Variations on the Sun

By M Kitchell

Love Symbol Press
October 2012

Reviewed by Dolan Morgan


M Kitchell's Variations on the Sun is successful because it is overly ambitious, tirelessly self indulgent, needlessly obscure, stylistically stilted and wildly futile.

This book of 50 disjointed explorations and accompanying photographs is neither fiction nor poetry, an exultant affirmation and defiance of its own section 16: "the thought that our bodies will stop and forget what it is that they are doing is terrifying… we sing hymns to the sun and we are sure that the light does not hear us." Variations is a rumination on the imminence of death, the absurdity of those circumstances afforded by our steady approach toward it, and a modest catalog of the small joys therein. 

Nowhere else are they more evident than in the parade of photographs, each a depiction of those quiet and fleeting moments that mean so little on their own, either in our lives or in a book, but nevertheless take on great weight over time: a patch of suburban trees, walkways surrounding a building, waves, an oil painting, an empty bus, a burst of light. Every instance is trivial until it becomes memory.  In this way, the inclusion of photography effectively complements and mirrors the text, as Variations throughout represents life as a kind of film that we watch while dying, a series of brief and intangible experiences defined by light and projection. "We remember the film," the collection opens, and later: "We are huddled around the television screen in the room, which is cold," and "We are terrified, but cannot cast our eyes down."

The thrust is  fatalistic ("There are no reasons to believe that you will be able to escape from the building.  There are no doors, no windows, no hallways") while steadfastly holding onto a perverse optimism ("We are beautiful and alone"). It is at once macabre, with the dead and dying everywhere ("The bodies are buried in the earth, but the earth does not want the bodies"), and tender, an unanchored spirit flying up repeatedly ("we are not lost / we do not need help / we are okay"). As such, Variations might easily be considered a work of Neo-Romanticism: not only does it exult in horror and anxiety—it opens with a crowded theater succumbing to fire and death, returns repeatedly to entrapments and claustrophobia, and frequently worries the relationship between our corporeal selves and the world—but it also rejects rationalism in favor of an ecstatic emotional intensity.

Yet what most definitively couches the work amongst the likes of Heinrich Schulz-Beuthen and the Brontë family (and what most sets Variations apart as a powerful work) is its reach for things just beyond our grasp. In section 20, THE ZONE OF IMMATERIAL PICTORIAL SENSIBILITY, we read that "Inside of the room there is another room, hidden.  It cannot be found behind a bookcase, it cannot be accessed through the fire place, it is not entranced via a doorway."  The sense of something else, something beyond our immediate or even obtainable experience, filtered through and conjectured via the thin film that surrounds us, gives Variations its emotional heft and its radical legitimacy. We are exhorted to achieve the impossible: "We must forget how to die," and "Our role is to disappear to make everything possible," both as readers and as people.

That is, the book's style is at once stagnant and unhinged. The simplistic language and syntax exude a childlike affectation that reads as precious, and the alternately structured and loose layout of each section can feel both arbitrary and overwrought. This is exactly the point at which we should "disappear to make everything possible." What is most challenging about M Kitchell's work is precisely that at face value it feels unpolished. The book fires almost haphazardly at the sky, failing to kill. Have you ever tried to kill the sky or the sun? It's nearly impossible. Failure in this regard is almost always a kind of success. It goes without saying that, like Variations, our lives are flawed, self indulgent, obscure, stilted and futile. It is only through these faults that we can claw at what is new, what is unreachable, what is beyond us, both in literature and life. Perfection cannot move, only suffocate.

Variations on the Sun is breathing, with all the triviality and glory of being alive. It arrives as an example of an author running wildly into the future, "building a building to build buildings in." In section 47, aptly titled THE NARRATIVE REFORMED, we read: "we jar the vomit or put it in glass aquariums and temper the rate of growth with varying filtered lights. While we have no definite proof, we feel that our experiments thus far have proven useful."