Books In Conversation
ELAINE KAHN with Rachel Rabbit White
Poetry as Divination: The Pull of Romance and its Inevitable End
Romance or the End
(Soft Skull Press, 2020)
Elaine Kahn wrote the book on romance. Or maybe the anti-romance tome on romance. In Romance or The End Kahn shatters “the problem of romance” into a million glittering pieces. I want to say that, like it's Pisces author, the book is watery, and by “watery” I mean oceanic, boundless, melodic, with a tide that circles and pulls. Kahn writes:
There is no such thing as a true story and so there are no stories in this book.
Without a story, there is separation.
This is a book about separation.
Everything is a story. Even the truth.
There is nothing truer in this world than the lie of love.
She pools story, letting it whorl in all its natural ambiguity. Moving from the wonders of love, the wonders of pain, to the ways that relationships are, perhaps inevitably, ruptured by violence. But then there are many shades of violence, and the body of Romance or The End contains dark waters. Her narrative isn’t a linear one, almost as if controlled not by the poet but by a larger gravitational force
The book is at times aphoristic, containing lines (here taken out of context of their poems) like:
Don’t forgive the rareness of a perfect kiss
Fate is immoral / it dumps on you
A woman must/ be very poor/ to love
I have heard it said / that love / turns people / soft / but I have / never been / more / brutal
I never wanted to belong to anyone but myself / here I am
love ends fast / and never
Sickness is a kind of clarity / It makes you feel afraid / and love to be alive
Perhaps because of this epigrammatic quality, I realize during our discussion that the book can be treated like an oracle, a divination device. Turn to any page and get an answer about your own relationship to romance. Hers is a language that casts a voluptuous spell.
Here, Elaine Kahn and I talk romance and trauma, and engage in some live channeling when the poet/artist Sachi Flower shows up to the party.
Rachel Rabbit White (Rail): I want to talk about the narrative non-narrative of this book, its seeming “confessional non-confession,” if we’re thinking about “the confessional” a little bit. You write often in the first person, giving so much yet withholding masterfully. You say this book is about story, and that there are no stories in this book. I’m curious if you could talk a little about what I am terming the “anti-confessional confession,” your relationship to the confessional and to narrative.
Elaine Kahn: I rely almost entirely on the thin veil of “the speaker” or “the artist” to protect me from the hazard of disclosure. It’s what allows me to, for instance, stand in front of my mother and read a poem in which “the speaker” chokes on someone's hair while getting throatfucked.
As far as your question about narrative: the book is punctured by space and silence as an attempt to be honest, not a desire to withhold. Life characterized by emptiness and rupture as much, or even moreso, as it is by action and continuity.
Rail: Did inspecting your relationship to romance while writing this book change romance for you? Are you a pessimist or an optimist at the current moment when it comes to romance?
Kahn: I seem to be constitutionally unable to lose hope, but I definitely would not describe myself as an optimist. I think maybe my views on romantic love have matured. For a long time I was excited by self-annihilation and identity loss but I find that I am now interested in relationships that support my life, rather than consume it.
Rail: What books, movies, or other things inspired you as you were writing? Do you have a personal Romance or The End canon? But also, in general, what is some of your favorite art (film, books, music) that deals with “the problem of romance”.
Kahn: I was definitely inspired by my girlhood spent reading romantic tragedies! That was a big part of the book for me, wanting to explode some of the tropes that were most formative to me. As for music, I love heartbreak music and listened to a lot of Pablo Casals cello suites and Talk Talk while writing. I love Clarice Lispector and Elena Ferrante’s writing on romantic relationships; both really zero on the seemingly requisite dissociative self-abandonment of normative heterosexuality.
Rail: Do you want to live in a world without romance? What would that look like?
Kahn: No I would not!
Rail: You write expertly about the way that violence ruptures love or romance. There are many ways love is ruptured by violence or cruelty or conflict but your book faces a real violence head on. I find when I write from those spaces it’s hard not to write from a place of dissociation. In “ALL I HAVE EVER WANTED WAS TO BE SWEET,” we see the there and not there of what seems to be a sexual assault, a rape. I know, for myself, writing a trauma space is hard. And now I’m thinking about a poetics of dissociation…
Kahn: To write that poem I had to enter a place I wish didn’t exist and I had to stay there, with my senses open. I could only work on it for short amounts of time, so it took me months even though I worked on it almost every day. To be honest, it was excruciating to write and it’s very painful to read, but also gratifying. The feeling I have when I read it in public reminds me of how I have felt at protests when I am face to face with a line of cops. I know that they are big and strong and have weapons and power but still I am there, standing inside of my body. To look a monster in the eye is a great and terrible thing.
Rail: Sometimes I wonder if in a way every poem is a love poem. But in many ways the poems of Romance of The End are a sort of anti-love poem. I’m curious about your relationship to the “love poem,” your history with it and what love poetry, if any, has inspired you.
Kahn: My first favorite love poem as an adult was Paul Celan. I have it memorized: You were my death: / You I could hold / When all fell away from me. I think that sort of sums it up…
Rail: Your book contains lines at times that are almost aphoristic, which I love. I am thinking of parts like “love ends fast / and never,” it reminds me a bit of Barthes and A Lover’s Discourse. I love these parts that break from the anti-confessional, if that’s what we’re calling it, giving the book a superstructure.
How does it feel to have written the book on romance? Or maybe you’re becoming a romance mentor, outside your own control. If this role is thrust upon you, what are more aphorisms you could offer, or maybe what do you think people could learn about their own relationships to romance?
Kahn: My mother always used to say, “hope springs eternal,” with a little snicker, like, “you’re fucked.” I guess that’s from an Alexander Pope essay I’ve never read, and probably should. I’ll be honest though, I don’t really feel comfortable with being viewed as anyone’s mentor. Which is weird because I know through my work as a teacher that many people do see me that way. But I don’t feel like an authority on anything, all I know is: try hard and laugh as much as possible. So I guess that’s my advice to lovers.
Rail: Okay, I’m going to treat your book as an oracle, for my own love life right now, I am closing my eyes and opening to a page. Oh wow, lol, I got the quote you open with. “Stay with me, I am sick. My love is more than many diamonds.”
This makes sense for me, where I am at with a sort of break-up and sort of new loves. I am sick, yeah, I’m not fully processed but who ever is? My love is more than diamonds!
Now I’m making the poet and artist Sachi Flower do it, who is here with me. She opened to: “I spread on crushed / what gesture locked/ the life inside.” So beautiful.
She says this reminds her of a dream she had about me in which I broke my ankle, and she was like, “Okay now I get to be her care-taker, and take advantage of this moment of weakness to get closer.” She interprets this dream: “I was feeling guilt about the timing with your break-ups, like am I taking advantage of you in this moment? In the dream it felt like it was the only way.”
I guess this brings up timing and love. Is the time ever really right? Do you believe in free will and are you drawn to an idea of fate?
Kahn: Incidentally, this is the same question I asked David Lynch at a Q&A hosted by Andrew Durbin in LA a couple of years ago (he said he believes in free will). I guess for me maybe the answer is both. I do believe in free will but I also believe there are structures and forces in place constraining our choices at all times. I think I have a deep resistance to surrendering to those forces, which isn’t…good. I’ve been trying to learn to meditate.
Rail: I just told Sachi to try to channel you, we’ve gotten really into channeling. She says your psychic armor is really intact right now. Wait, now you’re letting her in. You like that she was respecting your boundaries. You say, “Love is a curse on my body that I once knew in sleep. Like slumber, tentacles in the night, the dark upon me, carry me out of this forest. I am tired. I am hungry. There’s light in a ghost. But I am so tired. It’s troubling how I go on.” Wow, go off, channeled Elaine. How do you respond?
Kahn: I fucking love my friends. Also, yeah, sounds right.
Rail: Can you channel Sachi or me, or us both?
Kahn: I was only able to channel Sachi and they said, “Scion between sugar: beginner muscle identifies conditional doubt. Guard beginner spark drama. Sugar feel, jog between doubts. Pump, enlist, identify, guard.”
Rail: The poet Shy Watson is here as well. And she says I’ve been asking a lot about romance but what about the end. Is there an end? If so, what does it exclude or include?
Kahn: Romance is The End.