Book Review

Midway through Pink Noise, Kevin Holden’s second full-length collection, there appears what one might take as a statement of method:

What if it were all abstraction but I had put a page within the cover not a frontispiece but in its place what if I had put as the second or third page before the poems started a page of FUR so you could touch it & rub it & look at all the textures all the living complexity.

Holden lingers on the pelt, in a paratactic ecstasy of touching and feeling; “you could maybe rub your genitals against it see the sounds & striations,” he says, the synesthesia gesturing to the kind of “living complexity” he has in mind. But as the fragment closes, Holden switches verb tense to note how the tactile experience of the fur might not only offer its own aesthetic pleasures, but would also condition the reader for what follows, declaring that “then . . . you could read the poems & hold them & feel their thought.”

One can’t help but wonder if there were any such design conversations with Nightboat, the book’s publisher—and, as Pink Noise goes on to demonstrate, one of the preeminent publishers of experimental American poetry today. But despite the perhaps disappointingly fur-less pages that open the collection, Pink Noise is delightfully attuned to the living complexity of language, an experience that Holden renders as both conceptual and tactile. True, there is plenty of abstraction in the book, with vocabulary drawn from diverse registers of geometry, geology, and botany. But like the FUR frontispiece imagined in “parhelion,” the point of Holden’s language is not necessarily erudition but texture. At his most Zukofskian—particularly in the poems which comprise the sequence “polytopes”—Holden patterns speech as a form of music, as in the opening lines of “nephilim”:

antiphonal twelve
tone as if there
could be such a thing
anticomb the pollen
a yellow shivering
to take your
seraphim & synapses
the spaces between oh

That this world of sensuous language is simultaneously one where queer desire emerges in spite of a violently enforced normativity is evident in the collection’s first long poem, “riot,” where Holden offers a revealing diptych:

When I was younger I wore only one color. My boyfriend liked to fuck in parking lots. We use to go to these reeds by a lake. He was kind of punk but had the most beautiful sweaters.

After the protests the police held us for a very long time. He was avoiding their questions but looking very directly into their eyes. This bothered them & so they hit him.

Reading the book-length project through the prism of this dyad, Holden’s language play becomes one among many anti-normative practices, “riot” referring to both “the streets at night” and the way “every flower would overflow a grammar.” The excerpt also reflects Holden’s method through the poem’s refusal to draw a narrative line between the teenage boyfriend’s queerness and the abuse “he” suffered (though elsewhere the speaker and a lover “are beat / up for / holding hands”). Instead, the two passages are held together through proximity, allowing the reader to connect such threads. In this way, if Holden articulates something resembling a queer poetics, it is far afield of the transparently representational sort. This is not to say that Pink Noise is bereft of moments of explicit sexual longing: “oh come on now / you would say super / computer cum on my face,” Holden writes in the closing lines of “Nephilim.” But Pink Noise is not primarily about queer sexuality, or any other discrete topic. Rather, like the polytopes from which the book’s fifth movement takes its name, the poems are multi-dimensional experiences of language, comprised of flat sides that form a shape but run orthogonal to each other.

This structure of incomplete correspondence operates at scale; Holden approaches the book more as sculptor than storyteller, chiseling linguistic forms from his expansive lexicon to create a book-length symphony that is coherent without feeling closed. Perhaps nowhere is this as apparent as in the five-part poem “tunnel,” the first four sections of which appear as the book’s fourth movement. Here, Holden’s short, enjambed lines operate as a narrative respite from the increasingly disjunctive language of the preceding pages. But by the time the fifth section appears (as the book’s penultimate poem), the resumed narrative thread feels like one more face of linguistic invention, the interruption serving to defamiliarize any drive to coherence. Indeed, as Holden signals in the opening lines of “tunnel,” narrative itself is positioned as a form of operative unreality:

that were not real,
were collecting
in the streams
of my and others’

Over the course of the collection, fragments of narrative, sound, and texture work together to asymptotically approach the stream of day, navigating between two unachievables: a form of perfect language, “a word no one can pronounce / but every word in the language rhymes with it,” on the one hand; and pure representation on the other—“your memory / if something / like that / could be said to exist.” Indeed, Pink Noise is animated perhaps most of all by a sense of language’s incompleteness, its inability to transmit the elusive real. At various moments throughout the collection, Holden indicates as much, seeming almost to throw up his hands as he retreats from the specific to the gestural; “other stuff about cities / pinecone, snow studies,” he writes, and later repeats:

dumpster under bridge / puffy coats
other stuff about cities
subways / glass buildings / fountains / the poor / guns.

Here, the vagueness of “stuff” denotes not a lack of interest but the difficulty inherent in moving between the concrete and the abstract, from the actually existing “subways,” “fountains,” and “puffy coats” to the nebulous sense of totality umbrellaed under “city” (and echoed in other forms of abstraction, including the mathematic). In this sense, Pink Noise is an extension of the poetics developed in Holden’s radiant debut collection, Solar (Fence Books, 2015). But where Solar veers for the edges of communicable thought until the signifier itself is deformed by the poetic presence (e.g. “xy under treeeee,” Holden writes in “Cumulus”), Pink Noise is comparatively restrained, more interested in pattern, contrast, and caesura as it plumbs the messy gap between signifier and signified.

Such an ambitious project begins, perhaps counterintuitively, with a flower. In the collection’s opening poem, “mica,” Holden writes:

vertices of xs
a hardwood to shower
& tender that would be
& go up the cliff
lone pine atop it
that would be a lilac bush
him running past you
turning into lilacs

What “mica” establishes in miniature is a model for the book itself, where discourses of mathematics conjoin with landscapes and desire, rock, body, and plant—all of which the poetic subject attempts to navigate between. This kind of eco-poetics finds its roots in antecedents like Zukofsky, Ronald Johnson, and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. Holden himself was included in the luminous eco-anthology The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral (Ahsahta Press, 2012). Again, the focus is less on representation than on the experience of a total linguistic ecosystem: Holden’s “I” is not complacent with normative grammar as a container for the self, and by extension, self-other relations (human or non). Hence the title, Pink Noise, and its polysemy. Perhaps a code name for a specifically queer poetics—a pink noise—appearing in the guise of an office-sound-machine flavor, pink noise is at the same time a reference to the naturally occurring phenomena known as “fractal noise,” a pattern of frequencies observable in heartbeats and tide charts and expressed through the mathematical formula Holden uses as the subtitle to “grid.” Surfing between these various registers, connecting the biological to the sexual to the computational to the quotidian, Holden’s pink noise emerges as a wonderfully disobedient poetics, an irrepressible hum comprised of its own frequency patterns. As he declares in the opening lines of “riot,” “the norm cannot compete with that color.”

About the Reviewer

Michael Martin Shea is the author of three chapbooks of poetry and hybrid prose: Soon (Garden-Door Press), The Immanent Field (Essay Press), and Comparative Morphologies (above/ground press). He is also the translator of the Argentine poet Liliana Ponce: a bilingual chapbook, Diary, was published in 2018 by Ugly Duckling Presse, and a second chapbook, Fudekara, appeared from Cardboard House Press in 2022. His poems and translations have appeared in Conjunctions, Denver Quarterly, Guernica, Fence, jubilat, New England Review, Poetry, Typo and elsewhere. He lives in Philadelphia, PA, where he is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Pennsylvania.