PRINT January 1982


The Persian Poems

The Persian Poems by Janey Smith, illustrations by Robert Kushner, text by Kathy Acker (New York: Bozeau of London Press, 1980), 48 pages.

A CAPTIVE GIRL-CHILD LEARNING LANGUAGES is the image upon which Kathy Acker and Robert Kushner’s The Persian Poems by Janey Smith is based. Twelve-year-old-Janey is the prisoner of a New York-based Iranian slave-trader, who is helping her to master the syntax of sex. “One day,” Janey comes into possession of a book of Persian grammar and, hoping to loosen the grip of ennui, begins to ponder the positionings of nouns. The text of The Persian Poems purports to be a transcription of the waif’s experiments with her captor’s tongue.

When Nabokov wrote of budding, he put an articulate Humbert Humbert between himself and the idea of a stimulating but still-uneducated brat. Knowing full well that Lolita had little to add to the vocabulary of her mother tongue, Nabokov wisely kept her dumb. He filtered her every word through an erudite Hum and, thus, kept his prose from falling flat. Kathy Acker has chosen not to follow this course and has left us no choice but to hear her words spoken in an illiterate street-urchin’s voice. (Brooke Shields, as an untransformed Eliza Doolittle, would be the ideal reciter of these lines.) Here, an unschooled infant, fumbling with a grammar whose subtleties escape her, is allowed to speak for herself. The result is that Janey Smith’s poetry is as seductive as her name.

Perhaps the undernourished nature of Acker’s writing stems from her desire to be realistic—that is, to portray youth by giving it the vocabulary of an uncultured child. Perhaps these words have failed to arouse and to seduce me (which is literally what words of love should do) because Acker is not convinced that the idea of a sexy twelve-year-old can be seductive only when it is gazed on from afar, only when its look of stained spotlessness is kept intact, only if its shell of mock-nubility (Nabokov’s mixture of “a tender dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity”) appears uncracked. Or perhaps the problem here is one that has always plagued self-styled naifs: their distaste for sophistication (“Culture stinks,” writes Janey) is too often carried too far; their ignorance, too often, forgets to be feigned. But, it is far more likely that the unloved look of this work rests on Acker’s desire to strip grammar of its delicacies, in her unwillingness to take advantage of its charms. She writes of language as if it were a prison rather than as the fabric upon which to build her yarn—“Language / to get rid of language,” she forces the child to wish.

Eroticism is not simply the depiction of Aphrodite’s favorite nouns. It is, instead, an issue of adverbs—what matters is how an idea has been laid down: Bonnard’s art “ensights” the senses not because he painted women lounging in tubs, but because giving color to a canvas was, for him, an act of overflowing love. Passion is an aspect of an act not merely a thing—which brings me to Robert Kushner, whose making is always love-making. Kushner doesn’t need to portray pudenda to make us think pink, for every color that comes from his palette is blue.

The theme of The Persian Poems is as suited to Kushner as it was to Pierre Louÿs: his tufted girl-child spends her days dreaming up lines, while living amidst the trappings of Orientalia (the patterns, the quilts, the costumes, the rugs . . . all the motifs for which the artist is famed). But, rather than be satisfied with the familiar, Kushner proceeds with a new point of view. The view, in this case, is a close-up; the lens he’s used, the zoom. Those aforementioned pudenda are, here, in full bloom.

Kushner’s explicit renderings of impassioned play offer us a different sort of eroticism than do his patchwork flowers and painted bouquets. His paintings shower the senses with a Danaën caress. These pen and brush drawings, though not hesitant to undress, are shy—a quality that enables them to embrace simplicity and, unlike the accompanying text, to shun simple-mindedness.

Kushner’s Persian poems are lessons in love, of language—grammar. He is sensitive to punctuation and is tender in his placement of nouns. His verbs are never tense; his wrist’s rhythms are soft sounds. Kushner’s pen is a finger, a tongue probing, outlining. His brush allows parts of speech to intertwine: a flurry of alliterative ink becomes the bawdy; while elsewhere, other lines produce delicate forms and bring to mind a poem by William Matheson, whose art, like Kushner’s here, is tinted Japanese:

One slash of his sable brush and the sea’s fur bristles!

We do not have to substitute a body for the sea in order to transform these waves into throes of passion.

Douglas Blau