The Bugging Watch & Other Exhibits by Kim Gek Lin Short | Tarpaulin Sky Press 2010 | $12
Within the first three pages of Kim Gek Lin Short’s The Bugging Watch & Other Exhibits, we find “ten thimble-sized hats he had knitted out of cockroach legs,” “the kitchen bloody with her blood or bloody with knifeblood or bloody with the stenciled blood of everlasting sleep” and “pelvis squeaking miracles.” Here is Toland, whose “body like a ball of yarn unwound and fell from the bed into the basement, from the basement into the drain, and met with many accidents, where it did touch many things” (5).
Short’s character Toland reminds me of Sally from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, who jumps from a window of a tower to escape her confinement by a mad scientist (father? employer? lover?) and then takes out a needle and sews her limbs back together. She reminds me of the film Coraline based on Neil Gaiman’s novel. She reminds me of the ballet Coppélia, based on the stories The Sandman and The Doll by ETA Hoffman, about a man who makes a doll come to life (and the friend who mistakes his automaton for a human being). Scenes from at least ten creepy X-Files episodes about killer cockroaches and child molesters flashed through my mind as I read.
So Toland untangled her head from her body and piled it like plumbing in a nest of pot. As Harlan wept up a rainstorm into Toland’s pipes of hair the tiny book became so meaningful all its words were smudged (12).
This book opens with a series of exhibits. Each is like a mason jar containing fermented chimeras, from which threads are extracted and grafted onto balloons, umbrellas, pajamas, leotards and cake, then sewn up with special needles. Breaking the seal of each jar unleashes a particular scent and stench, whose particles attach to your nose hairs. Reading each exhibit is like reading a segment of knitting, with the over and under and the accidental mis-stitch, with its density and breath and porous fabric. Each exhibit is a door, “opened in the afternoon always inside her a window” (25).
Toland’s body unwinds itself throughout this book, to be watched and notated in units of measurement such as vials and hospital gowns. However, her body is not so easily cataloged or contained; it spills out and sometimes disappears all together, escaping Harlan’s strict calculations. In the beginning of the book, I was nagged by a disconcerting feeling surrounding the body of Toland being a pile of yarn, “a door always ajar” (49), so loose and malleable and so easily unwound. The potential to gender this vulnerability “bugged” me. What does it mean that Harlan uses his needles to sew her up, rolls her into “the gentle cycle of his time machine” (15), inserts a box of crayons for her heart, and for her lungs, a wheel?
Harlan keeps Toland in a basement and hides her underneath a bed, and in those first few pages, I feared for her as I read into these dark colors intonations of child abuse and sexual assault. Short writes, “Harlan began in the datebook always inside him to write ‘afraid,’ but Toland with her patches covered her ears” (14). Although I was still unsettled by the book, I saw Toland’s strength as a trauma survivor emerge, and the world Short had created began to capture me. In a room or two, or underneath a bedskirt, the boundaries and borders and edges around everything thickened like glass, with scenes shifting on the other side of its temper. Short’s Toland was building herself up through alchemy and stitching in order to transfigure her formlessness and “come back” after death. Bugs in a damp bathtub adhered like electricity to her shape.
Harlan took from his sewing kit the very special needles, and opened inside her hands a constellation of umbrellas tiny and huge as stars. Then he took for each miracle an umbrella to keep them forever dry inside their slightly wet mother. Are we still before our time? she asked (15).
Short provides excerpts from Toland and Harlan’s datebooks and in these we find a diary of appointments and memories that expand into their blocks and fields like a fill color. In a similar way Toland becomes filled with water, with miracles, with babies, with clones, with dolls, with next dolls. Has she been engineered in a lab, in a test tube? Can she reproduce if she makes a cut in her forearm? The question of how her body will continue (as a ball of yarn unwinding, as knots of yarn wound up inside her) tightens.
Sometimes from that soggy tent shapes of bodies trampoline into the wet sheet that I index into stage names, like a trick playbill, hopeful the spell will take (51).
In the datebook Toland and Harlan are auditioning for a theater play, rehearsing scenes and settings and fashioning poems and choruses. Sometimes they are cast in a surrealist circus that’s been re-made in a dream theater, and sometimes it’s Monday again. (Take a look at these outtakes from the datebook on Short’s website.) “To change” and “to enact” become pivotal verbs, and depending on the month or the hour, a “growing hole” can open up into something completely unexpected. Nothing is comfortable about this book, and even when it gets scary or weird or creepy, you’ll still want to watch.
Next to a passage about guilt, they write “wheelbarrow.” In a poem about love, they place “bug” next to “her.” Things might have been different had Harlan sewn instead of glasses, leather. Instead of pesticide, cologne. They never explain how the wheelbarrow fit in there, and sometimes, even now, I hear wood warping when I read that rare book (52).
Put your ear to The Bugging Watch & Other Exhibits and hear the wood warp, plus a billion other sounds you’ll try to name.
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Check out Short’s second full-length collection, China Cowboy, just out from Tarpaulin Sky Press.