'The succession of syndromes'

A review of erica kaufman's 'INSTANT CLASSIC'

Instant Classic

Instant Classic

erica kaufman

Roof Books 2013, 89 pages, $14.95 ISBN 9781931824552

In the beginning, I could not face INSTANT CLASSIC directly. Too bright, I could only handle it in bits, my gaze slightly averted. From this peripheral place, kaufman’s book followed me. I carried it with me on the subway, slept with it beside the bed. I gathered what felt like relevant books and films around me. Talismanic. I kept INSTANT CLASSIC, and kaufman, in mind. And then, I could not look away.

My experiences and questions of how to be in relation to INSTANT CLASSIC, and what this being in relation contains, seem to parallel those very experiences and questions that kaufman takes up in her text. Through grappling with John Milton and his revisions of Paradise Lost, kaufman invokes her identifications as a Jewish lesbian woman poet academic, attempting the psychic, linguistic, and creative work of struggling to locate her-self within the numerous and interrelated matrices within which she lives: her-self and others, culture, history, kinship and lineage, even objects. 


After a short poem, “PREFACE: to tell you” (9), kaufman begins INSTANT CLASSIC by sharing the story of Milton’s first edition of Paradise Lost, published in 1667. Alerted by poor sales that the book was decidedly not an instant classic, its publisher at the time, Samuel Simmons, persuaded Milton to make the epic poem more digestible for readers, which resulted in subsequent editions, offered as twelve volumes instead of the previous ten, with “short prose arguments that precede each book” (11). kaufman is troubled by what this move towards censorship and accessibility might mean, particularly for those who, like she, write “difficult books” (12).

If we think of editions of books as generations, we might then consider what does and does not get passed on. And thus, what material is rendered indigestible, in excess, waste. In this sense, these post-1667 editions of Paradise Lost remain haunted by their 1667 original. By shifting her gaze to encompass what has been lost, kaufman reimagines the Paradise Lost of 1667, “where the text was allowed the plain it wanted to occupy” (12) and Milton becomes mother, alter ego, fellow outcast, and twin.

Deep surface

INSTANT CLASSIC is all surface, with symptoms appearing and disappearing in varied, disturbing, chaotic, and arresting combinations. 

my history develops to fit the face the tumor steroid
chemo cancer goiter dis-ease genetic narrative strait
dance party petri dance horseshoe kidney fever sprite (69)

Contrary to the characterization of surface and depth as being opposed, kaufman demonstrates the ways in which “deep” material, which we might associate with the heavy, the unprocessed or unconscious, arises and becomes enacted on the “surface” level. 

equipment aligns us         thanato-tour bus
death march mulch money even at the base (73)

Each word, a thing in and of itself, modifies and engages the previous, so that meaning builds, accumulates, and erodes. Woven together by a sound and rhythm that’s nearly hypnotic, for kaufman, history is never past, but happening continuously in the present. 


subversive wallow   pick the translator
                                                      who sees thee (66)

I am terrified as I write this review. I cannot see the net from the holes. I am approaching the limits of my own coherence. Am I the translator who sees kaufman? And if so, to what affects of INSTANT CLASSIC does my profound disorientation speak?

The garden

While Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) provides INSTANT CLASSIC with one of its frames, the symbol of the garden, in multifarious iterations, populates the textual field. We start off, of course, via Paradise Lost, with the Garden of Eden, the Genesis version of which “there was never a place” (11) for either Milton or kaufman. kaufman is troubled “by the connotations of prelapsarian time” (11) and the impact that this perfect beginning, this ur-environment, might have on our psyches. 

without asking the chariot

 i walk towards the scene

 first interest leave.  be it eve

 in the garden voiceless

 or a moment of heterosexual

 panic that necessitates it

 necessary to dive plural drive (15)


As kaufman is troubled, I, too, become troubled. What does it mean to wish for a birth, a beginning, free from the traumas of history? Even in the womb, much is being transmitted to us.

let’s say i can visualize my own film
build a public garden out of body
language index the utterance devoid (39) 

Here, the garden becomes an archive, a collection, and the body itself. Structures of public and private, personal and collective are remade to reflect actual lived experience, “where a garden/makes sense” (56).

INSTANT CLASSIC is a living text with its own inherent intelligence. Each poem, each stanza, each line: garden-esque.

i am the snake outside your history

 i am far from archaic from scaffold repositories

 i am vulgar in my fear of impact and inflation


success a woman in beta

launch jitter epic reputation

total comments allowed =

hear the territory                                        then reframe it (63)


These are spaces of numerous pleasures and surprises, as well as inconsistencies, lapses, and loss.


As it is in the garden, so it is in the body.

a loveseat of intertextuality a struggle
with water resolved in the non-site
non-space nonsense panel of ugly (19)

Drawing upon the language of the human body, the techno-body, the post-human, the cyborg, the social body, pop culture, the religious body, the textual body, the queer body, and the body of history (among numerous others), INSTANT CLASSIC considers the psychic amputations one must bear or adapt to in order to belong.

remove a part of my body    stitch me    switch my blood
type to anesthetic        pierce my nipples then wake to
reject the metal          expel          neuropathetic (69)

How are these belongings and not-belongings embodied, and what sorts of coherences and incoherences do they create within us?

skin emotionally liable   mood incongruent
i care what you make of dysregulation   my outbursts
come as specter   corrupt in pliant goggles (77)

Instead of an argument, kaufman’s language serves as a prosthesis, connecting and also separating, herself and others, writer and reader. 

Witnessing/The third

In the beginning, I could not face INSTANT CLASSIC directly. When I say that it was too bright, I mean that I was confronted with an overwhelming blindness. Which is not to say that I saw nothing. In fact, I saw too much. 

lung collapse some semblance of what

I used to be before I got all third
generation medi-can’t mobile in all

the right papers authenticate a constitution
age or meatloaf between tears

there is nothing wrong

with looking in the mirror a tendency
for the simulator to work badly (32)

Throughout INSTANT CLASSIC, kaufman grapples with lineage and its innumerable reverberations. Elaborating upon her own idiom, where “it’s always got to be about pattern” (32), kaufman endeavors to bear witness.

of course i turn to salt of course i turn

around rub mud on my face   pray

light don’t reflect back   do damage to

cheek bones   mark me   elegiac  i know

about the looting the plunder the silver

furniture future   if this is true   democracy

please invite me   to the meal that follows (72)


As reader, it is my responsibility to ride these waves of affect, to let myself be submerged. In order to reckon with kaufman’s ghosts/gaps, I must also reckon with my own. In order to locate kaufman, I must locate myself. Of course, this is always impossible.