-Poetry Reviewed by Kendra Saldana–
In the field of linguistics, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis states: “The language one speaks determines the way one thinks.” In The Wug Test, by Jennifer Kronovet, the poet brilliantly grapples with this hypothesis. Fittingly, the collection ends with its eponymous poem, after covering such an array of arenas as mourning a dead language, “English Female Speech,” and linguistic transcript conventions. Kronovet confronts the idea that language determines thoughts many times in her brief work, but with an eye towards tenderness and softness. The poems wrestle with incredibly complex linguistic theory, and yet, readers are pulled into the perhaps more accessible emotional landscape dealing with the narrative of a boy. A number of the poems feature the “story” of a boy learning language, and in it, the narrator’s relation to the boy and words as a whole, as he acquires language. As the collection dives in and out of this relationship, readers encounter a central, interactive motif that enhances each ensuing poem. Details emerge that focus the linguistic theory Kronovet advocates. The emotional intelligence of the work as a whole, coupled with Kronovet’s deft use of language and sound, makes for a compelling, although at times challenging, work to navigate. The emotional intelligence of the work, however, is undeniable.
“We use words like a tree uses light:/there is a process we don’t see but do….speech keeps/happening against me.” In the first of a series of poems whose titles begin with “with the boy,” this one titled “With the boy, with myself,” we see the narrator start to untangle the effects learning a language inevitably has on a young child. The narrator is concerned both with the child’s acquisition and understanding of the language, but also the effects “on adult targets. Does it change the way the adult mind works? Are there benefits to these changes?” In the poem “Q&A outlines,” the narrator shares: “my thoughts/feel like speech — how one animal/makes nature — until I speak to him,” thereby attempting to explain the sensation of translating internal thought to external knowledge. Through her efforts to put words into words in a way that a child will understand, the narrator struggles with a tied tongue, lacking the diction—however simple or sophisticated—to enunciate her knowledge. How often do we find ourselves carrying on unvoiced conversations? And what ultimately prompts us to voice our thoughts? Is there a difference between the voice in our head and the voice we project? Does it matter?
These queries form the narrator’s playground within this collection. The poem immediately following “With the boy, with myself” is titled “Language Acquisition Device (LAD),” a concept proposed by Noam Chomsky, that was ultimately rejected by the linguistic field, given its presupposition of language acquisition as a binary system, rather than the more widely accepted general adaptation of language. The narrator of the poem defines LAD as such: “It’s the machinery we’re born with for learning language. An organ. A facility. It’s an artifact.” The idea that we could have a device to understand language, and to learn language, proves an attachment point for the narrator: “I see them, the children, processing. I can’t undo the device to make them less machine. They live in the cloud of my era of speaking while living against it to be as animal as possible while still making themselves heard.” In this, we see spelled out the process of growing up and learning: going with our primal instincts, while wanting to understand those who are older, those who seemingly “know.” The adult narrator, however, sees this process with an awareness of how her own language has created the space in which children struggle with competing desires. Again, the narrator takes a multifaceted viewpoint, focusing not only on the language’s influence on children, but also on her own existence. She acknowledges her role as shaper, and the limitations her presumed authority presents to knowledge acquisition.
Readers will easily latch on to titles like “Language Acquisition Device (LAD)” and want to go straight to the notes page, or to the internet, hoping to access some hidden key to the poem. One joy in Kronovet’s work, however, is the converse pull of the rhythms and sounds in the poems. For a brief moment, readers withhold their conceptual curiosity and simply enjoy the rich textures of the author’s talented tongue.
I drag the boy along the shore
in a box, a boy-box, a not-box.
I pause to speech-draft us a word-ship,
a ship-box, a ship, and I try to leave
spaces for weather, we-weather.
This sequence, found in “With the boy, in the box:” is at once playful, descriptive and a joy to read aloud. The rolling movement of the lines draws readers into the pattern of thought going through the narrator’s mind.At the same time that she is depicted teaching imaginative play, she must also impart the necessary recreational language so that the boy can partake in the game. If the boy doesn’t know the word box, what is he sitting in? If he doesn’t know the word ship, how can his mind cross that boundary to imagine being inside a ship on the shore? “A box can be/a word can be a ship can be/the blank that takes us to each other,” the narrator concludes. Language, even as it is self-forming and becoming newly known, can form bridges to shared experiences. Readers, for that matter, witness a nascent consciousness taking shape as pragmatic and improvisational language interacts with rhythmic and seemingly intangible emotions. The result is beautifully written and thought provoking scene.
The slim collection is split into three sections, the second of which is its own entire piece, titled “Transcript Conventions,” a tight, weird puzzle that challenges readers first to decipher tangled diction, and then to fill in the blanks of the hinted story between lines. The structure of the poem is significant. One line marks a particular transcript convention with its name, and the ensuing line(s) are indented, providing a definition-by-context.
= links different parts of one speaker’s continuous utterance when there is intervening speech by another speaker
His speech, after she stops, continues on the same trajectory except with three new
gravities: apple, her, rope. Its arc is the same without ever being an arc. Speech into
speech – dye into skin.
In total, the poem catalogues twenty different marks, all with their “definitions,” flowing into a puzzle of a poem. The heavily punctuated blocking creates spliced scenes that once again deals with a “she” and a “he” through distanced narration, while at times evoking a first person voice.. The two characters are having a conversation, and there has been some sort of miscommunication prior to and during their encounter. The speaker has “used them for their words. What’s missing: the words one forgets one even said. That’s what I want to believe. The dust of speech. The microcosm of the dust.” The speaker manipulates these characters in an effort both to understand language, and to create linguistic context. The exercise is remarkably effective, prompting readers to listen for the unsaid, words implied through tone, pacing, and even the barely audible breaths between words.
. stopping fall in tone
Something died inside that sentence.
This poem creates its own particular mystery that draws you in as a reader; It’s a poem one can keep coming back to and latch on to different moments of text, and find new, small enjoyments with each re-read.
Kronovet’s collection presents a microcosm world where language is newly formed and re-formed between each poem. The narrators share an ecstatic, though easily frustrated awareness of their lexicon. As much as they desire to keep their language close and personal, they are keenly aware of their verbal limitations when interacting with others. The work as a whole demonstrates how poetry can renew language, defining words and capturing emotions with more precision than vernacular speech or common prose allow. While wrestling with incredible complex linguistic theory, Kronovet has taken extraordinary care to make certain the work remains approachable. While each poem contains cryptic insights that only motivated readers will manage to unlock, readers won’t be disappointed with a quick read. Kronovet’s thoughtful diction, steady rhythm, and attention to sonic detail carry readers through this memorable collection. Likewise, The Wug Test, is slim enough that readers won’t be daunted when curiosity beckons, come back for more.
Kendra Bartell is an MFA poetry student at University of Washington, Seattle. She graduated from Cornell University in 2012 with an English BA, and won the 2012 Robert H. Chasen Memorial award for poetry. Her work has appeared in Mare Nostrum, Utter, and So to Speak. This past summer, she taught creative nonfiction at the UVA Young Writers Workshop. Currently, she teaches composition and poetry at UW Seattle.