Object Impermanence: On Kimiko Hahn’s “Foreign Bodies”

"Foreign Bodies" cover

A caveat: Foreign Bodies is Kimiko Hahn’s tenth collection of poetry, but it’s the first and only one that I’ve read. By my own standards as a critic, this lack of familiarity with a writer’s work usually disqualifies me as a reviewer of one of their books. The only exception I make for this is when I read a book that is so fantastic and exhilarating and rich that I’m compelled to write less of a review and more of a celebration, a fan’s note, a paean to a particular book’s achievements. This is one of those cases.


Here is a representative story: in 1914, Anda Hellman’s seven-year-old son Rudy swallowed a brass cap. The boy coughed roughly, but otherwise he was fine. Except over the next year he became a sickly child, with symptoms of pneumonia that wouldn’t go away. In 1915 an X-ray from a physician showed that Rudy hadn’t swallowed the cap after all; it was stuck in his lung. The doctor, though, couldn’t extract it, since, as he said, “there was no point of seizure.” Worried they were out of options, Anda jumped at the opportunity to write to a doctor a local priest had told her about. Apparently, this doctor “was performing miracles for little children with bronchoscope.” But he was in Pittsburgh and the Hellman’s lived in Texas, and what’s more is the Hellman’s had little money. Anda’s letter asked the doctor if he could help even if they couldn’t pay him much or anything. He responded that if they could make it to Pittsburgh, he would help them; money didn’t matter. Anda wrestled up enough cash to make the journey, Anda and Rudy arrived in Pittsburgh. On his second attempt, the doctor was able to extract the brass cap “in 17 minutes 53 seconds, without anesthesia.” Anda was immeasurably relieved and grateful to “her hero.” As they were about to head back to Texas, Anda asked if she would keep the cap to show to her family and friends, as evidence of this unbelievable saga. The doctor, though, said, “No, Mrs. Hellman. This is my fee.”

Dr. Chevalier Quixote Jackson wanted to keep the cap because he was amassing a collection of dislodged objects from the interiors of thousands of children and adults. As a pioneer in laryngology, Jackson’s work developing effective methods and tools to extract foreign bodies from human bodies saved an unimaginable number of lives, both the ones he himself saved and the ones saved later by others using his methods and tools (or ones whose origins can be traced to Jackson’s). This cabinet of swallowed curiosities is his legacy. And this legacy is viewable: you can visit his collection at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. 

Which is exactly what Kimiko Hahn did, and out of her visit came Foreign Bodies, a collection of poetry that engages with Dr. Jackson’s work, his collection, the notion of foreign bodies, Hahn’s own reflections on her family, her own life, the life of nineteenth-century fossil collector Mary Anning, and other considerations of objects. Early in the book, in a poem sequence called “Object Lessons,” Hahn writes “each child had hoarded some thing / in her inmost chest.” Hahn’s collection extracts those things from numerous chests. She is searching for what lives inside of us, and in doing so creates a cabinet of curiosities of her own.

“Object Lessons” establishes the origins of Hahn’s mediations: “nails and bolts, radiator key, / a child’s perfect attendance pin, / / a Carry-Me-For-Luck Medallion” and other oddities of Dr. Jackson’s assemblage. And already Hahn is considering variants of the Jackson’s work: “sex-related objects” removed in emergency rooms (and which leads to a line that exemplifies another of Hahn’s many talents, her humor: “Flashlight, trombone cleaner, / curling iron, screw, battery: all up the bum!”), and the ”Newly coined terms” for people afflicted with hyper-specific appetites for “laundry starch”, “burnt matches”, and “raw potatoes” (the terms, by the way, are “Amylophagia”, “Cautopyreiophagia”, and “Geomelophagia”, respectively). By introducing these contemporary developments, Hahn collapses the time between Jackson’s era and our current one, informing the reader that the objects she saw in the museum are only part of her enterprise.

Immediately following “Object Lessons” is “A Dusting” in which Hahn reflects on the death of her mother, and more specifically in what form her mother now takes, a transformation Hahn doesn’t interpret as reincarnation: “Repurpose does not arrive whole cloth.” Hahn uses the notion of “from dust to dust” as a means to scrutinize the many iterations of the word “dust,” which she’ll do later with the word “object.” Dust is made of up of tiny pieces of all things, and yet it is also separate from all things. It turns our own matter—infinitesimal particles of our skin—into something foreign, just as death transforms us into the something else, just as death is both part of us and separate from us. “Yes,” Hahn writes, “one morning whether yellow or misty / I will be soot with her.”

This is one of Hahn’s primary interests: how things become other things. Not just by literal transformation but by redefinition. In “Constant Objection,” her mother’s belongings, after her death, become “every speck of you,” as if her things too have become dust, left behind, the detritus flecked off as Hahn’s mother moved through the world. But these things haven’t changed a bit, of course; only their meaning has. Hahn regularly employs redefinition: “When / a cousin stepped out on his wife, / I called his other woman a buttress”; and the poem sequence “The Ashes” not only examines numerous ways to think of ashes (of a cigarette, the ashes of her mother, her father’s statement that “ashes aren’t remains anyway”), but the conclusion of the poem re-appropriates lines from throughout the sequence, sometimes with slight changes, to form a final lyric.  

Images that appear throughout the first half of the collection—e.g., “Her death began with a baseball bat,” “Kabuki ticket stubs”—are elucidated in “Notes on March 10, 1992,” which describes the death of Hahn’s mother. Her parents had gone to the theater and:

Around 11 pm in a nearby parking lot, a group of boys, white and armed with baseball bats, threatened two Pakistani youth. The altercation whipped into a car chase, the two ran a red light and hit Father’s car. The white kids slowed to look, then sped off.


Hahn reveals the significance of some of the objects she’s been listing, describing, honoring, eulogizing. The reader couldn’t have known, while reading those earlier poems, the momentous meaning of what was being presented. Hahn’s collection rewards patience, tolerating ambiguity, and gives us the intellectual credit that we’ll follow her along and learn what she has to teach us when she has to teach it. In “Another Poem for Maude,” Hahn experiences the ultimate redefinition: seeing “the body that was Mother’s.” 

“Notes on March 10, 1992” and “Another Poem for Maude” appear at almost the exact center of Foreign Bodies and serve too as a transitional work: after moving from the idea of objects to the objects themselves and then to the meaning of those objects, Hahn expands her reach. “She Sells Seashells—Considering the Life of Mary Anning” opens this section, and in it Mary—supposedly the inspiration for the tongue twister from which the poem’s title derives—dug up fossils from the earth, the discovery of which challenged accepted wisdom about the origins and age of Earth. Like Dr. Jackson, Anning found a way to extract that which no one else had before. She didn’t get the credit or respect she deserved until after her death. Like Hahn’s mother, death redefined Mary Anning.

Following this are poems about evolutionary and biological ecologist Sara Lewis; sculptor Isamu Noguchi; Song Yang, a woman who fell from the third floor of a building in Queens and about whose death the police provide suspiciously scant details; a man and his daughter arrested in New Mexico, the father being deported to Guatemala, the daughter dying and being sent back in a coffin; and Hahn’s own granddaughter Ava, who is described as “the most outlandish and earthly / foreign body.” Not only is the scope here remarkable, but so is Hahn’s intelligence and her deeply cerebral verse. The poem about Song Yang incorporates passages from Emily Dickinson. Numerous poems contain quotations from sources Hahn consulted. She unabashedly writes about obscure and arcane subject matter, from the chambered nautilus to sexual selection in evolutionary theory to Hawaiian vocabulary. The book concludes with an impressively erudite essay on Japanese poetics.

Hahn’s work, despite its esoteric interests, remains playful, engaging, and approachable. The connections that emerged from poem to poem—some foreshadowing forward, some harkening backward—are enough to keep your brain busy and happy for days. Hahn uses so many forms—from erasures to prose poems to the Japanese form tanka—and experiments with all of it. She stretches these forms’ usages, their capabilities, and molds them into something completely her own. The fact that such an intellectually diverse, formally dexterous, deeply personal, stylistically rich, and brazenly experimental could cohere into a solid whole, that she could assemble work from such disparate aspects of life, from such varied interests and emotional origins, and form a sturdy amalgamation that is so unified that it seems that if even one poem were removed it wouldn’t be complete—shows just how brilliant and singular a poet Hahn is. 

I felt upon finishing Foreign Bodies that Hahn had reached into me and highlighted some dormant part of my inner being, some ever-present but often muted voice that I rarely am reminded exists. Like those patients of Dr. Jackson getting X-rays to discover just what was inside them, Hahn, by pointing out what exists under the surface in others, in herself, in the earth, in the world, showed by analogy how to look inside myself. But unlike those patients, I got to keep what I found there.


Foreign Bodies
by Kimiko Hahn
W.W. Norton & Company; 128 p.

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