Histories of the Future Perfect

Post Photo Courtesy of Amazon.com

Post Photo Courtesy of Amazon.com

Histories of the Future Perfect

-Poems Reviewed By Kendra Bartell

Ellen Kombiyil’s debut poetry collection, Histories of the Future Perfect, is framed by two epigraphs: the first, from Stephen Hawking, roots us in the science of the book—

In this approach, a particle does not have just a single history…instead, it is supposed to follow every possible path in space-time.

The second comes at the end of the collection, taken from William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying

An is different from my is.

These two epigraphs form a perfect circle to enclose Kombiyil’s fascinating collection—a book fully concerned with itself and its placement in this moment in time, in this iteration of existence. The poems circle and loop, making Mobius strips, and swirls. As the title suggests, the poems in this collection explore time and timing, iterations of the same moment, of the same thoughts.

“Erratum,” the first poem in the collection, is an example of Kombiyil’s shifting narrative voice and majestic control of language as she muses on experience:

others remember differently of course
their echoes are echoes rippling
person to person silence not silence
but a form of
not speaking up a form of
held back in the throat what could unravel

A moment may seem and be described in one way by one person, but could be conceived by another as an “imagined something/else.” We are not privy to what the moment contains, but instead we are given an imagined “swirl of dust kicked up in sunlit/dusk.” We remain in this made-up space of possibility, perhaps one of the moment’s “every possible path[s] in space-time,” calling back to Hawking’s epigraph. The poem moves at a quick pace, each clause slightly running into the next while maintaining its rhythm.

Experience and re-experience are central motifs in the collection, most notably manifest in a series of poems titled “Recurring 1,” “Recurring 2,” and “Recurring 3.” Each of these poems ends a section of the book, and each revisits the same core word bank, with slight changes between them. The anchor of the poem is a dream in which the speaker remembers a “you,” a night spent dancing, and the fact that the you has left.

In “Recurring 1,” the series’ first iteration, we experience “an old dream manufactured people/once known,” in which the mysterious “you” is an “apparition in the frame/of someone else’s photo” and is “here & not.” On the first encounter with this poem, the reader has no referential experience, and is therefore unsuspecting as yet of any changes to come.

In “Recurring 2,” we see some of the same core words found in “Recurring 1,” the first iteration; however, there is a literal spaciousness to this next iteration of the poem here not found in the first—namely, more: there is white space on this the page, absen#1. The reader’s experience with the first iteration is triggered by these same words; however, the tone and shape of the poem are now different. The narrator is more distant, more aware of “what comes next,” for both the speaker and the reader. This distance manifests itself the poem’s white space between lines. More visceral descriptions draw the reader into this frontier: “we will/chip a fetal pig’s skill chip it eggshell/soft chip chip chip it in biology.” Through unflinching description readers realize the narrator is fixated on physical sensations of being left behind.

In “Recurring 3,” the final iteration, the narrator is in an “empty dark space.” In this poem, as in the first two, there is a sense that the reader is being kept away from certain key details, allowed access only to hints of the poem’s underlying moment. For the reader, it’s a pleasant unknowing, however, to hit the same dream on three different paths. Each iteration feels vividly dire, full of sadness and longing and loss. They call to mind a processing of grief, that iterative machine where you dwell, and dwell, and dwell on something of which your mind can’t quite make sense.

These “Recurring” poems illuminate another motif in the book: how we process and store memories, and the way we revisit those stored experiences. In “Recurring 2” we read

Tracing synapse
nerve how memory gets stored flash

These changes in mind happen in that flash: first we have the experience, then we create the memory, and then we remember, or re-experience. “Instructions for Breathing Underwater 1” is another example of this motif:

Separate time from when you were young,
time an open egg in your palm…To know something bodily is to know it forever.
s never certain at what point youll remember.

The experience of time and memory creates a feeling in the body that can draw one into a memory at any moment. Kombiyil here shows a mastery in blending different levels of discourse—familiar, friendly, scientific. The shifting language, blended with a constant familiarity and openness, allows the reader to be drawn into this experience of time without question. One reads the poem and nods yes, yes, Ive felt this way, too. Kombiyil’s deft control of register is also impressive. In one swift movement, we see her switch between direct address to the reader and internal musing:

Aside: its been years since Ive swum in a lake

                  (distinct smell of lake, recalled anywhere)

                  through dank water to the wooden floating dock.

Later in the poem, we see the entrance of more scientific language:

Move with the instability

                  Of electrons, sometimes wave, sometimes particle.


                  (CAUTION: Slipper moss)

As the poem moves through its course, we see the three registers blend together as in a current, swirling, each one creating another level of resonance with the reader.

Kombiyil’s collection has a whirlpool effect as you read, drawing you close, spinning you out, then bringing you in again. At times, you may get swept away in the beauty of the language and the meaning might spin past you. Or you may be completely wrapped up in the narrative arc of a poem and not notice a swift internal rhyme or switch of register. Let that be okay. Let that be the reading of each particular poem, and—as the first poem says—you will be there “watching it become what was.”


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