21 November 2011

Night Fish (Kristine Ong Muslim)

Night Fish is a 13-poem chapbook written in the language of a hypothetical (future) reality. It opens with the title poem, submerging the reader in a world without landmass. Everything that once stood on high ground is reduced to the level of the sea. Despite the uncertainties accompanying a watery life, humans learn to adapt (“Everyone will learn to paddle towards the nonexistent shores.”) and form an aquatic community, an emergent race of water people. Kristine Ong Muslim, the poet behind these lines, has imagined an alternate environmental habitat in which sea level rise is the state of nature and adaptation to an extreme environment is the way of life: "The sound of oars cutting the water clean will be the most familiar sound in the universe."

The universe of Muslim's poems exists, as another poem ("Hypergraphia") puts it, in some “watery city of typography”. It is a city where the boundaries are fluid and meanings dissolve at the edges of bodies of water. "Hypergraphia" is a poem about a lake which "opens its doors the way a detective pries and yanks wooden floor" to find the murder weapon(!):

Sometimes, this door is mishandled and someone drowns. Sometimes, too, it allows grief to run its course, gets a novel written by some stranger inside that glass lakehouse. Lake water laps at the shore, gravel and silt sliding in and out. A watery city of typography. All the pebbles are letters desperately forming into words. The handwriting is not quite legible yet.

Grief is taken as inspiration for novel writing. The interfacing between shore pebbles (land) and lake water straddles writing and grief. The lake as possibly the liquid symbol of tears. The land trying to make sense of the murder or drowning in the lake, its source of sorrow.

A key poem that acquaints the reader to a general idea of the whole collection is “Heat Stroke”, a condition where moisture has left and hellish grief has triumphed. It is in direct contradiction to the watery city, this time the severe heat wave razes the landscape. It is also again an elegy for someone who may have died: "what remains and what we remember is / someone else's absence, the slam of the doors."

The poem then provides a way to read its contents, a way to cope with the rising temperature and the sense of death all around, through its own navigation of heat:

We ultimately learn to slice impressions,
separate them according to texture.
Smooth-skinned on top. Rusty underneath.
Grit and cruelty crammed in the middle.
Heat presents itself in the form of waves
melting the world away. Squandering nothing.

This poem, like everything in Night Fish, is very brief, and each rereading reveals an ambivalent voice of a prophet. When language and image liquefy in short lines, meanings condense in a small space, “squandering nothing”. Every image, every texture ("smooth-skinned", "rusty", "grit and cruelty") is contained in the simulacrum of transience, meanings arising from grief brought about by floods and heat waves, extreme conditions that challenge the homeostasis of the human organism.

The rest of the poems display a consistent interest in night times, bodies of water, and desert-like environments. They evoke the edgy atmosphere of noir science fiction, through nocturnal meditations, not in a speculative mood but in terse meditations about an altered future landscape and the place of man in it.

The structure of the lines – in prose or short clipped lines – usually enact the very ideas they profess. The self-reference gives way not to a metafictional consciousness but to an awareness of the limitations imposed by the fictional artifice. (I tend to emphasize 'fiction' in these poems, perhaps a way to underscore the essentially narrative content in Night Fish.) For example, the way the last line fades out at the end of the second poem (“Night Swimmer”) – "Sometimes, one plunge is enough / to cut the water clean, the splash / merely an afterthought" – trails like an afterthought itself. The final stop is an inevitable punctuation of a thought that meandered beyond boundaries. Similarly, the end of "Art", the penultimate poem, gives itself away when it declares that art is not "[s]ome flimsy rowboat that can be disassembled into exactly nine pieces". A puzzle that alludes to the nine full stops in the poem, corners that don't exactly define its boundaries. In fact each piece, sentence, or line resists the kind of objective deconstruction that puts a poem in a box (or bowl) resting on the table. Hence, "Art is repulsion floating in a bowl of soup. / Sometimes, it is the soup."

The primordial liquid in which Muslim's poetry is soaked in is the puzzle (or riddle) of existing in a mirror world. An ecological interpretation of the poems can be: that they are cautionary poems – not in a hard-science fiction way – that give us hope that poets will not give up and will ensure that poetry will still be written when the worst of climate events runs its course. Poetry, in fact, appears as a viable strategy to adapt to climate change. Even if the lines can be disturbing or unsettling, they can teach us ecological resilience and resistance. As with any literary hypothesis, this interpretation is valid only in the imagination.

Another theme of Muslim's that one could detect in some of these poems is that of stray souls and "random ghosts". But that is another work of fiction.


This cold has taught me
about the nature of souls.

Although I have known
a long time ago that the body
is meant to be a sieve for
the soul fermenting inside,

I am still surprised by the fog
of breath coming out of my mouth.
So dense. It seems that I am not the only one
who is exhaling in this frozen yard.

Kristine Ong Muslim is the author of We Bury the Landscapea collection of flash fiction and prose poems – and the upcoming poetry collection Insomnia (Medulla Publishing, 2012). Her poems have appeared in Boston Review and Southword, among many publications. I received an e-galley of Night Fish from the author.


  1. This is something that has real appeal for me, like that fluid & yet a sharpness to these words, which would definitely match the shoreline, thanks.

  2. It's a wonderful collection, Gary. Can't wait to read more of her poems. A lot of them were published online.