“A Roomful of Machines” Kristine Ong Muslim (ELJ Publications) – Poetry Review

A Roomful of Machines Kristine Ong MuslimThe newly released (July 2015) edition of “A Roomful of Machines” contains ten new poems that were not in the first edition. Both editions encourage readers to look at objects, whether inanimate or working, or, in some cases, body parts, such as a diseased lung, and see them from a different viewpoint. The poems, including some prose poems, have a pared-down, forensic feel to them. In “Dissection of Painted Things,” life is both bestowed and taken away.

“When nobody is looking, they twitch
their porcelain ears and open their
glass lips in preparation for speech.
Soon, he will scalpel their shiny torsos apart
then sketch the Y-incision for the damned.
How dark they were underneath
those colors. How bloodlessly calm.”

Readers don’t know who “he” is but see that in dissecting the painted things, he takes the life from them. Being inanimate, they have to submit but his actions have exposed their dark, calm core, confirming how different these things are from him. That “bloodlessly” has an air of menace but the menace belongs to him for inflicting violence on delicate, harmless objects. Although passive, the objects illustrate a side to him that they suggest usually remains hidden. The sinister feel is picked up again in “Closets”

“I pluck something shapeless and wrinkly
out of your sordid cache of shirts.
It is a tiny packet of darkness
snagged by the wire hangers.

Reflecting facets of the deadest lights,
the little blackness melts the flesh
of my palm down to where the veins are
entangled in a maze. I try to wash away

the spreading mark, but it festers to a sore.
That’s how badly it wants a body to invade.
It burns through the veins and leaks inky pus,
rendering my homemade stigmata complete.”

It suggests that secrets are hung along with the shirts. Once a secret is known, it cannot be unknown so it marks the narrator with a stigmata. As in “Dissection of Painted Things” the action imposed on the inanimate object, cannot be reversed so the action prompts a permanent change in the relationship between the person and object. “Closets” could also be viewed as being a illustration of a relationship where one partner discovers a secret or some baggage from their partner’s past that forces a permanent change in how that relationship is viewed. It’s left to the reader to interpret whether the relationship will survive. Another relationship is analysed in “The Fan”

“From the couch, she reaches out,
tries to take his hand. They are only
separated by a television screen.
The remote control has been forgotten
on the coffee table. An opened packet
of greasy chips is a silvery nest.
The overdue bills are unfurling
where the whirling electric fan
hits them. Soup is being reheated.
After the commercials, he will
look at her straight in the eyes,
and she will believe him.”

How many readers want to urge her to run for the hills knowing that the bills won’t be paid and her life will be reduced to cheap, unnourishing junk food and scraps of affection he won’t willingly give? That’s the strength of these poems, the details are allowed to accumulate into a picture that guides the reader into seeing what the poet wants the reader to know. Happier memories have been left behind in “Death of a House”

“Inside the child’s bedroom, the plastic
action figures wobble, struggling
to come back to life. Unraveling the house,
I discover dust under the rug. The dust flecks
come in all colors—those miniature chimeras
of happiness—with spools of hunger in between.
I carve out the hunger, inhale what it gives off.
I hear a roar out of the rubble of the dying house.”

Kristine Ong Muslim keeps her language simple, drawing the reader in to what on the surface is a familiar tableau but, as images are layered, readers are invited to see something familiar in a new light. The machines cannot speak but they can show and reflect character. They can conceal or reveal secrets and hidden depths and persuade a reader to care about them.

“Roomful of Machines” is available from ELJ Publications.

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