Grim Series: Poems
By Kristine Ong Muslim
Published by Popcorn Press, 128 pages
Reviewed by Francesca Forrest
Kristine Ong Muslim’s grim series are six: Conrad (poems of a macabre family, especially the eponymous Conrad), Giger’s Tracts (in which tourists signal the cultural gulf between visitors and natives), Muir’s Horses (with similar themes of unequal interaction, fear, and xenophobia—but bonus beautiful horse imagery), Vengeful Villagers (village gossip and skeletons in the closet—dialed up to 11), Body Horror (pretty much what it says on the tin, but with themes of identity and loss mixed in), and my personal favorite, Strangers. Within each series, ideas, characters, and even phrasings recur, but at new angles and in new combinations, so we can explore them more fully.
The imagery is always breathtaking, startling, and the action usually violent, often gruesome. Consider “How Conrad Fell in Love,” in which Conrad’s family tries to dissuade him:
”Conrad, honey,” mother cooed. “Love is only for humans.
You are somwhere up there in the food chain.
And that girl’s hair has clogged our drain pipe.”
Conrad bowed his head, and I knew that he would think about her
tonight, how she had clawed at him when he lifted off his face
and how she had called him a “monster, monster, ugly beast.”
I would drag that girl into the kitchen tonight, keep her alive
for a while, make her understand what monster love was all about.
(The next poem is titled “Conrad and His Bride,” so we have an idea how successful Conrad’s family’s efforts were.)
Giger’s Tracts is about encounters that don’t go well. In fact, the last three poems are about closing doors, mouths, conduits—sealing off one thing from another. In “Disinfecting the Tourist,” a tourist is subjected to drastic disinfection methods, and in the end,
Dazed and sore all over, he gave the travel agents
his name and his memories. He had nothing to hide.
They gave him a badge so that the citizens
would not stone him to death. He was only visiting.
From the perspective of the locals, there are these lines from “The Invisible”:
. . . Who would’ve
thought that such a soulless, outnumbered thing in rags
would grow strong enough to ring the bell, to want
to be found, to be let in, to live among us. Years later,
we were cutting away the eyelids of our dead
so they could see your approach.
In Muir’s Horses, beautiful, incomprehensible horses, who gallop at the speed of light and have spines curved by gravity, wander among us. The first poem, “The Strange Horses,” is gorgeous:
. . . although their bodies were
their eyes were very, very old . . .
From the windows of our secret rooms,
we studied their mane and the wind
they brought in the spaces between the strands.
The radios hissed; we turned to white noise
and heard the sound of their galloping
before the Prime Minister’s door.
And the Prime Minister asked:
“What do you want to know about us?”
As too often happens, we destroy what we cannot understand:
The next day, bereft of weapons,
we slaughtered the strange horses
with our bare hands.
“We must learn to tame what we cannot see,” the people declare in “The Arrival of the Invisible Horses,” but it always comes down to destruction.
Vengeful Strangers is the poetry edition of the family stories your older cousin would terrify you with at family gatherings—filled with murder, abuse, illicit doings, the works. Anything hinting at sweetness and light is turned on its head, as in “Sabrina and the Sparrows,” in which Sabrina puts out breadcrumbs for the sparrows each morning, and then, when the birds are “distracted by the food on the sill . . . fishes / the creatures one by one and puts them into her mouth.” One poem, “Storytelling,” seems to poke fun at the grisly nature of this series: in it, the narrator tells her dolls a grim version of “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” as her dolls get up to the same sorts of bloodthirsty shenanigans as the humans in the other poems in the series.
Then comes Body Horror, probably my least favorite of the grim series, simply because I’m not much of a fan of body horror. I think even if you enjoy a ghoulish poem now and then, you may want to parcel these out in small doses, because reading poems like “Stillbirth,” “Sack of Heads,” and “An Experiment in Thresholds of Pain” all in one go might get a bit overwhelming. But even in this section, there was one a reader like me could love: “Moths” was downright beautiful. Have a taste:
Pitiful and angry, the tiny brown moths
clustered before me while I wrote love letters
deciphered as insincere prayers under the
fluorescent light of a plastic desk lamp.
”Life is a nightmare train,” I told them each night.
“It will take you everywhere at the speed of its own
choosing, will not wait for you to find out
how far it can lead you away from home.”
There’s more, but that taste captures the feel.
And then we come to my favorite series, Strangers. Some of the strangers may be familiar—the seventh stranger is something like Circe and something like Voldemort, and certain marks link the eighth stranger to Jesus. The tenth is just a voice on the radio, and the twelfth is a soul train. But my favorite is the third stranger, the mother of oceans. It’s a short poem, but one of my favorites:
She claimed to be
the mother of the oceans.
We laughed at her
until she opened her mouth,
and we heard
the rush of the waves,
the sloshing of a thousand fishes.
In her breath was the smell of brine.
All in all, an excellent collection for those who who appeciate a walk in on the dark side of poetry now and then.