Gemology by Megan Kaminski
The allegorical framework of Megan Kaminski’s wonderful chapbook Gemology is the theme of an informed guide leading a mortal through a kind of labyrinth. In this case the guide is a cab driver who maintains his silence; the mortal is the poet in the back seat, watching the world go past. The tension in this structure is clear in the first poem, as the poet seeks to communicate with the driver:
we’ll wrangle sweet nothings through that
window if you like it’s only plexiglass
my dear plastic really that keeps us apart
just split the avenue open vivisect districts
Throughout the book we see Kaminski’s skill in making dual utilization of her images: the cab is opening avenues and vivisecting districts, just as she wishes the plexiglass window to open an “avenue” between herself and her guide, and vivisect (a pitch-perfect and tone-perfect word; the world of Kaminski’s vision is a living being) the district between them. Thus the tension is established from the start: the lack of communication between guide and passenger in the context of the moving world as seen from the point of view of the (isolated) back seat of the taxi. Kaminski’s participle usage makes it clear that the city is moving past the poet. The poems in the book work to describe not only that movement, but the friction, the tension between the poet and the city, effects.
Kaminski makes this tension work by defining the poet in couplets that open five of the book’s thirteen poems:
Name me perception / name me economy (poem #2)
Name me modesty / name me vexation (poem #6)
Name me transient / name me obligatory (poem #8)
Name me hindsight / name me plenty (poem #9)
Name me princess / or lost wages (poem #12)
I render these couplets out of context to make a point about the relation between the terms by which the poet names herself: the terms of each couplet are not oppositional, nor are they strictly unrelated; rather, they are cognate in the sense of their touching at the borders of connotation in the context of the poems they introduce. For example, poem #2 highlights the poet’s perception of the city through which she passes; also, these perceptions are rendered in brief, but precise, visual images (“ink-soaked walls erase each night / cobalt blue bone white gold leaf / dissolved on tongues”); the economy of the poet’s vision is a necessary characteristic of her perception. Likewise, poem #6 utilizes a perception of the city as body (“neon gilds faces”; “asphalt eyes knee deep”), a cognate of the poet’s body (“my lips spell treason / carry seed longings”); the physical city, and the physical body, is the ground of semantic transference of these “naming” terms.
The naming couplets set up the twofold movement of the work, through the city and throughout the body and mind. The poet thus occupies two positions: inside the city, a part of the neighborhoods through which she is guided, and outside the experience of the city. But for Kaminski this is no dichotomy of spirit or mind; the two perspectives are connected, interwoven, to the point that in poem #5 the city becomes a second skin (“silk feathers curling horns / gold chains old rags smelling of animal / I put on my city / buildings cafes shops / soft text keening”). This “soft text” is thelangue that underlies the city (in a very real sense, in poem #5: “alphabet buried beneath city / concrete-riverbed-city”), the langue underneath the poet’s interest in parole (literally, speaking: “tether words to concerns,” in poem #8).
Perhaps the most evocative aspect of the naming couplets is the elision of the subject. Who is being asked to do the naming? While obvious these statements are aimed for the reader, I suspect they are, within the context of the whole work, aimed at the driver / guide (again, suggestive of the inward / outward movement of the text). One thinks of Virgil guiding Dante through the Inferno, or of Anchises guiding Aeneas through the Underworld. In both those texts, the poet / hero sees only what he is shown by his knowing guide, who always knows more than the poet and is therefore in a position to offer a vision of the afterlife that is both authentic (it isn’t an exploration of discovery for the guide; he knows the territory well) as well as instructive. Such is the effect of Kaminski’s book. Gemology is one of the most satisfying books I’ve read in a while, and I am happy to have been introduced to this poet.
Bill Scalia holds a PhD in American Literature from Louisiana State University. His most recent essays include “Toward a Semiotics of Poetry and Film: Meaning-Making and Extra-Linguistic Signification” (in Literature / Film Quarterly) and “Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith and Persona: Faith and Visual Narrative” in the anthology Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2008). Bill teaches writing and literature at St Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, MD.