Book Review

Nancy Kuhl’s On Hysteria doubts and criticizes the idea of cohesiveness—of opinions, memories, and even bodies—as a standard. The first poem, “One Story House,” states its case as subtly as the book will operate: “look // toward the world, its temporary quality / of wholeness, or else the parts into which // it is divided.” It is divided—line breaks and thought enjambments are Kuhl’s method, which at times can make for a harsh, desolate, and lonely landscape, but it is an atmosphere intended to argue against whatever is easy, granted, and seems whole.

“One Story House” also introduces this criticism to the family unit, which will be the central cohesive unit fractured in the following pages. Freud and Breuer’s Studies on Hysteria, from which the collection gets its title, is such a foundational text simply for sharing these qualities, but foundational in the way any object of one’s antagonism founds one’s action: in trying to diagnose it, Freud’s analysis is not comfortable with fracture, and Kuhl does not want to put the fragments back together.

Kuhl, therefore, pits her poetry against cohesiveness. In “Accounts,” some reader (or listener, or family member) is trying to coach the speaker on how to tell her story:

When I began to tell it, you said: try to
make something sensible rather than
something beautiful. One of us has gotten
it all wrong.

“Something beautiful” cannot be sensible here, and to “make sense” is to destroy the beauty. We don’t sense the italicized speaker is the “one of us” that’s right—at least, that the speaker has sided with. So many of the scenes that follow feel like surviving entries from a fire that scorched most of a notebook. The cul-de-sac of a speaker’s childhood is reduced to the bare minimum of a scene: “On a bicycle, a child circles: / exquisite summer boredom.” It is poetics not so much “pared down” as “survived,” and its success rides on the huge, full depiction that such description, itself exquisite, conjures. Kuhl argues on behalf of “hysteria” by redefining hysterical poetry not as rowdy and insane, but sparse and withstood.

In this, one senses a writer who aptly distrusts and distances themselves from the emotions of a biography. It is apt because one hardly needs to represent themselves to themselves: one can fill in the cracks of a broken representation with the intimacy of our own life and the obviousness of how much it matters to us. We will always be enraptured by the story of our lives. But to know that one does not write for themselves, and to read their own work as someone unfamiliar with themselves, assures that the representation will hold up without biography—that the work will be its own.

In any case, Kuhl makes another great argument against a full, personal history. In “The Drawing of Granite Bay,” the artist’s questions in capturing a landscape with pencil easily become questions for the poet using the same tool:

To get it all down. On paper,
over griddled lines. How does a map
become a record of waiting? Of not

wanting? Bank, estuary, swamp:
plotted. American lawns, driveways.

Hours stretch taut, unbending.
What will survive our forgetfulness?

One answer to the final question is, “many of the poems in this book,” though the more fruitful answer (and which Kuhl might prefer) is, “not a life, but memories of life,” and it becomes important to distinguish between the two when the cohesiveness of a “sensible” life story is a standard for enforcing normalcy, and the latter evidence of strangeness and disruptive women.

How the idea of cohesive minds and memories become cohesive bodies is a triumph of metaphor. In “Wrecked,” after a near-wreck on black ice, the driver considers how ready the body is to shatter, and the anticipated wreck becomes real, being thought of:

What fastens her to this or any night
is thin and pliant: silver thread, stitch

and suture. Spinning now she’s given up
all sense of where it begins. She’s beyond

every kind of appraisal. Hips, shoulder blades—
whose is it, her singular and common body?

Lacing the body together also becomes a way of lacing bodies together—the bodies of a family, and one of the most interesting and sharp criticisms the book offers is of the family unit.

A supreme ambivalence guides the constant attention to houses, relations, and the necessity of having a family. No one has lived without one yet. “She was taken in by their complete and brutal / love,” says the speaker in one of three poems titled “A Case History,” and even if the case was once the Austrian Franny Moser, it becomes Kuhl and American. Does it matter what noun comes after “complete and brutal?” Why read the next line after? Family is attacked not as biological necessity, but social institution: we are asked to think, in perhaps the darkest and most successful nooks of these poems, how good a thing can be that we cannot consent to. It is as awful a question as it is a good one.

By the third and final section of the book, the fragmenting and dissolution seems to have affected the planet itself, and the world comes apart with its people. The ground is sinking on a cul-de-sac that had been home to that “exquisite summer,” the sea is rising up a rocky coast, and we enter not into memories, but a present that feels like posthumous living in an ecological collapse. We go back to all the houses that now are flooded and try to find the life that was there:

Find the ancient, the well-
made house, throw every

switch. Flood the rooms
with unremarkable light.

Instead, in this poem “Tidal Reach,” we seem unable to return the house to its domesticated, unremarkable life when we lived in it, but drown with it ourselves. Perhaps it is that “light” we drown in (since we are asked to “flood” the house with it), and this environmental disaster is only matching—or even caused by—our personal, psychological one.

Two of the book’s blurbs mention an “elusive” quality here, but the book is only elusive in the way a tiny screw would be, dropped on a Persian rug, while you’re trying to put together a table: the fault is yours, not the screw’s. Carefully the poet speaks, excruciatingly. The book ends with “Takes Place,” at the house on that rocky bay shore in the same summarizing question Whitman had at a beach on Long Island:

Of each and everything we ask:
what is it like? We describe

the horizon set down between
limit and limitlessness.

Even while analogy is the primary method of poetry, and metaphor so often its brilliance, it is the process we must be most careful of. Comparison always begins from somewhere, and we cannot think from a place not ourselves; so analogy, though it never would acknowledge it, is always mapping our experience onto other things that do not experience our way, or even “experience” at all, in the way we use that word to reference our senses, memory, and slow walk through time. The poet of On Hysteria wants to know their mind, and the wonderful final poem is an elegy to being able to do so. The best Kuhl can do is celebrate the process of attempting, which (ending her book) she describes with circular and discarded images that can’t escape themselves:

Again, I circle back; this is
the rind of the orange, the pit

of the peach; also the sweet,
also the tender. Also the tooth.

About the Reviewer

Keene Carter is from Charlottesville, Virginia. You can reach him at