Three Reviews: The Editors’ Picks
The Three Editors’ Picks
Welcome to our ‘Editors’ Picks’ for Issue 5. As this is the first time that we have worked together, I and the other editors decided to each review a collection that we felt particularly drawn to, weaving our voices together into one joint review. Doing so gave us a chance to discuss our own tastes and preferences, as well as the opportunity to read each other’s work, and while the books we chose are not necessarily ‘perfect’, they are all ones that intrigued us, whether for reasons of form, imagery, style, or premise.
I was attracted to Maggie Nelson’s exploration of colour and heartbreak in Bluets, while Lindsey turned her attention to Matthew Olzmann, a poet whose writing was included in the first issue of The Compass HERE. Andrew mulls over Miriam Nash’s All the Prayers in the House, reflecting on how a collection’s cover does sometimes offer insight into its contents.
We hope that you enjoy the following reviews – as ever, please do feel free to continue the discussion on social media.
‘Bluets’ by Maggie Nelson
Review by Suzannah V. Evans
Maggie Nelson’s Bluets is a series of astonishing snapshots into the colour blue. Reading almost like riddles, Nelson’s numbered poetic fragments delve into her deep enthusiasm for blue in all its guises. ‘Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color’, Nelson posits, describing her adulation of a phenomenon that nonetheless remains inaccessible: ‘You might want to dilute it and swim in it, you might want to rouge your nipples with it, you might want to paint a virgin’s robe with it. But you still wouldn’t be accessing the blue of it. Not exactly’.
Instead, Nelson uses her ardor for the colour blue as a lens through which to explore two traumatic events in her life, a romantic breakup and the serious injury of a close friend. Other writers, including Goethe, have also ‘turn[ed] to color at a particularly fraught moment’, she notes, and Bluets probes the extent to which art can distract and salve us at difficult times. The fragmentary style of Nelson’s writing suits this subject matter well, showing both love and grief to be complex states of being involving ever-changing, and sometimes contradictory, feelings. Memories of Nelson’s love affair are particularly charged, and frequently intermingled with her experience of colour:
A warm afternoon in early spring, New York City. We went to the Chelsea Hotel to fuck. Afterward, from the window of our room, I watched a blue tarp on a roof across the way flap in the wind. You slept, so it was my secret. It was a smear of the quotidian, a bright blue flake.
The ‘bright blue flake’, which reminds me of Anne Carson’s description of ‘flakes of language’ in her equally fragmentary poetry collection Float, is suggestive of both the disjointed and sometimes ecstatic nature of experience. The passage is also redolent of the intense eroticism that burns through Bluets, and which has Nelson declare, quite rightly, that ‘There are those . . . who like to look. And we have not yet heard enough, if anything, about the female gaze’. She describes her own project as ‘heathen, hedonistic, and horny’, and bristles against stereotyped portrayals of female desire, noting that she is ‘inclined to think that anyone who talks or thinks this way has simply never felt the pulsing of a pussy in need of serious fucking’.
Nelson’s visceral language is matched by her depths of feeling. When speaking of the satin bowerbird’s nest, which the male decorates with blue objects and stains using blue fruit in order to attract a mate, Nelson notes that ‘When I see photos of these blue bowers, I feel so much desire that I wonder if I might have been born into the wrong species’. Yves Klein’s blue, on the other hand, is ‘too much’. Nelson’s own writing is electric, starkly beautiful, endlessly fascinating – at time almost unbearably pitched, but never ‘too much’.
‘Contradictions in the Design’ by Matthew Olzmann
Review by Lindsey Holland
There’s something about Matthew Olzmann’s poetry that makes reading it incredibly easy. This isn’t to say that the poems themselves aren’t complex, nor that they don’t deal with difficult subjects. Twice, I’ve read Contradictions in the Design in a single sitting, and on both occasions it happened almost by accident, not by design, which is perhaps a fitting contradiction.
Olzmann’s first collection, Mezzanines, was selected for the Kundiman Prize and he’s been very widely published in magazines, mostly in the US as well as in the first issue of The Compass here. In fact, Olzmann’s Acknowledgements in Contradictions in the Design run to three pages; almost every poem has appeared in a journal.
Perhaps the source of Olzmann’s success in journals is that there’s a combination of clarity and complexity in poem after poem. He doesn’t follow fixed form, but if there’s a structure that’s definable it’s that the poems tend to start with a scene and then make a leap to an unrelated one, before tying them together. Sometimes there may be layer upon layer added in this way and the whole becomes a beautifully designed piece. It’s an almost essay-like structure, but these aren’t in any sense clinical poems; they’re quite firmly in the lyric or narrative tradition. It hard to give examples because the layers accumulate throughout the entire poems, but take this:
‘I get news of an old friend’s suicide
while I’m on the highway, in the middle
of moving from one state to another. Questions
race by me like oncoming traffic: God
and Why? and When? and How? and then,
more difficult, one that won’t become words,
like a door where the hinge jams, like a silhouette
that won’t step into the light, and abruptly
I remember my dad—decades ago—wrestling
a riverbank with a fishing pole, how he struggled
with a shadow that thrashed beneath the surface
and he could never wrench it closer …’
‘Elegy Where Small Towns are Obscured by Mountains’.
Olzmann’s language isn’t usually elevated – there’s little here in the way of poetic artifice or linguistic experimentation – but it is precise. There’s an authentic urgency of voice in the poems but it’s not a confessional one as such; Olzmann is far more concerned with observing the world around him than he is with observing himself.
Around here, they don’t flaunt a glitter-flushed
disco ball over the town square. At midnight,
they drop a possum. You heard me:
I said, Possum. Welcome to North Carolina …
The poem develops this scene – ‘One nervous marsupial, plucked / from the pines, imprisoned in glass, and dangled above / a mob scene’ – before making first an imaginative leap through other New Year rituals around the world, and then a further bounce:
Here’s another story. Instead of a possum,
picture a lion. Rome. The Coliseum.
On one side: a convicted man.
On the other: an appetite, endless teeth.
Everyone knows who will win this contest
… before arriving at ‘Do you recognize the story yet? Always, that fear / in the circle. Always that crowd: poised, ready’. It’s an unbroken poem; no stanzas, as is the case with many of these poems. I’m reminded of Philip Levine’s narrative, almost storytelling style and there are further similarities to Levine: an interest in the beautiful details of the everyday moment, although often with a spectre of the past hanging somewhere nearby.
Olzmann handles typically difficult material – suicide, US gun laws, violence, racism, the painful anonymity of the Western individual, to name a few key themes – but this isn’t a collection that revels in schadenfreude (even if we do feel an almost palpable pain for that possum – an entertaining one?). There’s a deep, rare appreciation of beauty, faith, and hope. Take the poem ‘The Millihelen’, in which Olzmann probes the ‘power of the other / the one that launches exactly one ship’ (according to urbandictionary.com, a millihelen is the amount of beauty that will launch exactly one ship):
… Why was there only one?
Because you, dear, said to the night, I don’t care
about the rest. And I said, Neither do I.
And then the harbour was behind us.
There are further depths to the poems. For example, I haven’t touched in detail upon Olzmann’s interest in science, prehistory, inheritance, Keats’s idea of negative capability. There’s also a Derridean sense that the poems are themselves deliberate contradictions: simple but complex, observing oppositions – contradictions – in the design of everyday life, and attempting to move outside of those oppositions.
But this makes the poems sound difficult, which they’re not. As I mentioned earlier, it’s easy, and rewarding, to read the whole collection in a single sitting.
‘All the Prayers in the House’ by Miriam Nash
Review by Andrew Forster
There is something very apposite about the choice of cover illustration for Miriam Nash’s debut collection All the Prayers in the House. Paul Grand’s French Surreal Lighthouse recasts a lighthouse as a mannequin in the midst of a storm of birds. There’s both a playfulness here and a sense of holding out against things that might assail us, and these perfectly capture the essence of Nash’s poems.
Essentially there is an autobiography here, but it’s an autobiography of the imagination as much it is of fact. Nash, who was runner-up for the prestigious Edwin Morgan Poetry Award for poets under 30 in 2016, spent part of her childhood on the Isle of Erraid off the West Coast of Scotland, where Robert Louis Stevenson’s family worked as lighthouse engineers. Stevenson, with his restless searching, is a presiding spirit over this collection, as is the sea with its mysteries, myths, and unpredictability.
The book begins with a series of poems which explore the idea of the lighthouse, as both real thing and symbol. In the beautiful ‘To Tend a Light’:
You wait for the night
when the storm is real
and an actual ship
comes close enough
For Nash the wreckage takes the form of the break-up of her parents’ marriage, and living between two families, before settling down in her own relationships, but her imagination lifts these poems above what could easily have become a misery memoir. In ‘It’s Not your Fault, They said to the Girl’, the child’s guilt is manifested through a refrain heard everywhere she goes:
It’s not your fault, clinked the milk bottles
from their blue crates by the back door,
postmen delivered not your fault in every post.
Nash brings her imagination to form as well as subject. Ballads, sonnets, ghazal, and terza rima sit alongside found poems, letters, and songs. Her letter to Stevenson receives a reply built from quotes from his actual letters. This playfulness gives the collection energy but it also leads to some unevenness that makes this feel very much like a debut. Some of the more experimental poems, such as the letters, seem like a poet searching for a way to speak rather than fully realised poems. In ‘Letter to RLS’:
I think you would have enjoyed the mad extended families
who washed up with me on that rock:
angels of potatoes, inner guidance and electric light!
Perhaps you took on a form, dear RLS, and visited.
I am intrigued by the ‘mad extended families’ and by RLS’s visit, but these both feel like undeveloped ideas. It feels to me like there’s another poem that hasn’t quite found itself.
There is still much to like here though. Despite the odd misfire, there is a coherence in the structure of the collection that leads to it reading like a book rather than a loose collection of poems, and Miriam Nash is a very fine lyric poet with a good ear for the music of a line. Perhaps in subsequent collections she will trust that lyric voice a little more.