Kimiko Hahn’s “Brain Fever”: a review

In her full-length collection Brain Fever, Kimiko Hahn makes use of a luminously diverse array of poetic techniques and approaches in order to speak to Japanese aesthetics, contemporary neuroscience, and the complexities and fragilities of modern life. With a sharp, concise and at times experimental tone, Hahn synthesizes her disparate subject matter in order to produce a body of work that is both visceral and insightful. With the exception of one bizarrely offensive poem which appears towards the end of the collection (more on this later), Brain Fever is excellent and worthy of attentive consideration. 

 Within the poems that make up Brain Fever, Hahn juxtaposes a variety of images, subjects and techniques in order to create a truly unique poetic effect. Epigraphs taken from neuroscientists and writings on dream theory are contrasted with muted, beautiful scenes of home life (“Then again from next door / I hear a matchbox car / racing up and down the shared-wall.”) as well as darker pictures of infidelity and abuse. The poems in this collection are powerfully and universally concise, with most coming in at under 25 lines, and yet they (almost) universally achieve powerful and lasting effects in the small space which they are given. Quotations on the nature of consciousness and the brain give context to the author’s meditations on the complexity and difficulty of human interaction, and the result is a body of work which speaks to some of our deepest collective anxieties and desires. 

 All of this being said, there is one poem within Brain Fever which serves (in a manner which is devastatingly unfortunate) to mire the rest of the collection. “The Problem with Dwarfs”, a poem which speaks to the author’s toxic interactions with her mother-in-law, contains lines and sentiment which are profoundly offensive and certainly wholly beneath an author of Hahn’s caliber. While reflecting on her now mother-in-law’s attempts to dissuade her now-husband from marrying her by calling her a “dwarf” (something which is certainly beyond vile), Hahn makes the claim that “…large women resemble bobbly transvestites” – a statement which is completely unacceptable, on multiple levels and regardless of circumstance. While it may be hoped that the author was attempting something satirical or consciousness-raising in some capacity, it must be said that such attempts (if they exist) must be regarded as a failure. The result is a hateful and ineffectual poem which stains an otherwise wonderful collection. 

 Overall, Kimiko Hahn’s Brain Fever is phenomenal. While there are serious issues which cannot be ignored as far as her poem “The Problem With Dwarfs”, one may hope that this was an error of judgement from an otherwise talented and insightful poet. As long as pages 96 and 97 are looked at in such a critical fashion, this book is an excellent foray into highly complex and important territory and comes (cautiously) recommended.  

Ethan Vilu