J. Hope Stein Through the Nose
Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk, EIL Poetry Editor
Occasionally, I Remove Your Brain Through Your Nose is a short, funny, wonderful book of poems by J. Hope Stein with a great title (right?!) and fabulous cover art (right?!) by Kate Micucci. Evidently, you can judge a book by its cover.*
I knew I was hooked when the very first poem was about sex in a desk chair.** It is also the title poem, placing us immediately in the middle of the action. The sex is swift and surreptitious—and silent, “not to disturb our colleagues in surrounding cubicles.” There is tenderness with paperclips. It’s a prose poem that beautifully creates the scene, “my face clearing just over the cubicle partition,” and that also drops us into the depths of despair: “my expression dismembered like a poet who’s fallen out of favor with her king.” Now we know what’s at stake. We may laugh, but it won’t be easy.
The book is dismembered into parts, as well—Part One, further divided (like a chicken) into title poem, The Husband Poems, and Ted & Sylvia. (I could not help but read the famous tortured poet couple Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath into that section, but clearly something else is going on as well.) Chicken is pertinent here, due to the poem “Chicken,” that begins, An animal gives off a certain light, don’t you / think? It involves some kind of telepathic cooking advice given through time and a strangely moving nearly-vegetarian sensitivity, though the poem ends with the sensual eating of chicken:
Husband brings pieces of chicken
to her mouth. Sauce dripping jaw—
chicken, there is only chicken.
It’s funny and also like meditation. In the moment of now, “there is only chicken.”
“Chicken” also contains one of my favorite moments of beautifully observed detail: “her clean wet lashes / are like a child who doesn’t want to / get out of the tub— ” This kind of lovely moment is strewn throughout the poems as they drive vigorously forward toward their often surprising conclusions. And I like how the construction lets us see the lashes as like a child’s lashes but also like the child herself (the whole child, not just the tiny parts) in her reluctance to leave the joy of the water or the concentration on water play. The book is brief, but the imagery and thought in it is so rich, it keeps expanding. Simultaneously, a giggle can build into a full-body laughing fit.
In Part Two, entirely devoted to a long poem called “Donald J. Trump Sucks the Cold Cock of an Ice Sculpture,” we know why this poet has fallen out of favor with her “king.” In this poem, we feel the angry despair of a hoodwinked country, servants setting the table for the king’s feast, for the “men who invented wealth,” the “broadcasters” in the same poetic line as the “pussy grabbers,” all with seats at the table, to which not all of us were invited, the “dinner of the nation / burning in the oven.” Just as well.
This stanza will give you a feel of the anger in the poem:
Donald J. Trump plants his (Tic-Tac) cock
into a pair of squabs—
rejoices in his puppet-self,
then deflates into the gravy.
(We love what fools us into the gravy.)
Tic-Tac is perfect, right?
And here’s a bit of the genius of the poem, as the (table) setting and imagery continue:
the squab carcass
knows nothing of puppetry;
that life is a form of eating (death
And here’s a bit of the hope in the poem, as, after all, Hope is the poet’s middle name:
Man is microscopic starfish.
When man dies, the starfish move on,
swarm with new starfish to become cat or asparagus.
That is to say, your personality will not survive.
At dinner last night (husband, friend) we came to this same cold comfort, that the earth will survive the death of man, if we extinguish ourselves quickly enough not to destroy our dear planet altogether. Sadly, though, I thought of and mentioned our dear melting starfish.
The Trump poem ends in the middle of our thinking, our fruitless, round-and-round thinking, our not-learning-from-history-and-thus-repeating-it thinking, our wonderfully-inventive-yet-unable-to-save-ourselves-or-stop-ourselves thinking…. It’s a brilliant choice; it leaves the reader thinking and aware of her own responsibility in these matters. What should we do? What can we do? What will we do? Pondering it, I may pull my brain out through my nose.
*As a co-worker of mine at the library says, “Kids always do.”
**In part, because I have also written a poem about sex in a desk chair. (Where is it?!) It was a revolving desk chair.
***And I would just like to point out and celebrate the excellent and necessary use of semi-colons in this poem, in this particular section, a long and complicated list; recently, some poets were discussing semi-colons in poetry, and they should look here for an excellent example and execution.