“Coupling” by Carolynn Kingyens – Art as a means of survival


Poetry review by bookshelf correspondent Ed Meek

In this collection, Carolynn Kingyens reveals what lies behind the veneer of our relationships.

Art is a survival tool. It helps us give meaning to our lives by giving us aesthetic pleasure, just like the beauty of nature. Mainstream media titillates us with disconnected, mostly fragmented negative narratives.

By Carolynn Kingyens
Books by Kelsay, 68 pages, $16.50.

The language of art pulls back the curtain of confusion and shows us the wizard, for better or for worse. Coupling, the second book of poems by Carolynn Kingyens, sets out to reveal what lies behind the veneer of our relationships. She draws on her past and invites us to share revelations that are both humorous and disturbing.

Kingyens is particularly good at dramatizing the paradoxes we cling to on a daily basis. We are influenced by the beliefs we grew up with – even when we no longer fully believe in them.

“Every chore/around your house–/a Stations of the Cross:/that’s how far I’d gone/that’s how good you were/in bed.” Like Lena Dunham on the show Girlsthe narrator of Kingyens poems finds herself stuck in relationships that surprise and revolt her.

In Alone nowKingyens invites us to imagine for a moment being trapped on a long flight to Tibet;

a nice stranger sitting next to you – who never shuts up.
By the fifth hour, your neck starts to hurt from all that nodding.

Readers will no doubt nod in amusement, while at the same time acknowledging that it’s true – these situations drive us crazy. And the weird part is that they all happen to us all the time.

A few stanzas later, she says:

Imagine, for a moment, your head in your hands.
The serious turn of the poem is so emotionally effective because the horror was preceded by humor. She suggests that we live lives filled with tragicomedy.

Kingyens’ commentary on marriage is part of this lucid vision:

No one warns you of the movement in marriage, this slow-motion drift into indifference

“Write about the things that bother you. Experiences that don’t go away,” poet Richard Hugo once said. Kingyens tells us about a friend who remains in her thoughts.

Jimmy Russo told me six months before jumping off the George Washington Bridge that my problem was that I didn’t know myself; that… and I’ve talked too much.

Kingyens taps into how we remember strange details about friends who are no longer with us.

In the title poem, Coupling, Kingyens contrasts the story her husband tells others about how they met the real story. She focuses on how we present better versions of ourselves and our relationships with others. We hide the self that exists under the reassuring social façade. Just check out all the testimonials that take place on Facebook around birthdays.

Your version of events was neat and clean, When you said you knew I was the woman you were destined to marry the moment you saw me…

But the truth was:

you had no interest in wanting to marry me the day I showed up at your door in a mess…
I was mature, sexy, eager to please – not the bitch you would marry later.

One of Kingyens strengths is his ability to view his religious upbringing with skepticism. Here is his experience of Vacation Bible School:

We sang songs at Vacation Bible School about how Jesus loved the little children of the world…
All of us, soldiers of Christ.
We drank Jim Jones-themed punch and ate no-frills butter cookies…

The Jim Jones reference emphasizes the cult atmosphere. As children, many of us believed in these myths. Kingyens then shocks us with how some of his Bible classmates turned out:

Years later, Timmy Ainsley would shoot himself in the mouth after coming out to his parents…
And I heard little Regina Hopely, Bethel Mary’s Christmas pageant, got addicted to meth…

Adopting a poetic approach similar to that of Hugo, Joseph Lawrence and Doug Holder, Kingyens focuses on stories and experiences close to his heart. She shares them with us, urging us to take a closer – perhaps more courageous – look at our own lives and relationships. His poems are filled with the contradictions we all live with; it reminds us that we need good poetry to give meaning to our lives.

Christopher S. Washington