Undercounted Stars: The Elliptical Coolness of ‘Brain Fever’

By Yona Harvey


I finally broke down and told my family I wasn’t watching football this season. I heard a collective, audible gasp. It was a major say-what-now? moment. The general consensus: that’s family time! Followed with: OK, player. Suit yourself. On the one hand, my family’s response meant I’d described our NFL bonding time accurately in a previous post. On the other hand, what would I do without my family on Sundays? Maybe there was no other hand? Maybe that’s too peculiar? A little too Sherwood Anderson? At any rate, no one tried to talk me out of participating in the Football Book Club; but no one asked to join either.

Second only to family time lost was the continued loss of Mike Tomlin’s press conferences. What will I do without those Tomlinian moments of joy and disappointment, delivered with the same cool-as-a-cucumber pitch:

Coach Tomlin does not make excuses. He comes across as the kind of person who won’t waste time on pointless arguments or engage with people who want to verbally spar for the sake of sparring. Check out any of his press conferences and test this theory. Reporters try to carry him, but he just won’t go there.

coverTomlin’s coolness makes me think about the ebb and flow of narrative in Kimiko Hahn’s latest book, Brain Fever. Hahn’s book chronicles three primary tensions: How do I recall being a mother? How do I recall being mothered? How has my husband’s infidelity disrupted the patterns of my thoughts? These questions are ghost questions — never asked outright — they float through the white spaces of the poems, which makes for a very participatory reading experience.

While reading the book I also wondered if the poems’ speakers were asking other (messier) kinds of questions? Am I a “good” mother (whatever “good” might mean)? Am I a “good” daughter (ditto about “good”)? How are the two identities linked? Am I overly suspicious or jealous? Do I trust my husband? Do I trust my husband as a lover? How are those two identities linked? Those last two questions develop and evolve over the course of the book. In the first poem, “Alarm,” a woman “appraises fidelity” and then quickly the poem ends. At first, that brevity and seemingly clipped plot makes some of the early poems feel unfinished. But a pattern soon emerges — the anxieties infidelity triggers continually resurface, just as they might in a restless mind. And that’s the point.

Hahn’s poems don’t always present specific outcomes or resolutions. Sometimes the husband and lover feel like one person. At other times, the husband seems to have been denied lover status — perhaps, his indiscretions have made him unlovable — if only in a mercurial series of thoughts. That subtlety brings an unexpected power to the poems. I enjoy having the poems turned back toward me. Am I reading too much into them? How much am I projecting my experiences into the work? The poems map memories and details that might lead to an answer (another question?), “making my opinions known, elliptically.” But there is always a persistent sense that not even an earnest search will necessarily lead to fruitful resolutions. The poem “Safe,” for instance, begins with an epigraph from Benedict Carey, “The deeper that investigators dig [for the origin of consciousness], the more hidden chambers they find.”

There are many moments in which the science of the brain and the intensity of the heart intersect. The poems deliver clippings of scientific news and explore those news items through fragmented memories of the domestic — mothers and daughters often at the center. “A Bowl of Spaghetti” is the title of a poem, but also a key image for scientists who study how the brain might “unravel.” A bowl of spaghetti is also cherished by a mother who remembers her toddler daughter eating a meal.

My favorite moment of scientific-domestic blur is in “The Problem with Dwarfs,” which begins this way:

Astronomers have severely undercounted
the stars in the universe partly due to dwarf stars

The poem explains that the dwarf stars have been overlooked because they are “cooler” than other stars. The speaker of the poem has come to understand dwarf stars through a past incident with her then future mother-in-law,

who, before I married her son, described my height as

to dissuade him from marrying me (or anyone).

Despite its calm, this poem is arguably the cheekiest in the collection. The speaker is aware of her coolness and how she moves in the world “compared to giants.” By the end, she suggests the real problem with dwarfs lies with people like the mother-in-law who underestimate or fail at first “to count things one cannot see.” Too bad. Their loss. Hahn knows a woman’s ability to recognize her own worth is the coolest.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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