Picking up Occasionally, I Remove Your Brain Through Your Nose for the first time, I was immediately surprised. The title alone is enough to catch the eye and make you wonder: What does it mean? How serious can this be? How literal?
Of course, I knew it was a book of poetry, not an Ancient Egyptian mummification how-to manual, and yet the casualness with which the title confronts the reader made me a little uneasy. That unease, it turns out, was an indicator that what I had in my hands was just as fresh, vital, surprising, and impactful as I could have hoped for. Occasionally, I Remove Your Brain Through Your Nose is a gem, in turns just as serious and as playful as the title suggests.
On the cover, a woman pulls a stream of symbols and objects through a worried man’s nostril. The image is striking and childlike in its simplicity and whimsy, even though the idea of an apparent excerebation is hardly innocent. Looking back on the cover after reading the poems it encloses, I see how apt an illustration it is. J. Hope Stein’s poetry feels lighthearted, innocent even, and yet the true substance of her ideas is often serious, dark, almost hyper-realistic in its searing clarity. In “Just Married,” Stein writes “Sousing the dishes topless for husband: / I douse the mugs & bowls with warm / lemon froth & bubble.” The words themselves are playful, the passage warming and fun. However, the lighthearted domestic scene Stein paints throughout Part One is far more a nuanced, tension-ridden analysis of gender dynamics and relationship psychology, focusing with a magnifying lens on the interplay of personal and interpersonal desire and understanding.
Part One careens along in a lucid flash into the mind of the most highly imaginative housewife, but it would be grave error to reduce her solely to that. Indeed, it is the layers, the moving parts beneath the observable surface that Occasionally, I Remove Your Brain Through Your Nose is very occupied with exposing, exploring. There is tension between the figures of husband and wife, but also palpable love. It is that very contradiction, the cohabitation of isolation and companionship, that is both so comfortingly real about the picture Stein paints and so disturbingly raw. Some insights cut straight to the quick:
There are as many ways of fucking
as disposing of the dead. But in our country,
when the filaments of two minds curl toward
each other—this, we call a kiss.
The “Ted & Sylvia” portion of Part One shifts from the more enclosed domestic drama of the first few poems into something even more cerebral. “Ted & Sylvia” and “Sylvia to Ted, Telepathically” still contend with relationships and gender dynamics, but there is an added openness and surrealism that is just as disorienting and insightful as the best of Richard Brautigan’s works. Stein does a marvelous job of hitting the reader straight in the gut with words that, when strung together, are not always comfortable, and are rarely straightforward. Occasionally, I Remove Your Brain Through Your Nose is certainly not an easy read, and by that I mean a lazy one. It demands that its reader pay attention and allow the words to rewire the brain a bit before coalescing into a suddenly crystalline observation of profound insight.
Part Two is comprised of the characteristically surprisingly titled “Donald J. Trump Sucks The Cold Cock of an Ice Sculpture.” Fans of the now politically-enabled businessman should perhaps get their poetry elsewhere—Stein is just as observant and even more slicing here as in the previous poems. She faces down:
The steel men. The financiers. The patrons
of the petroleum arts. Soot & crumb men.
Con men. The dinner of the nation
burning in the oven.
The sense of belligerent bleakness and gobsmacked incredulity that many faced in the wake of the last election is keenly felt and artfully expressed as Stein’s words churn in a surreal landscape of greed and existentialism as old as man, and as timely as the latest iPhone release.
Indeed, I was left reeling when I came to the end of Occasionally, I Remove Your Brain Through Your Nose. It is a whirlwind of blazing insight lightly wrapped in deft and nimble language. Stein artfully exposes the fantastical in the mundane paces of everyday life, and the serious currents pulsing just below the surface of the things, and people, we may take for granted. You may feel after reading Occasionally, I Remove Your Brain Through Your Nose that Stein has performed just that feat upon you, but in my experience, it actually feels pretty good. Perhaps a thorough wringing of the mind is exactly what you need to jump back into reality with a refreshed perspective.