Review of Kristine Ong Muslim's Meditations of a Beast
Kristine Ong Muslim’s most recent poetry collection, Meditations of a Beast, opens with the creation myth poem, “Genesis.” From there, the speaker goes on to contemplate the swells of growth and formation in opposition to the lulls of destruction and demise within an almost dystopian existence. Intersecting through the poems is the theme of perception, with myths and questions to help navigate the reverie.
The reader’s pulse is inclined to syncopate as the content shifts and evolves within the four numbered sections ofMuslim’s book. Her first section replicates the rhythmic iteration of both the Bible’s “Genesis” and her opening “Genesis” as each poem’s first line carries over the final line of the previous poem. However, the move into Section Two is unsettling, which utterly halts the cadence of the first and presents tension between adversaries and the natural consequences of their interactions. Upon embarking into Section Three, the reader’s pulse is regularized again in the theme of dolls present in each poem, but Section Four provokes arrhythmia by leaving readers with questions as the likes of ghosts and spirits are considered in freestyle moments of meaning-making.
Readers might consider the collection as an overall evolution of life, initiating with conception, progressing into a rising awareness of the challenges of reality, shifting to a craving to recreate the world as one desires, and finally ending in an effort to simply understand. Mimicking cognitive existence, a sense of emptiness and a hunger for belonging is present throughout the arc, almost developing an existential tone, despite references and allusions to God and other creation myths and philosophies.
“Genesis,” along with its epigraph, sets up the first section particularly well. Section One presented an enjoyable cadence, with an engaging, narrative voice that both lulls readers and keeps their thoughts alert. The way Muslim seamlessly shifts between verse and prose poems also worked well in creating a rhythm and charming readers so she could then bank on that earned trust to startle the reader by posing questions or switching between the perspectives of you and I. In the prose poem “The Angel of Death Talks to the Fading Marianna,” the speaker states: “I believe I saw you that morning in May when the light was just right. You ask, ‘Who are you?’ Take my hand, Marianna. Now do you see what lies before us? They should look familiar. Behold the blasphemies of impossible forms” (18). Traversely, rather edgy line breaks, allowing the reader to develop multiple meanings, also prevent the reader from resting on their haunches, such as a stanza near the end of “The System of Enchantment.” The speaker states: “Somewhere, I exist. I am / the movement, the absolute stillness. / I am the self, mimed and fragmented. I am whole” (22).
Through a series of moments and meditations, Section Two harkens back to the title of the collection. Most of the poems in this section carry the theme of crime or a moment of failure. Muslim frequently notes the thoughts of the people involved with the tense situations, whether they be an interrogation or spontaneous combustion, and takes readers’ focus away from the action to concentrate on the visceral experience. The final stanzas and lines of several poems resound within the reader as a point of consideration which contributes to the cerebral nature of the second section, such as the ending of “The Eater of Saturday Nights” which concludes: “You wonder why the shadows of curved things remain straight” (40) or the close of “Man with the Radio”: “And this static springs forth from vacuum. / And this bright noise lives under the skin” (41).
Section Three carries undertones of voodoo dolls, the act of creation, and shifting consideration of who or what carries the history of the world. This portion of Muslim’s collection resembles Sharon Suzuki-Martinez’s poetry collection The Way of All Flux with consideration of inanimate objects becoming animate, the relationship and projection developed between living beings and objects, and the line between natural and unnatural life. Many of Muslim’s descriptive words focus on materials and body parts, which draws out the theme of formation.
The final section of the collection is the least consistent in themes and form. The first six poems begin with a question, framed in a similar manner. Section Four shifts with the prose poem “P is for Pavlov’s Best Friend” which does not begin with a question, but ends with questions. “All You Vengeful Ghosts,” the next poem, also carries questions and helps transition the reader to the final themes of the section: ghosts and gods. While there are poems within Section Four that are well crafted, the lack of cohesion when patterns seemed to be developing is a challenge to reader’s engagement.
Though each section of the book certainly mustn’t mirror each other or chaperone the reader, the irregularity in patterns and content between the four segments was somewhat distracting while perusing the collection. If, however, the shifts are an effort to jostle the reader out of comfort, to pair with a dystopian setting or alternative meaning making, then Muslim is successful. Overall, the thought-provoking nature of the collection is refreshing, and the reader’s curiosity is certain to be held taut from one poem to the next.
Whitney is an Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Her poetry and creative nonfiction have been published in Red Weather and After the Pause. She balances her life between composing and interpreting thoughts on paper, experimenting in the kitchen, molding young minds, merging with nature, and engaging with the world.