The second poem in Mandy Kahn’s new book, Glenn Gould’s Chair, contains the following lines: “We tend to favor / our most difficult projects, those painful loves, / so much of ourselves have been left / on their knife-blades and cutting boards.” We do do that. We all have a desire for the jouissance of life — if we are able to overcome its difficulties (again). Often, it is the works of others who share our sensibility, who share the experience of creative expression, that assuage the moments that produce nothing. Kahn’s new book furnishes us with a community of fellow creators. Their lives, through her poems, encourage us to breathe and let the mind wander or linger when we lose an expected sense of direction.
As I see Glenn Gould’s name on the cover of Kahn’s new collection of poetry, as I sit in a nook — a seemingly useless space — in a new home, I feel both calm and slightly unnerved. Glenn Gould is a name I am familiar with, but I do not know his full story; the name is like a word I recognize in a language I do not speak. Yet as I sit here alone reading Gould’s name and the names of other composers and musical terms that I recognize but do not always remember from childhood piano lessons, Kahn soothes me; she offers me a seat in the spaces she has thought, written, lived, and loved in. She welcomes me into these pages, which, although finished and published, still seem to be in flux, moving across histories and geographies and (lived) lives.
Glenn Gould’s Chair is a collection of poems about process — specifically, about the mysterious act of making, which Kahn de-romanticizes. She shows us the people we have come to know as composers. We learn or remember, for instance, that Charles Ives worked as an insurance executive, and that Maurice Ravel’s music was not always lauded (the Paris Conservatory expelled him twice). Kahn breaks down the idea of the ethereal, intimidating genius, and shows us the common grounds on which we all create, which are moist and unfixed: “Look at my friends, / two adults / on the floor with their learning. / Look at my friends, on their knees, / two adults, / two potters, / hands inside their work.”
In Glenn Gould’s Chair, we get close to people and places, either through Kahn’s research or through her imagination and personal connections to the work and life of multiple composers: “I’d stand there looking in, / to that chamber where a hand went up / some forty years before / and brought down sounds so firm / that they were bells through time.” And while learning of these historical figures through Kahn’s poems, we also get to know, albeit obliquely, Kahn herself — as a poet, as a partner, lost in thought or in place, in love, and in process.
The real process to which this collection is dedicated, aside from the process of artistic creation, is that of being alive, and of taking care of oneself within that process. As Kahn reminds us, when speaking of “our most difficult projects,” “No one needs them like we do, / as no one could imagine / what was battered in the / process of their making, / and for whom, and why.” Although not explicitly autobiographical, it is through music, composers, their students and instruments, Gould’s chair, and even plants that Kahn voices an I — which could be a writer, a composer, an artist, any kind of maker. Indeed, Kahn seems to slip in and out of voices. Living and creating is a slippery process — like Gould’s fingers making up their own moves across the keys, or nature “winding its fingers, making, wetting / letting be.” Kahn speaks through the reed of the oboe and the reeds by the pond by her childhood home. The composers, the music, the plants provide a layer through which she structures and expresses a sense of self, and form a system to talk about the personal at large: “I played below my key, / and blew so lightly no one knew I blew. I hid. / between the clarinets and brass, / waiting for a rest. / But where are all the notes / I didn’t play?”
However, there remains a distance between the poet and the multiple voices in which she welcomes us next to her. Regarding this distance, Kahn once said in an interview:
It’s the self I want to protect — and bury in soft soil — not the work. […] The harder it feels to do my work, the larger the outline that rises from the kelp: whole frigates have swum up. This must sound strange to you, as I am not a confessional poet. But when I speak of myself as a plant, that’s the barest and truest thing that I could do. That is a confession, for me.
This idea of becoming a plant emerges in lines like: “I assumed, in girlhood, / one day I’d wear women’s hair: / florist’s bright concoctions / that spoke of seeking nature in a greenhouse, / and what you couldn’t change, arrange.” And later on: “I have / grown a wilderness, plucky stalks changed only / by the sun, breaking where they break, / drawing with their shape / their dreams of fullness.” Kahn bares herself while remaining secluded. There is a sense of loneliness in the book, but one that seems necessary in order to carve out a space for a self, Kahn’s or any other — the space necessary to go through a process, be it writing, researching, grieving, moving, or breaking up.
Regarding the space of corners, and nooks in particular, Gaston Bachelard wrote: “[E]very corner in a house, every angle in a room, every inch of secluded space in which we like to hide, or withdraw into ourselves, is a symbol of solitude for the imagination; that is to say, it is the germ of a room, or of a house.” By following her thoughts and delving into memory (personal and collective), Kahn looks for secluded spaces and shares them with us through poetry: “This is a home / without edges, this is the soft brown peat / of the great pond itself, everything a seed or the seed of a seed / or the warm green shape before that. This is where the blooms / that are / the wet-furred feet of sky / alight in jars.” We do not need to know everything about Arnold Schoenberg, Claude Debussy, or Kahn herself in order to enjoy their work; but we need to create room to enjoy them, to let our mind wander.
“How did I arrive here?, / asks the mind. / The heart says, / You rose.”
How do we become part of temporary spaces? Who writes us into them? Do we find a home in ourselves, or only in a memory of ourselves? “Was I chosen by this quiet park?” These questions, all evoked in the book, go hand in hand with a question of movement: how did we get where we needed to be? We glide — Glissando — and, sometimes, stop slowly — Coda — two poem titles. In Glenn Gould’s Chair, movement becomes a location, and being in process can also mean looking back.
“To realize, / years later, / the change was slow.”
Mandy Kahn reads from her new collection at Skylight Books today at 5:00 p.m.