Elaine Kahn’s debut, Women in Public, feels most at home in loosely associative lyrics (“I am in the market / for a tiny organ / and a pair of jeans”) but also features anti-love poems, quasi-metaphysical odes and indirect political commentary. In the opening poem, “Negative Desire,” Kahn establishes her stakes, calling out and complicating easy gender stereotypes: “There is nothing wrong / with being sensitive. / I just want to say that / there is nothing wrong.” Another early poem declares, “he is waiting / for a call / but I / will fuck / the face / of any man / who looks / away.” Beyond merely subverting traditional gender roles, Kahn’s mostly female speakers confront our assumptions of what female agency and desire look like, asserting a breezy confidence. Many of the poems coalesce around Kahn’s alternately witty and pull-no-punches voice, as well as her precise imagery: “Every observation is perverse / so kiss me / like you’re eating / soft-serve / from a cone.” The effectiveness of this voice reaches its peak when addressing a ‘you,’ usually a lover receiving both her affection and caustic ambivalence. Sometimes she wants to “drain / the clear batteries of your eyes”; elsewhere, she swoons “I’m healthy as a boy for you.”
While Women in Public shares thematic concerns with other recent debut collections by women—frank articulations of gender and sexuality, dialogues with scorned or scorning lovers—the collection distinguishes itself by acknowledging and updating a range of historical touch points, from the metaphysical poets to Gertrude Stein. These influences are reflected most notably in Kahn’s mash-ups of register and privileging of language play; these poems don’t just celebrate associative quirkiness but attain an assured textural depth, as in the opening to “Watching It Happen”:
I laze about, deranged and unafraid
to godly kiss you, kiss the pharmacist
that whipped you, undilute, to dilate high
your animus of lime and lye.
Kahn’s unwillingness to situate her poems within recognizable contexts also lends an abstract quality to her work. Familiar nouns exist, to be sure—pools, summer beaches, bedrooms—but more often she’ll deploy strategies that reveal the slipperiness of language, rather than locational clues or pop references, as a means of constructing identity. This lack of narrative scaffolding in favor of language games can raise the question of what is at stake in a few of the poems, but Kahn’s ability to capture the raw materiality of a mood is, at its best, captivating.