‘When I tell myself a story/I decide the end.’
So writes Elaine Kahn in her latest collection of poems, Romance or the End. Kahn proves that she does indeed decide her ending in every sense of the word. Through a patchwork narrative, the book takes the reader on an exploration that centers on the agency of a female subject and her reclamation of her sexual autonomy. If you’re looking for a redemptive arc, look elsewhere. Khan puts into question what her agency can look like in all its facets: sometimes resembling abstraction, depression, empowerment and brutality. There is an urgency for the reader to look inward and ask themselves, who gets to decide when love ends? What does the end of love look like?
It’s month six of the global Covid-19 pandemic and I find myself contemplating whether the virus can drift into my room if I leave my window propped open for too long, like car exhaust or a gas leak. We are still finding ways to coexist with the virus. I devour Kahn’s choice words, reading the collection cover to cover a few times. Romance or the End is a reflection on coexistence, an idea that feels outlandish during times of state sanctioned isolation. The first three chapters are reminiscent of young love, a love where the stakes feel high. A love supreme that feels chaotic and often mutually toxic—we love and break apart as if our lives depended on it.
The poems, though varying in length, are on the shorter side—a distillation that means each word is given heft. Her carefully darned fragments invite the reader into a tension played out on the page, a gauzy economy of spacing that demands close reading. This closeness, however, often feels confrontational and can yield conflicting interpretations.
In one of nine poems all titled ‘ROMANCE’, Kahn insinuates that brutality and love are always coalescing in a metaphysical waltz:
I have heard it said
but I have
Even so, it’s not all binary. The speaker teases us with moments of cynicism. If we can’t laugh at our own grievances then who will do it for us? In a poetic sleight of hand, the speaker gives us brief Freudian insights, and with the razor sharp ‘CHILD ACTOR’ reading in its entirety:
in their hair
just like a child
Khan mentions children again in a more overtly Freudian sense, in the poem aptly titled, ‘ATTACHMENT THEORY’ part of which reads:
Do you think the reason babies love rattles
is that somewhere
in their softest, infant brains
that’s what a Xanax bottle sounds like?
Do you think I’m a baby?
There are some ways
I am not
Based on his psychoanalytic theory, Sigmund Freud was the first to suggest the concept of infantile amnesia: that early life events are repressed and only later in life resurface. Although this hypothesis of repression is highly controversial, the observation that early memories are ‘forgotten’ or unable to be explicitly expressed, is supported by many studies in the early stages of human psyche. Khan perhaps is alluding to a passed down, in utero trauma. The reference to ‘xanax’ in the poem acts as a symbol of anxiety or drug abuse.
Contradictions in the text shouldn’t be interpreted as a state of bewilderment. In fact, the speaker has an enviable sureness, an aspect of this collection that shines through, Kahn’s confident command of language. For example, in the poem titled, ‘YOU DID NOT ASSIMILATE, WHICH IS THE PRIVILEGE OF A KING or I REGRET HAVING TO ABANDON YOU BUT I MAY NEVER ABANDON MYSELF or IS IT EVEN POSSIBLE TO HAVE A CONVERSATION?’, the speaker writes:
Your objections are less passionate than my desires
What drives me is baseless and therefore indisputable
Her lines here harness a purposeful sharpness; they almost threaten a physical encounter. One gets a sense of Kahn’s energy through her verse, an energy that is unafraid to be interpreted.
In Beloved, Toni Morrison uses the term ‘rememory’ to describe a memory that refuses to reappear. Trauma can create these ‘rememories’, moments of paradox that often result in detachment, numbing and pain. Love and its potential culminations can feel like a foggy gliding mystery. Khan invites disembodiment on the page, which she manages to do by playing with space, with pause, by letting small poems take up entire pages. The fragmented can exist as pathway to healing asking us to reassemble through an abstract retelling. Some poems harness a dizzying effect that invokes Kahn’s paranoia and inner dialogues after surviving sexual assault.In the two page poem titled ‘ALL I HAVE EVER WANTED WAS TO BE SWEET’’, the speaker writes:
I watch his arms his face
is not thinking of his
face his body is what is
the fear can you believe in
fuck I let him watch
The horizontal proximity of the words ‘fear’ and ‘fuck’ in this poem signal towards a repulsion. The pacing demands a frenzied read that clues the reader into suspecting that something in this narrative isn’t quite right.
The picture of fragility that Kahn depicts reminds me of reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses, particularly Ovid’s rendition of Echo.This—as well as other depictions of Echo’s myth and the actual physical phenomenon of an acoustic echo itself—I would argue share structural similarities with descriptions of the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Echo’s is a story of separation from one’s body due to grief and the persistence of belated and fragmentary resonances in the aftermath of a disembodiment. Khan enacts bodily alienation in the poem ‘UNTITLED’:
I never wanted
here I am
I hate it and it makes my heart wet.
The deliberate line breaks in the poem give each line weight—they allude to a subtextual trauma that can be read as expansive due to the spacing on the page. For example, in another poem also titled ‘ROMANCE’, the speaker describes the difficulties of narrating trauma:
The feeling of leaving
your body instead of the room
There are additional moments where poetic enjambments allude to a disembodied landscape, for example in the poem, ‘LINEN’:
I don’t pay attention
I come open like a blood
Orange red of evening red of
clouds as tall as palm trees
The word ‘blood’ here alludes to violence yet remains faithful to the image of a blood orange. The pervassiness of sexual violence is omnipresent in the latter half of the collection. For example, in the poem ‘I DIDN’T LOOK AT ANYTHING SO THERE WAS NOTHING TO WRITE DOWN’ s a stanza reads, casual as rape; the stanza whose terrible truth speaks to the fact that one in six America women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime’ 
As Kahn’s collection progresses the voice and atmosphere of the text moves towards something more quotidian in the banal experiences that make up a romantic coupling. The recurrent ‘you’ takes on varying positions of power over the speaker; sometimes the ‘you’ is loathed and discarded and at other times the ‘you’ feels like the only ‘you’ that matters. ‘You’ ebbs and flows the way love does. Does this signal unreliability in the narrator? Perhaps, but memories, like people, aren’t usually reliable.
In ‘YET SPLIT MY HEART ABOUT YOU MAN LOVE DROPS LIKE A DOZEN PENS’,
Khan shatters the heteronormative myth of romance and proves that one can be enraptured in amourous delight and still resist the seduction of dependability:
I would like to ruin this with valor
Don’t forgive the rareness of a perfect kiss
Although I don’t believe finality
I’d love it darling if you’d FaceTime me
My own connection with this book isn’t about feeling inspired or hopeful—it’s about recognition. It’s about the power in forging the language necessary to see my life a little more clearly through pain, fear and anger. The first poem in chapter six ‘I TOLD YOU I WAS SICK’ reads:
I WOULD LIKE TO HAVE
the problem of loving a person
Here, I believe Khan is acting as loves’ advocate.
From the get-go, the title of the book posits the reader with an ultimatum: which is it then, is it Romance or is it The End? Perhaps Kahn would be amused by my knee-jerk reaction of wanting both. If I could take a guess, I would guess that the speaker is of the opinion that you cannot have The End without Romance. Kahn’s frequent mixing of literary tropes and romantic imagery is a remixing of ideas that almost seem to be at odds with one another, creating a sort of oxymoronic harmony.
I fell in love during the pandemic. It was something that took me by complete surprise. Admittedly, it’s an idea that at times makes me feel lucky with embarrassment. Like how something can be sickly sweet. How could I be feeling so much splendor while the world outside is wilting? Like I mentioned earlier, we are still learning how to coexist with the virus. I keep telling my new partner that the rules of romance, under the ‘new normal’ we are subjected to, are presently null and void. Perhaps it’s up to us to reinvent them. Khan undoubtedly plays by her own rules. She is the ultimate keeper of her love and all the grief that might come from it. The speaker refuses to be trapped in a ‘wild mind’. After looking at romance from what seems like every angle, Khan’s last words contradictorily state, ‘desire really can be simple’.
Perhaps the through-line of this enchanting collection—one that is coiled around suffering, not only presently, but in Kahn’s retelling of trauma and desire—is a kernel of thought that can keep us grounded during these days of quarantine: knowing that there will always be a pull for love, even during a moment that feels like The End.
I DON’T CARE IF IT LASTS
love goes out
 RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) America.
Marie López is an MFA poetry candidate at The New School. She has performed and read at the Perdu poetry foundation in Amsterdam, Hopscotch Reading Room in Berlin, for the By The Way reading series at Codex Books, for Newest York and Bodega magazine. She is currently living and writing in Brooklyn, New York.
Elaine Kahn is the author of Romance or The End (Soft Skull, 2020) and Women in Public (City Lights, 2015). She lives in Los Angeles and teaches at the Poetry Field School.