A Beautiful Name for a Girl
Poetry Book Club Selection, The Rumpus
Human identity testing itself: are the speakers of these poems mother, teacher, creative artist—or are they merely bones to be sorted and juggled? The ramifications of identity (“we’d know … the translation / into mother to be exaltation. Murder, also”) leap up sharply in the book’s central poem, “Snuff Ballet,” in which one speaker, a dancer, is tested by inquisitors who may be a board from whom she seeks a grant. But perhaps these voices, which quickly become intimate and judgmental (“When was the last time you had sex?”), are merely criticism internalized, part of the “one-woman show.”
Out of a body, the heart.
I wrapped it in red lettuce and sang to it.
I don’t know why it was more fall than I was.
The turning of the year
that usually anchored things
was extricating them.
Imagine my fear.
Removal of this, removal of
Winter. The other word for aging.
Yearly, fewer people make it through January
than other months. On the radio.
I sang to the muscle even as it grew
ashy. The song was continuing pain.
I gave it up like fainting choirboys.
I gave it up like cancer.
I have no control over what comes out of me.
Bereft of the heart, the body
refused to lullaby. To lie down.
I could not make the body into a doll.
I had to leave it behind in the grass
to break down. While I went off
circling the tender
dying woods with its heart in a leaf.
Copyright © 2010 by Kirsten Kaschock.
“A Beautiful Name for a Girl is a hypnotic and ravishing house, ﬁlled with trapdoors, curtains made out of the hides of changelings, and windows on the verge of shattering pain. Up and down the staircase, disappearing acts—like girls—‘grow big without you.’ Kaschock’s poems ‘avow / a new architecture,’ rooted by mothers cooking up a snuff that is both breath and its endless vanish. If Houdini himself had feasted on these mothers’ snuff, I have no doubt he would’ve thanked god for Kaschock and in her honor called his most mystifying trick the beautiful name that is ‘girl.’ ” —Sabrina Orah Mark
“Here’re all new episodes from Plath’s planetary mind, a lithic, mordant, ethereal place where a stone-faced girl stages tableaux maudits inside unnatural amphitheaters—the classroom, the heart, the doll, the bone. At once loud and muted, mineral and minor, the light of Kaschock’s mind is blue-black, sub-lunary, somnambulist, never dull.” —Joyelle McSweeney
“Kirsten Kaschock’s A Beautiful Name for a Girl prefers to celebrate the uncelebrated lives absent from categories; exhibiting their power, exploring conﬁnement while evolving into myths. Birds, sons, phantom daughters, reptiles, angels and dancers inhabit an unborn turmoil that is always at the brink of boiling over. A collection pregnant with re lease and ﬁerce genius.” —Reb Livingston
I was born raised in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, the middle of five children. I didn’t have an older sister until I was twelve and my second cousin moved in with us and became part of a family whose major principle is inclusion. My elder brother, younger sister, younger brother, and I all danced at a local ballet, tap, jazz, and tumbling studio. This scarily talented crew all eventually danced professionally—I have not.
Although I never stopped taking dance classes or choreographing, I have always been drawn to language in a way I still find difficult to reconcile with my more kinesthetic pursuits. One way I’ve tried to combine my passions is through scholarship. My academic background is long—some would say (have said) too long, but I prefer learning to almost anything else I do. Writing and moving to me are simply facets of this—ways of processing all that surrounds. In my estimation, art can be a profound method of education, as it has the power to move one beyond the receipt of information and into action.
I have received academic patronage from several schools. I attended Yale, and earned a B.A. in English literature. Then came two M.F.A.s: one from University of Iowa in choreography, another in poetry from Syracuse University. I moved from New York to Georgia, earning a Ph.D. in English with a creative dissertation (an as-yet unpublished novel). And I am now in Philadelphia pursuing a second doctorate in dance at Temple University. Somewhere along this meandering tour of universities, I acquired a partner—molecular geneticist Dan Marenda—and with him brought three boys into this world. They are Simon, Bishop, and Koen, and they are wonderful.
My artistic influences are drawn from every aspect of my life. The first poet I wanted to be like (at age 7) was Basho, and I lovingly, thankfully failed. The choreographer I most admire is Pina Bausch, who too soon passed away in the summer 2009. Paul Klee’s paintings are dear to me, as are Joseph Cornell’s boxes, Louise Bourgeois’s sculptures, and lately, Brian Dettmer’s sculpted books. The fiction of Italo Calvino and Virginia Woolf and James Baldwin got to me early on and stayed. I am constantly listening to music, watching films, reading children’s literature. Recently, I read aloud Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time, for the third time. Next is a re-read of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass.
The connections I share with others are some of my most profound influences. My younger sister and I can recite Monty Python’s “Crunchy Frog” together, and have been able to since she was eleven and I was sixteen. My husband Danny and I share a love for grade B science fiction films which will sustain us. Maurice Sendak is a staple on my children’s bookshelf and in our shared pile of references. These source materials find their way into my poems with more frequency than the philosophy I like to read… or maybe it is that I like that they deal with the same subject matters more concretely.
I’m a bit old-fashioned for all my attempts at experimentation, I think. Although I can find beauty (and I do look for beauty) in much that balks at narrativity and the lyrical I, I like my own poems and choreography to have those threads. The more I learn, the more I learn to love—but interestingly, the more I realize my writing steals its forms from faerie tales, plays, and letters: the very first bits of writing that ever moved me. These are boxes that still seem fit for all my learning.
In this collection, perhaps the author is looking for herself inside a list of characters she is unlike. Perhaps the author is tossing off scarves. Perhaps she is all scarf. What might be more plausible is that the author is inhabited by many characters she does not understand. Important then, to acknowledge and vivisect one’s inner fish. Sometimes, the characters themselves are also inhabited by strangers; sometimes they have yet to meet their houseguests. Occasionally, although infested, they never meet those inside themselves at all. This collection is about the failure of any one character to fully inhabit one role. This collection is about the transcendence of personhood beyond role, beyond body, beyond gender. Failure is, in this way, transcendence.
A character, a name, a body: these are facets, and the persons suggested by these poems are intricately cut. The central poem in the collection, “Snuff Ballet,” is a monologue for 2, 3, or 7 people. That is perhaps the author’s point. I do not like to speak for her. This collection is about the freedom that comes from speaking in the third person, about others. This collection is about the freedom that comes from speaking in the third person about oneself. These poems imagine that speaking of others and of the self are part of the same project. Can a poem imagine? These poems imagine that a poem can. The author is perhaps attempting to create a new hybrid form: confessional sci-fi.
Nothing in these poems has happened, and yet there is shame. Shame has been described by Sartre as the guarantor of the existence of the other. Perhaps the author buys this. Certainly, the characters in these poems are looking for the existence of others, attempting to connect while locked in the boxes of name and body. If shame is the feeling at the keyhole, they accept it as the price of sticking their tongues and fingers through. Sometimes, they stick through knives and guns and words that hurt. Once in awhile, they imagine other types of creatures--who could fit through. And then, they are disabused. If these poems are concerned with pain, it is pain as the guarantor of feeling. If there is an enemy for these characters, it is numbness. If these poems love their words, they love their about-ness more. Is this preferring one child over another? Perhaps it is. Perhaps this is just another of the failures that proves the author human.