Tenant Laws

REVIEW — The fantasy of self reliance doesn’t just include the retreat to nature of Ralph Emerson or Ted Kosynski but it also includes the more urban counterparts of the bare bones existences lived out of a single room in a cheap hotel of Jesse Bernstein or Koon Woon; a plain trust of where they are right then despite the evidence that their current state of mind and health is not a permanent one and may come apart at any moment.


Koon Woon’s narrator lives in the temporary housing of an unstable mind. He organizes these poems In The Truth of Rented Room around International District dives—the names of which sound to me like vaguely familiar but exotic locales that a troubled cousin or family friend (some vague and distant acquaintance) may have lived in once but are familiar nonetheless as places where terminal failures end up like the layers of hell; Seventh Avenue South, the Morris, International Terrace, The Bush, and so have this downward appeal and even romance as places where you earn your way in with failure. This is the contemporary edge of that old, bad Seattle neighborhood, Skid Road, home to destitute madmen and hobos. And the poems in The Truth in Rented Rooms are mad poems. Mad because insanity is not mental illness or bipolar disorder or any vague and undefined malady that can be cured. Even normal people are possessed by madness but it is only contained and treated with the metal walkers of medication but it cannot be burned out of the body with radiation or dispelled with penicillin. Madness is an irrevocable state of being. Everyone has some access to the idea of madness and I’m not talking about the cartoon of Bugs Bunny’s windwheel eyes but the real dead-weight that comes about in deep depression when the air because it is too wet and too cold takes too much effort to shovel into your lungs. And this isn’t exactly Walden. In this wilderness holes have been burnt into the brain, bits chewed out cell by cell by whatever forces have rewired the synapses like the topography of a flooding river’s sand bars and channels. The narrator of Koon Woon’s poems has reconciled his state of being as something to live with like an independent element, wind and rain and whatever weather is going on inside his skull. These are not hopeful poems about recovery or conquering his condition. I found in these poems a broader acceptance of life’s instability, heightened by the transient nature of the narrator’s mind as well as his bed in rented rooms. This is self reliance not in the control of his environment but self-reliance in the acquiescence of control, which isn’t giving-up, but is the art of getting by. In, “I have argued my premise of isolation and sorrow: the world comes into the pallor of my room”, Koon Woon writes:

It took 10 years and the destruction of / 6’ x 4’ x 4 ‘ or 96 cubic feet of poetry and 10 years to make me feel better, / And I have now moved into a bigger room, room enough to blues the guitar, / Have now room for Nietszche and Immanual Kant on a corner bookshelf, / And now my phone calls someone and that someone calls someone and so on…

The Truth in Rented Rooms
by Koon Woon
Kaya, 1998
ISBN 1-885030-25-8, $8.95

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