The multiverse theory posits that there are an infinite number of parallel universes that exist alongside our own. Some people believe that these universes lay on top of one another like a stack of papers, differentiated only by small changes in the distribution of matter.
Kristine Ong Muslim must be writing from one such parallel universe in her 2016 collection Meditations of a Beast. Her poems come from a world that is like ours, but distorted. The world of her poems is populated with ghosts and angels, living dolls and their owners, burglars and assassins. This is a world of flickering streetlights, of trash accumulating in the gutters. It is a worse place, a hard place.
The strongest poems in this collection leave you with an unsettled feeling, the unease that comes from deja vu. The standout of the collection is “P is for Pavlov’s Best Friend,” which is told from the point of view of a dog in one of Pavlov’s conditioning experiments. “I really did not want to salivate,’ says the narrator, “but Master was salivating for me to salivate and I should not disappoint him.” Muslim’s approach to the structure of the poem is the most interesting part–the dog’s thoughts are communicated through footnotes on a synopsis of the study.
Another standout poem, “The System of Enchantment,” comes from the first section. The poem reads as a lament for our dying climate, with “feral forms find[ing] peace in the last of the forests.” Unlike most of the collection, this poem ends on a hopeful note, with the speaker reminding us that “we don’t bruise easily…we can always heal and be healed.”
As a reader, I did find myself wishing for more consistency in the structure of Meditations of a Beast. The collection is divided into four sections. Each section attempts a unifying theme, but some are more successful than others.
The first section is the most consistent, with an identifiable pattern: the last line of each poem appears as the first line of the following poem. This conceit mostly works, giving section one a unified feel, a narrative and thematic thread that is carried throughout. I found, at times, feeling like the repeated line was the weakest part of a particular poem, like it didn’t quite fit with the rest of the piece. (See, for example, the transition between the poems “The People Outside” and “The Oil Spill.”)
I am immensely sympathetic to this problem. As a writer myself, I have written countless pieces based on a writing exercise or guiding principle, only to go back and find later that the inciting word/quote/line no longer fits with the rest of the work. Yet, it feels somehow like a betrayal of the piece to remove the words or words that started it, like cutting a plant at the root.
I can see editing being an especially fraught task for Muslim, as changing the first or last line of any poem would necessitate changing another poem, which has the risk of then snowballing into even more massive and structural changes in the work as a whole. A quote often attributed to William Faulkner tells writers that they have to “kill all their darlings.” In Section I of the piece Muslim rejects that advice wholeheartedly, gathering her darlings close. Whether each individual piece is better for it may be a matter of taste.
Section III is another unified section. Each poem is about or refers to dolls in some way. This is where the parallel universe feeling hits most strongly. These are not the fondly remembered dolls of childhood. These dolls have bloody dresses and long fingernails. They pound on the outside of the dollhouse while you cringe within. If a poet’s hope is to leave you feeling the poems long after you have ceased reading, then these are the most effective of the collection. I felt, afterward, like I had heard a particularly good campfire story. A little spooked, a little more aware of every bump and creak in a dark house.
The other sections are less collected. Section II, for instance, starts with a series of poems that are loosely united by a common theme of criminals and crime. The strongest poem in this section is “Burglars,” where the titular criminals “stayed for two months, unable to decide what to steal.” I admit, I’m a sucker for magical realism, but that wasn’t what I liked best about this poem. This piece showcases what Muslim can do when she pares down her words. The spare language of this piece–as well as its companion piece, “Assassins”–is Muslim at her best.
Halfway through the section, though, the common thread disappears. I found myself re-reading poems about clones and ghosts, trying to figure out how they fit with the first group of poems in the section.
The same can be said about Section IV, which starts as a series of poems all addressed to objects. Each poem, whether it is written to “The Heavy Luggage” or “The Half Butterfly,” starts with the same line, “what were you like before you came here?” The intention to link these together is so clear that I again found myself having to stop and re-read when the sequence ended, shifting to unrelated poems.
It’s possible that there were not enough of these linked poems to make an entire section, and I am certainly sympathetic to the difficult choices that go into deciding how to order and group poems in a work. It is possible as well that I am losing sight of the trees as I gaze at the forest. Muslim’s strength lies in her individual poems, and less attention to how those poems are grouped and sequenced may allow the reader to enjoy each individual work.
Although there has been much writing about parallel universes, there is little agreement as to whether it would be possible to move from one universe to another. If there is, and an entry to Muslim’s universe becomes available, I think I will decline. I’ll stay here on our side, the safe side, enjoying poems of dangerous gods, ghosts, and ordinary people at a remove.
Read an excerpt from Meditations of a Beast, “Burglars“, reprinted with permission from Cornerstone Press on 87 Bedford.
© Copyright 2020 Frances Klein
Frances Klein is a high school English teacher. She was born and raised in Southeast Alaska, and taught in Bolivia and California before settling in Indianapolis with her husband Kris. She has been published in the Indiana Voice Journal, GFT Press, and Autumn Sky Poetry, and is forthcoming in several other journals.