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

By Ed Meek

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

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

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. 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, strives 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 Now”, Kingyens invites us to

To imagine
for a moment
Being trapped
on a long flight
in Tibet;
a nice stranger
in the seat next to you–
who never shut up.

At the fifth hour,
your neck begins
hurt everything
the nod.

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:

To 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
on the move
in marriage,
this drift in slow motion
towards 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 he jumps
George Washington Bridge
that my problem was
I did not 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
were tidy and clean,
When you said
you knew i was the woman
you were destined to marry
when you saw me…

But the truth was:

you had no interest
wanting to marry me
the day i showed up
in your messy door…

I was ripe, hot,
ready to please—
not the female dog
you would get married later.

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

We sang songs
at Vacation Bible School
about how Jesus
loved the little kids
of the world…

All of us, soldiers of Christ.

We drank the color of Jim Jones
punch and eat without 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 his release
to his parents…

And I heard little Regina
Hope Bethel Christmas
Marie contest,
got addicted to methamphetamine…

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.

Ed Meek is the author of High tide (poems) and Luck (short stories).