Night Fish by Kristine Ong Muslim

Night Fish Night FishKristine Ong Muslim; Shoe Music Press/Elevated Books 2011WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 
It was only after I finished this chapbook that I realized how peculiarly appropriate it had been to read a book of 13 poems on Friday the 13th. I had thought of Stevens’ blackbirds, but not luck or the lack thereof.

In creating a page for the book at Open Library, I discovered that it had already been ably reviewed five times (should we shoot for thirteen?) which, I thought, rather relieved me of the responsibility of saying anything significant. (I’ve linked them all on the main book page.) But it’s an extraordinary record for a slim book without an ISBN, or any publication info at all aside from the URL on the back cover.

Design-wise, this chapbook has a split personality: the cover design and artwork (by Gordon Purkis) are pleasing, but the interior is a horror: a thin monospace font that’s tiring to read, especially since the commas are hard to distinguish from the periods.  I sat in the strong sun with it, tilting the pages a little to keep the glare manageable.

I liked the majority of the poems. They tend to have unusual premises, which most of the time takes them in interesting directions. “From now on, there will never be any flat land,” the title poem begins, and continues for thirteen lines (though it may be a prose poem; the left-justified, narrow text column makes it impossible to tell), concluding: “The sound of oars cutting the water / clean will be the most familiar sound in the / universe.” This is followed by “Night Swimmer,” which is “after Max Ernst’s ‘Aquis submersis’,” and concludes: “Sometimes, one plunge is enough / to cut the water clean, the splash / merely an afterthought.” So there’s a lot of call-and-response between the poems. Another aquatic one, “Hypergraphia,” is followed by “Heat Stroke,” for example, which begins with hell viewed from above, and ends with yet another reference to the watery theme: “Heat presents itself in the form of waves / melting the world away. Squandering nothing.”

My favorite poems, the ones where I penciled little check-marks in the corners of the pages, were all in the second half. In “House Guest,”

I enter the door marked
for strangers only.

Behind me,
autumn shrinks…

And in the poem that follows it, “December,” the protagonist has become even more of a stranger to herself, concluding from the dense fog of breath coming out of her mouth that she is not alone in her body, but “a sieve for / the soul fermenting inside.” This takes us straight to “Falling,” a kind of how-to for people who find themselves falling from tall buildings. It is, as the kids say, full of win. I’ll just quote a bit of it:

You will notice that the side of the building
has been streamlined to keep its insides
from spilling on the sidewalks.
A distraction of happiness, a memory perhaps
makes you look away from the ground.
You imagine strolling
on the street below. …

And the poem ends not in the expected manner but with “you” walking away — in imagination, while still falling.

It occurs to me that almost all the protagonists in these poems are in the process of acclimatizing to extreme conditions. The book therefore assumes an almost prophetic tone for the environmentally minded reader, whether or not that had been the author’s intention. Immediately after “Falling,” we have “Extremities,” which recounts
a nightmare vision of limbs reaching out to other limbs ad infinitum, with bodies reduced to noting more than pairs of limbs. A nightmare of inter-connectedness — hmm. Seems familiar, somehow!

Can art save us, or “Dream Villages” with cotton-candy clouds? Muslim seems skeptical. “Art is repulsion floating in a bowl of soup. / Sometimes, it is the soup.” May I have some more, then? Night Fish definitely whetted my appetite. This is one up-and-coming poet who isn’t just dabbling in surrealism because it’s fashionable.

3 Replies to “Night Fish by Kristine Ong Muslim”

    1. No, I don’t think it’s on Google Books; those links are auto-generated by Open Library whether or not the book in question yet exists in those places, in case it shows up there in the future. In any case, I wouldn’t do that. I prefer print. (Note my remarks on the print quality, or lack thereof, in paragraph three.)

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