In her most recent collection of poems, A Beautiful Name for a Girl (Ahsahta Press, 2011) Kirsten Kaschock explores different concepts of identity, and how identity is constructed. These concepts become increasingly constricting, and the book ultimately acts as a means of finding an escape from the self and society.
The opening poem, “Assemblage,” gives readers a sense of ownership and construction, using architecture as a trope for constructing a self that is wholly self and not dependent on any outside factors. By placing this as the introductory poem, Kaschock establishes identity as something that must not rely on outside standards but must be constructed within; shelter cannot be sought, only built. “This is the house Jane built by being the house / Jane built by being” (32-33). She establishes the search for identity not as finding oneself, “Once, this was Jane finding Jane” (2-3). but as embracing what is already there.
This foundation crumbles with each poem that follows, however, as Kaschock writes from increasingly varied perspectives, and in doing so writes her own mythology of gods and angels and demons, spiders and machines. Each poem follows a thread of this mythology, exploring the different perspectives of human, monster, dancer, teacher, mother, woman. What makes the poems so intriguing is how these perspectives interact and weave their way throughout the collection through her masterful repetition of words and themes. Just when a subject seems thoroughly exhausted, Kaschock brings it up again, forcing the mind to stretch to encounter it in a new way.
The culmination of these variances is most apparent in “Snuff Ballet (A Monologue for 2, 3, or 7),” a long poem that makes up the entire middle section of the book and captures the voice of a playwright, her critics, and her audience, all fixated on the display of the single dancer, a woman. The poem oscillates between these voices, and although the voice of the dancer is never heard, she is described:
required to be omega
older than her peers, in some way
bird-like, quick and puckish, prone to flight
prone to spasms
prone to on-stage orgasm
armed with working feet and a hole
in her heart that could lead
to certain death (strains of the 5th—three duhs
one duhm) therefore
karma-wise, all birds have issues
hollow bones, a diet of seeds
small eyes, their alertness instinct
not intuition, not intellect although
appearing intellect, required to
required to fool us all—up to and including
moment omega, and crucially
she must not believe in her own death (68-86)
These descriptions of the dancer’s character, costume, choreography and motivation are interspersed throughout, each increasingly eerie and invasive until eventually it is the playwright, the artist, who is on display and poised to fail.
“Fail. Now— / there’s a beautiful name for a girl” (35-36), is how Kaschock ends the penultimate poem of the book. This line seems the inevitable conclusion to these fable poems, the word “fail” serving as a reminder of what happens when all these voices are heeded and the foundation of the self is not preserved. But it still comes as a shock that this mythology is also tragic in nature: after listening to all these voices, there is still no hero to banish them, and Jane must build the house herself after all.
BIO: Kirsten Kaschock earned her Ph.D. in English from the University of Georgia, and is currently a doctoral fellow of dance at Temple University. A Beautiful Name for a Girl is her second collection of poems and is available from Ahsahta Press.