Reading a book of poetry a day gets easier the longer I do it. It’s writing about it that’s a challenge — like dancing about architecture, as somebody or another said about the closely related task of reviewing music. This is especially true of poetry as musical, enigmatic and utterly captivating as Nic Sebastian’s. It doesn’t help that my lit-crit vocabulary is woefully impoverished. And it’s especially embarrassing to be reduced to near-incoherence in my admiration for the poetry of someone I actually know pretty well online. Surely I owe it to Nic, who’s given so much to the online poetry community over the past few years, to write something. Especially since I can’t dance.
Reading the book was an absorbing experience. I listened to the audio-book version read by Nic and followed along in the print version, which worked pretty well, except for the fact that Nic went too fast — I had to pause the recording after almost every poem for five to ten seconds to let it sink in. Perhaps I would’ve done better just to read the poems one by one on the website and click the individual audio players for each, but I find light text on a dark background too much of an eye-strain.
So why do I like these poems so much? For one thing, because I don’t understand them fully, in the same way I don’t expect to understand a folktale from another culture, but can appreciate its authenticity and utter originality. Nic’s poems are every bit as spacious and surreal as Howie Good’s, but are less dark — or at least their darknesses are more Rilkean. And whereas yesterday’s book — The Doors of the Body by Mary Alexandra Agner — re-worked traditional and sacred tales from a modern perspective, Nic’s project here is almost the opposite: making new myths in the ancient mold, or the beginnings of myths. There’s a soil maiden, a charcoal man, a baobab girl, and a man who marries a great cat. There are “places of happiness” on five continents where the land acts as matchmaker. Naming plays a central role in many of the poems; words have genuine power here, whether to invoke, bless or curse, which is what makes the absence of obvious interpretations for many of the poems so tolerable, at least for me. I am of course aware that for many readers of a more postmodern bent, poems of enchantment are automatically suspect, and Nic seems to anticipate that reaction, too, in poems such as “we have no need of prophets” and “poem for mother’s day“:
you ask why
I write of budding
spring and rising
sap would you rather I wrote
of razor wire and cold
the chiseled ivory of your sleeping
face your paper eyelids gliding
bricks in the wall
of your sleeping
face mother the deep miles
of night sky with no moon
One poem seems to describe some sort of political activist. As with most of the poems in the book, the language keeps luring me back to re-read it until I think I have a pretty firm idea of what it’s about, but who’d want to be sure? See what you think:
what is it like living with your body
splayed your whole body
spread tense up to the thin wires
of your brown hair the all of you threaded
through the squirming loam
the itching seas of this
a stick figure with pigtails and
squeaky voice runs back and forth
across your muscle across all your pitched
nerve calling in from Zinguinchor from
Dili blogging from Cali from
Baghdad exploding in chipmunk
outrage in small burning
keep the position taken swaying
like the first like the only
A thoroughly modern subject there, perhaps, but what I find especially attractive are the animistic elements: that squirming loam, those itching seas, even the thin wires and animated stick figure in which I recognize a bit of myself. This is the kind of book that makes me want to seek deeper and more meaningful connections to the earth. It may seem strange to say about a book whose availability in multiple electronic formats is one of its selling points, but after reading Forever Will End on Thursday, I wanted nothing more than to leave the computer and go for a walk in the rain-drenched woods. And so I did.
I’m reading a book a day for Poetry Month, but I’m also hoping some folks will join me and fellow poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott to read just four of those books. Details here.