Lunch Portraits, by Debora Kuan, Brooklyn, New York: Brooklyn Arts Press, December 2016. 104 pages. $16.00, paper.
In Debora Kuan’s Lunch Portraits, the everyday is silly, surreal, and biting. There is an abundant playfulness, both of language and subject matter, style and execution. In these poems, Kuan blends tongue-in-cheek references to movies, childhood memories, and medical maladies in ways both stunning and heart-warming (and at times, nausea-inducing). At the center of these poems is the body—what one puts inside it, how it feels, how it moves in the world, how it relates to others—the body is the question and the answer of this collection. The ephemera surrounding it—food, clothes, water—serve to highlight the fragility, ridiculousness, and beauty of how we conceptualize the self.
In her poem “Portrait of My Stalker” Kuan takes a subject marked as frightening and objectifying and manifests an underlying emotion of self-consciousness and regret:
When my stalker stopped stalking me
I died the death of
a million fat blue genies.
The poems in this collection aren’t easy, and they don’t provide neat narrative moments. At times the world of the poems gets almost too weird—the poet plays with the edge between ridiculous and challenging, and it would be understandable for a reader to be disappointed by the lack of payoff in some of these poems. There is a connection here to childhood storytelling—the ideas are fanciful and strange and larger-than-life, but narrative threads and resolutions are largely absent. The poems hint toward sense, but cut off just before the proverbial finale. However, upon closer examination, dead-ends and logical lacunae are the point. Kuan is interested in isolating sensations. She wants the reader to make the jump, or at least enjoy the rush of letting go.
Kuan delights in bad puns and other forms of verbal performance. In the poem “Teen Mammal” from the second section (of three) in the book, the voice of the poem is nodding along at how silly it all is:
The whale dons
her psychological blubber
and it tastes so seal
It’s difficult to talk about this collection without at least mentioning Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems. Kuan shares O’Hara’s whimsy and breathy quality of pace, the innate sense that the reader should be running along with the poem, trying to keep up. Occasionally Kuan’s playfulness bleeds into the grotesque—the horrors and embarrassments of having a body. This is especially apparent in the first section, wherein the poems are the “Portraits” of the book’s title, such as “Portrait of My Black Hole,” “Portrait of a Lounge Singer,” and “Portrait of Leah”:
I was inspired by Leah’s ear infection
because why wouldn’t I be?
She texted me in the middle of the day
to tell me she was lying on her side
at the free medical center
with stool softener in her ear.
Of course it was my fault
for having invited her to the Russian
bathhouse in the first place,
where bacteria make mince-meat
of our mealy substrates
and we sit there welcoming them in
like they’re Mormon missionaries
Although the collection is full of oddities, Kuan is not merely performing strangeness. The second-to-last poem in the collection, “121 Memories of an American Childhood,” is one of the strongest and most emotional pieces in the book. A take on Joe Brainard’s I Remember, these isolated sensations and childhood recollections are at once still and affecting. Kuan conjures nostalgia and place without veering into cliché or saccharine sentimentality. The memories presented are surprising, neat, and often funny. They offer a glimpse into a childhood world of wonder and loss and joy:
White yarn tights whose crotches drooped down my thighs
The taste of kissing my forearm
Being afraid of Gene Hackman
My dad’s lap when he was Santa Claus at the Chinese Community Center and the delicious secret of knowing it was him
In this poem, Kuan takes Brainard’s form and adds a different kind of depth to it, using the seemingly simple prompt to investigate the relationship between memory and self. A standout of this section is the use of a child’s judgment of one’s parents, such as in the line, “My father’s miniature beers in the refrigerator and how scandalized I felt seeing them, because we were Mormon.” Her observations of intimacies and distances are uncomfortable and stunning, enough to leave one reeling long after you’ve left the poem.
One of the most invigorating aspects of Lunch Portraits is the quality of the voice present throughout. The speaker of these poems is forthright, brave, and unafraid of judgment. She is nimble, moving through space and time, juggling referents as varied as Wild Strawberries and ham hoagies, Super Bowl Sunday and Claes Oldenburg. This voice is one that can unite a wide register of experiences and perceptions:
Joy is the opposite of fear.
Joy is a vertical stripe,
like the signage of
the Fulton Hot Dog King
where there is no need
which is why I eat there,
because even the nothing
is a stripe.
Even the sorrow
Overall, this collection is challenging and rewarding, sour and sweet. Kuan trusts the reader to make sense (or not) of the world they are dropped into—to form connections and parallels between voice, style, and meaning. Her work is both frustrating and endlessly satisfying. These poems are delicious and filling—a reader could sit with just one for a whole afternoon.
Emily Brown’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Prelude, Sonora Review, The Des Moines Register, Chicagoist, Bennington Review, Lambda Literary’s Poetry Spotlight, and elsewhere. She received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She lives in Seattle.