Review by Ess Wagner
by Kate Durbin
Wonder, May 2014
I don’t watch much reality television, but when I do I tend to watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians. It’s mindless and relaxing. I like looking at their pretty hair and faux eyelashes and severe curves. It demands nothing of me as a viewer. But what does reality TV in book form demand of me as a reader?
Kate Durbin’s new book, E! Entertainment, at first feels very much like watching TV (except you can’t read it while stoned or eating Indian take-out). But the more of it I read, the more questions I had: Is this real? Did she transcribe this or is it fiction? Is this poetry? Is this parody? Social critique? What is this:
Wife Ette shakes her head. “You’re not going to suggest Hello Kitty shapes are you?”
“I saw it and it was really cute,” says Wife Josie. “They made sushi, like, the rice was like shaped like her head, and they put like accents, like the bow was like a little piece of fish and stuff.” As she talks about the bow she makes a bow-tying motion above her big hair and tilts her head to the side.
And the whole book is like that–eight chapters of reality “episodes” on nearly 200 pages of pink paper. The book can be discomfiting and disorienting at times. The “screen” image changes frequently, often zoomed in and probably cut from a different point in time and spliced in for dramatic effect but at the cost of irregularities–something in someone’s hand that wasn’t there before, boxes on the floor then the couch. The composition of each scene is very busy—so much so that characters lose their identity or fail to have an identity at all, often referred to in very literal terms: Blonde Mullet Woman, the Go-To Guy for Weddings, the Medium, Wife Kyle’s BFF, the Make-Up Artist, black silk shirt girl, fingernail-nibbling girl, etc. Or we just see a collage of a person via their bedroom and personal belongings, as in the “Girls Next Door” chapter:
This large bedroom is hot pink and organized. The Queen bed’s bright pink comforter is off-set sprays of black and white bunnies with bowties pillows. There is also a large Hello Kitty pillow…Inside the Control Clutter Closet are numerous glittering gowns and themed costumes, such as sexy devil and sexy angel. The closet is color and calendar coordinated.
Without substantial identity, the stars are also devoid of sincere emotions, tending to instead display scripted and/or inhibited ones, and the viewer must rely on the music at the beginning of each “scene” to present the emotional context of either what just happened or what’s going to happen.
To better understand how Durbin’s work both conforms to and bucks traditional literary and artistic forms, I turned to my old Marilyn Stokstad art history textbook:
1. “The elaboration of surface detail to create ornamental effects combined with an effort to capture the essence of form is characteristic of abstract art” …
2. “Realistic art…has a surface reality; the artists appear, with greater or lesser accuracy, to be recording exactly what they see. Realistic art…can carry complex messages and be open to individual interpretation”…
3. “Realism and abstraction represent opposite approaches to the representation of beauty” (Stokstad 19).
Durbin has created a work that refuses to be clearly defined. It meets the definition of both realism and abstraction. It’s a hybrid of prose poetry, flash fiction, and documentary/transcription. It brings to my mind James Hampton’s 1964 sculpture, Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, which is made of old furniture, flashbulbs, and miscellaneous trash tacked together and wrapped in aluminum, gold foil, and purple paper. E! Entertainment is the throne, its viewers/readers are the nation’s millennium general assembly, with Durbin paying precise attention to the gold foil wrapped around vapid and otherwise uninteresting people:
Wife Kyle has long, shiny brown hair and big gold Dior hoop earrings. She sighs, looking out the limo window into the setting sun. Her hazel eyes glitter, along with her champagne.
“And believe me, Wife Camille’s likable,” says Wife Kyle, pointing out the window with her champagne glass. She has a gold Dior stud bracelet on.
“But if she’s mean to you, I’m obviously not going to watch her,” says Wife Kyle’s BFF, who has cascading strawberry blonde curls and a tiny, sculpted nose. Piles of Chanel pearls rest in her cleavage. She sits next to Wife Kyle on the limo seat.
“It was–a fluke thing, maybe. We’ll see,” says Wife Kyle. She is wearing a beige and blue Pucci dress with billowy sleeves. She is very tan.
“All I know is everybody adores you,” says Wife Kyle’s BFF. “You’ve had your friends forever.”
Wife Kyle nods. She takes out a Chanel compact and eye pencil from a black leather Chanel bag and starts lining her eyes.
Durbin elaborates on the ornamentation of each woman, never attempting to dig beneath the surface. All we get is what’s physically present and happening in the scene. It doesn’t matter much if these superficial relationships and self-involvement are part of the packaging; the picture itself is more important than the depth of the scene/conversation/relationship.
There are also numerous mentions of Delirium candles throughout the book. Delirium is apparently a popular brand of luxury candles, but the frequency with which they appear made me wonder if the reality stars who purchased them have an acute mental disturbance characterized by confused thinking and disrupted attention usually accompanied by disordered speech and hallucinations. Durbin gives us exactly what “reality” looks like, and by not giving us a fixed meaning behind the picture, she also gives us delirium.
It’s difficult to tell if Durbin’s work is transcribed or invented, much like the reality shows she studies. The note at the beginning of the book states that it’s a work of fiction, but is it fiction because the shows are fiction? The only thing I know for certain is that this is what we invest in culturally. It’s tacky social encounters dressed up in designer clothes. It’s lipstick on a pig. It’s a photograph of a painting. It is American Pop Culture.
* * *
The World’s Shittiest Cosmo
by Aaron Krol, resident mixologist
I couldn’t wait to pair a drink with E! Entertainment. I needed a drink with the same effect as the book itself: the bewilderment, the fascination, and especially the need to pass it around the table: you have got to taste this. The characters, those wealthy, empty, hyper-fashionable mannequins, could only be matched with a cosmopolitan; but the book’s potent effect on the reader, that creeping feeling of what has my culture wrought, needed a little something extra. Hence, this flashy, crowded, utterly misguided cocktail that takes a classic cosmo and pours a bellini on top:
2 oz. vodka
1 oz. triple sec
1/2 oz. cranberry juice
1/2 oz. peach juice or peach puree
Prosecco sparkling wine
Mix the vodka, triple sec, cranberry and peach in a shaker with ice. Squeeze the lime wedge over the mixture. Shake thoroughly (this is a drink where you’d love to get little slivers of ice slush in) and strain into a cocktail glass. Top with Prosecco until the glass is too full to lift without spilling. Lift, spill, and drink. I think Stoli is one of the better inexpensive vodkas, and of course Cointreau for the triple sec. But really, you won’t taste anything but the fruit and sticky sweetness. And a lot of vodka.
Review by Aaron Krol
I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust
by Yu Xiang
translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain
Zephyr Press, 2013
Yu Xiang is apparently a pretty big deal in China, so I should get out of the way right off the bat that I am no expert in Chinese poetry. Like a lot of Americans, I’ve read scattered poems of the biggest classical Chinese poets – Tu Fu, Li Po – but so little contemporary Chinese poetry that (I’m embarrassed to say) it’s a little startling to open up I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust and find things like birth control pills, Trainspotting, and, in one memorable passage, “filthy drains, refinery tailings, / cramped bedrooms, cloned beings, nuclear weapons, oxygen bars / for post-post-post-modernity, for gender reassignment clinics, for the masses.”
So if you’re looking for a well-informed analysis of how Yu Xiang’s first full-length work translated into English fits into the body of post-war Chinese poetry, or the unique position she occupies in Chinese society as a young female artist from the dialectically distinct city of Jinan, well, I’m sorry. I’m just here to recommend a book I liked.
I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust is a low-key, undemanding, open-ended sequence of delights. Many of the poems are just tiny snippets of experience, so with a few exceptions (the series “The Painting Life,” the long poem “To the One Who Writes Poetry Tonight”), I tended to absorb the book more as a single entity than as a series of separate poems. That’s not to say the poems aren’t fully realized as independent pieces, or can’t be very different from each other in tone and approach. There’s just something about Yu’s ego-free observational style, and her tendency to pull a single kernel of knowledge from each experience, that makes it very easy to glide from one page to the next uninterrupted.
I’ll quote one poem in full to give you a taste.
To let in more sunlight
I’ve been cleaning a glass pane all morning
I wipe it clean
so clean it seems there’s no glass, just air
Then I slump onto a sofa
admiring the square of abundant sunlight
A housefly buzzes out, smacks into it
A housefly wants to buzz in, smacks into it
Several houseflies want to buzz in and out, they smack into it
On the windowsill a few flies
twitch their bodies, struggling blindly in the sun
I guess my life is no different from these flies’
I always imagine facing a holy front
It’s a little like some of Frank O’Hara’s poetry (I’m thinking of “Les Étiquettes Jaunes,” which sadly I can’t find a good link for – “Leaf! You are so big!”). The style is so sweet and unassuming that it almost obscures the poem’s thoughtfulness. The inward turn at the end isn’t profound, exactly, but it does feel genuine in a way that more elaborate moments of epiphany rarely do. I’m happy to bask in the strangely beautiful layering of imagery, the “square of abundant sunlight” set against the twitching flies, and don’t get too wrapped up in the idea that this scene is representative of greater things. That offhand little phrase “I guess” is a nice moderation of the more perplexing power of “holy front,” a way to lighten the mood and lower the stakes even as the poem plunges deeper.
This is how a lot of Yu’s poetry works, glimmers of brilliance treated like simple observations. In one poem, the moon’s “surroundings exude a furry light / like a ring of helpless baby hands.” In another, she proclaims, “I’m indeed / authentic, shaving fur from mice / with ancient craftsmanship.”
Which is, I think, a good description of her style – her vision may be strange, but it isn’t so tortured with meaning as to be quite surrealist or symbolist. It’s indeed authentic. Even when she’s shaving mice, Yu isn’t trying to conjure up more than the world as it is.
Her great skill is in her light touch. She can open a poem (“Letter”) like this:
every day some letters are lost on the way
it has to do with nonbelief
blown by wind into the trees, blown into
the woods, their cemeteries, their tombs…
I love the way “it has to do with nonbelief” is quickly slid in there and then passed blithely over. We’re not pressured to think too hard about how nonbelief governs this image, but its influence is now there.
And even when her larger themes are center stage, they don’t feel heavy-handed. In one of my favorite pieces, “Roll, Sun,” Yu has a blind person tell her, “you’re someone who can see / but you don’t know the sun anymore than me.” The intellectual part of this poem is unignorable – the old Tiresias trope of the blind man who sees more than anyone, calling out what we take for granted, how we don’t make the effort to understand events. Yet Yu mainly takes it as an occasion to have enormous fun with the blind man’s experience of the sun. “the sun surrounds me / it’s not just my surroundings / the sun rolls over me up and down left to right.” “the sun I know is a skinless egg.”
And she’s a little mischievous, too; her poems don’t sit still and do what they’re told. Her old man isn’t quite a font of wisdom. He’s a little confused, a little out of his depth.
“roll sun,” he commands, “in the soles of every man who humiliates me.”
* * *
Finally, a whiskey book! Down to earth, straight to the point, utterly authentic – Yu makes it easy to pull out one of my favorite recipes. My first instinct was a Manhattan, but there’s something too serious and brooding about a Manhattan for this book. So I’m going with a somewhat sweeter variation, using Benedictine, which is just faintly herbal; the spice of a rye whiskey sets it off wonderfully.
2 oz. rye whiskey
1/2 oz. Benedictine
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice. Stir (don’t shake!) until chilled, then strain into a cocktail glass. It’s traditional to garnish a Monte Carlo with lemon zest, but in light of Yu’s winning unpretentiousness, let’s have a Maraschino cherry instead. I’m a big rye whiskey fan, and I can’t recommend Rittenhouse 100 highly enough. Old Overholt is another nice inexpensive brand. (Yes, it’s also fine to just make it with bourbon.)
Go ahead and take your time making this cocktail. Concentrate on it, the way it frosts up the glass. Let it be an experience. If you stop, as Yu says in “Other Things,”
other sounds will reach your ears
other things will emerge