Poetry is the most esoteric of the written forms. It can be unavailable and unfriendly, an unintentional riddle for willing readers and annoyed students to attempt decode. The sparse words are carved into their pages with little room for context or clues. The feeling of looking at a poem is much like staring at a monochromatic Rothko: where do you begin to decipher it’s meaning?
Angeleno Mandy Kahn‘s poetry is far from being difficult or burdensome. Like the California surrounding they originate from, they are light and airy, each with their own unique kindness. Instead of trying to push you away from herself and her subject—only giving you a squint into the matter—she embraces your presence, as if she is telling this poem to you, in this moment, in this perfect little place. Her new collection of poems—Math, Heaven, Time—may sound distant, alien, and even too sophisticated for anyone who isn’t a subscriber to Poetry Magazine yet it welcomes you with open arms.
Kahn’s a unique master of written ease. Her writing is friendly and funny wrapped in concise, bite-sized poems that are easy to digest in a day (and visit and revisit whenever a situation of feeling inspires you to walk back through a poem). The tropes of the literary are all present here (foreign metaphors, gigantic hyperboles, extended personification, anti-rhyme schemes) but they come of lighter and more gracefully than whatever clunky idea of “poetry” that comes to mind. Kahn’s success in Math, Heaven, Time is that she is unafraid to embrace the mundane and the real: “Marry me” provides the overblown internal monologue for a man pursuing a woman and the woman reluctantly agreeing to see him; both “Why I Wake Up Slowly” and “The Tour Guide” (among others) identify with the abstract and alien while also allowing you an entry point into how she thinks; and poems like “To the Couples Who Argue on Reality TV” shows you that, yes, poets are just like you (and they have guilty pleasures) and, yes, the people on guilty pleasure forms of entertainment are indeed human as well.
The book is broken into three different chapters without explanation but themes are loosely available for you: the first collection are observations and stories, the second are more direct, intended toward a specific subject, while the third collection marries both, being an all-or-nothing examination of personal and shares psychology. Collections aside, all of the poems are successful in that they allow you to enter into her head because every poem is a short (or longer) page from the filing cabinet of her mind. You learn that she met William Eggleston and that she lived near a rooster in Echo Park, that she loves and hates the idea of love and that every person and object and concept in this world is a character in a giant play of life.
The poem “Math, Heaven, Time” closes the first collection, a fitting end to the beginning of her book. “Math, the thing I couldn’t manage,” she writes. “time, the thing I harried, chased, / heaven, the place I couldn’t posit could exist.” She evolves the concepts to the reality and into the future, sharing her vulnerabilities, annoyances, dreams, fears, and honesty: we all live insane, inescapable lives. To be able to whittle down experiences into a few short, jaggedly organized stanzas is a remarkable feat. Such is the joy of poetry. For Mandy Kahn and the work of Math, Heaven, Time, poetry is a conduit for sharing her own life and your life, bonding with you as the reader simply by articulating similar thoughts. The book is less of a book of poems and more of a finely crafted cocktail, designed to loosen you up and find that others are just like you.
You can purchase Math, Heaven, Time here.