reviewed on March 21, 2023
Intriguing in manifold ways, Kwon’s debut may be most compelling, perhaps, for its use of the @ sign in its acknowledgments section—as in, “Thank you @jjanise, for teaching me how to be successful.”
Kwon is hardly the first to adopt that symbol, of course, though she may be the only poet to employ it strategically, as part of a collection’s through-line intellectual investments. For at the heart of A Ribbon the Most Perfect Blue lies the idea that contemporary selfhood, far from a monological construct, exists as a series of endless figurations—tactically curated, continuously re-mediated.
We are, Kwon suggests, those selves our online presences evoke.
“From certain angles I’m not // Like prada slip-ons politely folding over a pope’s feet,” she writes in “Noh Mask.” “My body crackles // Inside I am taking pictures.”
In the hands of a lesser poet, the @ sign acknowledgements section would mark the entrenchment—formally, if peripherally in the book—of a celebrity poetry culture in which writers and artists are indistinguishable from their online personas. Certain poets, such a culture instructs us, have been published because they have 100,000 Instagram followers. Certain books, such a culture instructs us, have been little more than marketing gimmicks, retweets, Follow Fridays.
Kwon, though, winner of the Cowles Poetry Prize from Southeast Missouri State University Press, is up to something more complicated; the designation of Ribbon’s benefactors by the @ sign—to which, admittedly, readers might initially balk—is taken up more or less explicitly throughout the collection, as Kwon examines not only the mediation of selfhood but the experiential disjunction that results from it. To exist, Kwon offers, is to be haunted by the multiple selves one is and is not. “A woman carries plates back and forth,” Kwon writes in “Night Attendant.” “A handsome gay man opens a letter // These people inside me / make me nervous.”
At the same time, Kwon interrogates the mediatory capacities of poetry itself as a form; at its most fundamental, Kwon suggests, the online curation of one’s identity—the standing-in, for instance, of image for idea—closely resembles the figurative, substitutive, and transformative properties of poetry. Just as the self is haunted by its multiples, so is poetry haunted by the trace of the real, so is re-presentation haunted by presence. This idea becomes especially prominent in Ribbon’s second half, where almost every poem mentions poetry explicitly. “Do you really think // Someone in Brooklyn / will clutch my poems // To their heart,” Kwon writes in “5th Avenue,” “and say New York New York / I found a girl.” More subtle, it seems to me, are Kwon’s more deft explorations of the power of artistic imagination: “We too must come down from this castle,” she writes in “Artists in Love,” “but we must not.”
As the passages here excerpted demonstrate, Ribbon, like many recent debuts, plays fast and loose with punctuation and capitalization, with both seemingly used indiscriminately throughout the collection. How, for instance, are readers to interpret the inconsistent capitalization of “Girls on Bikes”? “The linoleum floor that must be ripped up / Is mommy,” Kwon writes. “The whitish spots on the / bathroom mirror / / Are freckles on her face[.]” Ubiquitous in the collection, such moments testify either to a logic too esoteric to parse—I may, admittedly, be missing something here—or to what William Logan has called a lack of control, on the part of emerging writers, over techniques such as punctuation, capitalization, syntax, and tense. “In a time of declining readership,” William Logan has written, “when young poets prefer to write in the present tense because they’ve lost a mastery of tenses, the poet might as well write for gannets and seagulls.”
Seemingly inconsequential, such imprecision—if indeed it is that—suggests one shortcoming of the ludic mode in which much of Ribbon is written; too often, among both emerging and established poets, an effort toward “surrealism” or to the “dream-like” can serve instead as a justification for slack writing, akin, as Yvor Winters put it, “to the Whitmanian notion that one must write loose and sprawling poetry to ‘express’ the loose and sprawling American continent”—“the fallacy of imitative form,” Winters called this notion.
Having said that, Ribbon often engages the “dream-like” to powerful effect, resembling Mallarmé or Maggie Nelson, for instance, in its repeated invocation of the color blue, a color, in Kwon's hands, with which to think; from its titular ribbon to powdered eye shadow to porcelain egg cups to butterflies to interior wall paint, Ribbon employs the color blue both as motif and tone note, so that “the most perfect blue,” as Kwon puts it, stands in for some pure presence beyond the endless figuration of language, some Being beyond the self.
“[C]lose your eyes / what can you not summon,” Kwon writes in the title poem, the last in the collection—and, along with Rachel Mannheimer’s “The Catskills,” one of the most memorable last poems in recent memory:
it is a tourist cathedral
let’s say the hem
of mary’s dress
is blighted white
now you see
where I live
Alluding to the lapis lazuli in which Mary is traditionally depicted, the passage—and this is the very end of the collection—suggests the intermediate state of contemporary selfhood, roped off from “the sacred” but “spotless” nonetheless, always unfolding, always “and.” It is, quite simply, a masterful close to a skilled, sophisticated debut.