I am a big fan of poetry chapbooks. The format, in my opinion, is poetic in nature: thematically-contained, inherently brief and, if executed well, this quickness causes the reader to flip back to page one and begin again. In her latest chapbook, Night Fish (Shoe Music Press, 2011), Kristine Ong Muslim dwells just long enough in dark waters and glass lake houses, leaving her readers renewed, yet haunted.
A short collection of an ominous thirteen poems, Muslim maintains a dark, surreal tone throughout. The title poem "Night Fish," also the first poem, begins with a declaration: “From now on, there will never be any flat land, / just water.” From there we swim alongside characters like, “that misanthrope with the chubby face” and “that minimalist rearranging his arms to fit a slinky dress” who are all in search of the “submerged continent.” This poem’s placement sets the tone for those that follow: a David Lynchian-like story that begins in the middle of things, but doesn't say so. Or does it start at the end? This ambiguity is not caused by lack of craft, but rather, by a sense of timelessness where Muslim explores surreal terrains like the afterlife, childhood, artist landscapes and mysterious dreamscapes.
Some of the poems examine the connections between artists and writers, in particular the poems “Night Swimmer” and “Hypergraphia,” respectively. In the former, Muslim writes an ekphrastic poem dedicated to Max Ernst’s painting Aquis Submerses, where “All strangers whose backs are / turned away from the light become / ginger bread men—”. The poem deftly captures the strangeness in Ernst's shadowy dimensions and lonely characters. In “Hypergraphia,” the poem depicts the madness of a real mental disorder where one writes compulsively and uncontrollably in a “watery city of typography.” Throughout the poems, I found myself wondering if Muslim has, in fact, been swimming around inside my head. Each poem captures a universal emotion -- be it grief, fear of death, loneliness -- and captures it, stuffing it in a bottle to float out to sea.
The poetic structures in Night Fish are mostly free verse, with the occasional nod to couplets and other nonce forms. Muslim’s use of enjambment could be a bit stronger; she often breaks lines before prepositions, causing the starting and ending words to fall flat. But she makes up for this with strong consistency of voice and haunting repeated imagery. The poems all connect through doorways, bodies of water, souls, phantoms, fish, hazy dreams and “limbs reaching out / to more limbs reaching out / to more limbs,” as in the poem “Extremities.”
If you read indie lit mags, you are probably already familiar with Kristine Ong Muslim’s writing. It’s no wonder this writer has received five Pushcart nominations; just reading one of her poems fuels the desire for more. So go ahead and give in to that poetic hunger; pick up a copy of Night Fish today.
Night Fish by Kristine Ong Muslim was published by Shoe Music Press in 2011.