Review of Debora Kuan's Lunch Portraits (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2016)

Portraits of Reading Lunch Portraits by Debora Kuan

     a creative review by José Angel Araguz


I have the book in bed with me, trying to sneak the first few poems before going to sleep, when my wife comes in and says: Yum! I laugh, say, Check this out!, then begin reading the first poem, “Automat Prayer,” aloud, letting each short couplet linger:

     Drop a coin in me.
     I’ll give you a sandwich. 

     You speak burger.
     I speak pie.

Each couplet brings an electric mix of laughter and anticipation between us. “Wave your drumstick / proud and high” has me with my hand in the air, an invisible drumstick turning over our bed. As the poem winds down, my voice falls down into it:

     May bright ketchup

     dot your days.
     May your woes

     slide easy
     off your plate.

     May you always

     with an appetite.

The quiet we enter into has us still, locked in place between breaths, a quiet very much like one looking in at an automat, which is looking in on possibility, the quiet of consideration, a quiet very much like prayer.


Reading “Self-Portrait as a Supine Susan Sontag” on the shuttle to work, and envisioning the speaker’s attempt “to recreate”

     that famous black-and-white photo, the cozy ease
     of her resignation on the only piece of

     furniture moored in the ocean
     of that room

I find myself shifting in my seat, wondering what I might look like should someone take my photo right this second. I agree with the speaker’s thought that where we are at “doesn’t seem to suit / your form.”

As soon as I think “we” I know some part of me is trying to shift into the logic of the poem, already feeling the pang of knowing the man taking the picture is

     ready to rush home through the driven snow
     to his family for dinner, to pretend
     he was never here

     tonight, never in the heat of
     your arms – no, Sontag’s arms – in the double
     blue fiction of a shortening shadow.

This moment of amendment at the end of the poem, this is why people read lyric poetry, not for moments of self-assessment or understanding, but self-possibility. Enough reflection, and you begin to see past yourself shifting in the blue light of early dawn.


A week has gone by since I finished the book and I am scrambling with my wife to pack our apartment for a move to another state, another job, another life. In the back of my mind, I go over how I want to start this review: in bed, yum, reading aloud. I haven’t made the connection between quiet and prayer yet in the title. I suppose I’m at the mantra stage, repeating words to myself in one place.

"this is why people read lyric poetry, not for moments of self-assessment or understanding, but self-possibility"

When I sit down to write, I look at the index card of page numbers and phrases that I keep during my reading. More words to repeat: 23-where I come from, 30-coax, 35-blossoms, 45-47 illiterate darkness. I stop when I read 80-What’s left to make meaning from? That’s really what this book’s about. In poems that run through heartbreak and humor (66-Hamburger Helper? Or Hamburger Helpee?), Kuan is answering that question with the sharpness (in all ways) and insight of lyric selfhood.

Or is it non-selfhood? This question holds some weight considering the last lines of the collection:

     And I breathe fire

     and I dress red
     so when I die

     at least the devil can’t discover me
     against the setting sun.

As the walls we’ve lived in for four years grow bare, our paintings and postcards taken down, what is left could belong to anyone.

José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow and the author of six chapbooks as well as the collections Everything We Think We Hear (Floricanto Press) and Small Fires (FutureCycle Press). His poems, prose, and reviews have appeared in RHINO Poetry, New South, and Queen Mob’s Tea House. He runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence and teaches English and creative writing at Linfield College.