The Disturbing Comfort of Kirsten Kaschock’s Confessional Sci-Fi, A Primer
In her book 300 Arguments, Sarah Manguso asserts, “You might as well start by confessing your greatest shame. Anything else would just be exposition.” Kirsten Kaschock’s Confessional Sci-Fi, A Primer pivots on the axis of a confession. Its first section, Oh, Lorraine, is relatively brief, comprised of ten prose paragraphs, grammatically constructed in the future. It begins: “In three years, I will leave my husband, my three boys (aged 11, 8 and nearly 6) to move into the Divine Lorraine Hotel for the three months prior to its scheduled demolition.” The ramifications of this simple fact engine this book’s catastrophic anxiety.
Oh, Lorraine is set at a famed Philadelphia hotel that in the early 2000s was slated to be torn down. It places the speaker at a crossroads of salvage and ruin. Lorraine, we are told, will be a moving target of figuration. It represents a daughter, a spaceship, an affair, and a disease. “This is not to be a ghost story. It is pornography,” the speaker says. “As I push her head / into the pillow under the confocal and squeeze her breasts, I / will wonder if she was born with them.” From the second chapter:
[…] The entire process
(I blush for me) is like cutting — a bodying forth of the internal
shameful. I enter the Divine Lorraine because she is the only
divinity I will allow myself to enter. I enter the Divine Lorraine
because I have not allowed entry to myself in nearly a year. I
enter the Divine Lorraine looking for something to save. It is
not me. Already, it will be too late for that.
In 2011, Kaschock was already using the term “Confessional Sci-Fi” to describe her writing. “I take the undisclosed seeds of the real and plant them in the soil of the what-if. Then, I watch for bloom or blight,” she told Cheryl Strayed in an interview for The Rumpus. Those who know Kaschock’s work will be familiar with this sort of literary sowing. Her previous book, The Dottery (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014) was an engrossing lyrical thought experiment about the holding space for the souls of daughters as they wait to exist. Alien worlds (Sci) gain Kaschock access to explore (Fi) something intensely personal (Confessional). That this latest book is also a manual (A Primer) is as important: despite characters worthy of Westeros, it is more instructive fantasy than escapist one.
Confessional poetry is historically violent, erotic, and alien. Kaschock’s is all of that. Characteristically corporeal, the body is ever-present, from the crust in the corner of an eye to liver tissue on a far wall. Her brand of noir horror takes full shape in A Bedroom Community Diary, a sequence populated with characters who are simultaneously macabre and mundane. An abecedarian structure accentuates the vastness, the arbitrariness, and the remove of this suburban nightmare. There is a tormented librarian and a pedophilic undertaker, there are grocery store encounters with the townspeople. There is murder most foul: “It was Jenny who found Ricki behind the warehouse / near the mall. With a lead pipe.” Language provides the very basis for the perversion; for Kaschock, there is no entendre that cannot be doubled: “J is for Julienne. To die like a carrot in thin strips.”
Director David Lynch famously merged the grotesque and the banal, and it served to reveal a dark truth: that the macabre is inescapable from the mundane. Kaschock’s housewife in ABCD who has a manicured lawn and collects fetish scenes from Nazi porn is deliciously Lynchian. The sequence also brings to mind Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, a collection of short stories depicting townspeople as “grotesques” because of the idiosyncrasies that burden them. In one, for example, the peculiar, persistent movement of a popular teacher’s hands led to the accusation that he molested his students. Kaschock’s method is homage to Lynch, but it is Anderson’s objective beneath her stories: these townsfolk are a basket of deplorables, to be sure — but their darknesses are all ours, or at least ours to bear.
Fisherwoman’s Daughter begins with mythical Myrtle, whose mother neglects her but provides her basic needs. Myrtle rejects her ersatz role as mother to her younger siblings and embarks upon a journey where she encounters three rivers (one of stone, one of feathers, one of net) where its fish mock, adorn, and rot in her clutch. The confession at the center of Oh, Lorraine echoes within Myrtle: “As if what was behind her was all she would ever own. The feeling was opposite of free.” At the fable’s moral center is a traditional role tragically reframed. Myrtle becomes a mythical spider that “makes a new language out of light” but she pays a terrifying price for her journey.
The book’s fourth section is the truly mesmerizing After Museum. The Museum is “pre-garden, what went underground but was not sown, or was sown without resource. see Orpheus, see Orphanage.” The Museum, built on the site of the burned original, places the speaker on decimated ground. She is led by a docent — a “two-guide” — described as ape-like, with wings, a child asleep within the appendages. There is a woman strung out on a loom, twins playing cellos, frogs hanging in rafters, a clone “who replaces what / you have lost, and yet is not real, / does not threaten the memories of / the lost by being real and in its own right.” I won’t catalog the encounters further. The tendency is to read this museum tour as a psychological one — an outward manifestation of an inner world. I do not discount this interpretation. But letting the muscle of conventional narrative atrophy makes for the best reading. Here is an excerpt:
This is the Greatroom of Non-
Differentiation, she tells you,
the child-voice catching on a red
feather spit out of the wings, wet
and thin. Teeth hang in mid-air as
if for plucking. A rich stain of liver
tissue on the far wall accuses you of
your last orgasm. The question you
want to ask is the same one: How
do we keep from drowning in these
bodies? The two-guide touches your
arm with her damp, hairy palm, and
the answer is: membranes. And the
answer is: form. And the answer is:
some god. You don’t want to hear
that so, move along.
The columnar structure creates claustrophobic rooms punctuated by more boxes; colophons like fortune cookie fortunes create equations for what is and what is not (Pain ≠ transcendence) (Pomegranate = placebo). The wisdom is less enlightenment than resignation: “This is your missing. The grief you can’t own. This is your gap in the skyline,” the speaker says. The section is punctuated with a final empty box, when the poet has left the building and its perverted lessons behind. The whole sequence is beastly, spectral, fascinating, solemn, visceral, wondrous:
[…] You feel the
dark on your back first, a cloak of
cold. The sunset has withdrawn to
the longitude of its next withdrawal.
Such a different personality than
dawn. You wonder how they bear
There are muted, unjust lessons in this primer: pomegranates are eaten with the expectation that the speaker will “shit spring the next day,” a grasp at the elusive angel-child leads to hand nipped and bloodied. A bridge connects two worlds, as heaven and earth: at last, the on-ramp to those tourists’ more familiar lives — the mundane ones with the macabre baked in. The lesson that smarts most speaks to the machinations required to live in it: “To scale these stories,” it is said, “requires a system of pulleys and falsehoods. Scaffolding. To clean things all the way up.”
Paula Fox, novelist and children’s book writer (and Courtney Love’s grandmother, how’s that for Lynchian) said that words are nets through which all truth escapes. Kaschock makes you believe it. She writes in the double-voiced discourse of feminist poetics — at once new but rubbing against an established convention. With Confessional Sci-Fi, she continues to forge her her place within its lineage. Windowboxing: A Dance with Saints in Three Acts finishes the book. The section was published as a chapbook in 2012. After being confined in so many small spaces, this choreography of poems explores gender stereotypes with a sense of freedom that may have, by itself, been read as restriction. “By starting that sentence two women perhaps I have indicated / something,” the speaker states, as language playfully ruptures as if newly autonomous, showing the reader its many deceits.
“Here, rules fray,” says the speaker in After Museum, speaking to a changed You — the I, perhaps now doubled. “Some, it seems, as you peer into their unknotted faces, find such slippage comforting.” The role of literature, it has been said, is to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed. I read Confessional Sci-Fi first in the fever dream of a summer vacation and was unmoored by it. The second time I read it I was back in real life, vaulting between garden-variety distress and family trauma. Its semantic dance, its grotesque truths, its disobedience, the heartbreaking reach of the speaker toward the child that eludes her — they comforted me.