, one that I find is often successful, unpredictable as it may be. Ideally, poetry should strike a balance between the familiar and the unknown. By removing conventions, the reader is forced to adapt to a new and unfamiliar environment and movement of words, a life skill that is worth mimicking in poetry. However, that cannot be the only strategy at work.
In an untitled poem Kasimor again uses odd punctuation to produce a striking visual effect, but this time the visuals are applied in part to achieve a deeper or alternative meaning for the poem. I’ll quote:
it / is an exact dignity
found deep within the cracks
of the ass the earth’s manure
is worth more than
Okay, several things at play here. First, the line breaks imply duality for context and meaning. Also, there’s the contrast between dignity and ass cracks, and finally those damn parentheses. What are they doing? If we were to read the final word accordingly then it would be “god.” If we read it as though the parentheses did not exist then we get “gold.” And of course since Kasimor loves to be visual, we can’t help but see the butt crack glaring at us from the page. I applaud the author for providing us with options, and for being perhaps the first poet to “moon” her readers, but none of the options are all that appealing.
Okay, so it’s obvious at this point I didn’t love the book. But here, you judge:
if you’re a womb a fruit falls
off close to the tree
do you hear the noise
I don’t know…why? Do you? Scary stuff.
Kasimor reaches her peak in an untitled poem on page 55. Let’s keep in mind that page 55 is not even halfway through this book. As interrelated as everything is and as separate as it all may seem in life, what it really comes down to is where we are by the end of our allotted time and, as the saying goes, we all die alone. Unless, as Kasimor suggests, we find some way to avoid death:
the sculpture at the museum makes atoms alternating other forms
you only need to believe in it and you’ll
Yeah, I like this. So again it comes down to what we’re able to get our minds to believe and what our minds can convince us of. Everything recycles, and the fear of death clouds our reasoning to the point that we are oblivious to the second life and the third life or the next stage or just the mere continuation of the beginning, the first.
Kasimor really has me convinced for the first half of the book. The final forty pages however don’t cohere; they move away, break apart and maybe that’s the point: unity and division, cycles, but in order for the cycle to continue I would have to go back to the first poem in the book and begin again and I’m afraid that this book is not one I would return to, at least not in this lifetime.