Thursday, October 02, 2008

Language beyond sense in the new poems by Stanley Nelson.

Language beyond sense in the new poems by Stanley Nelson.

Review by Michael Todd Steffen

On November 1, 2008 PRESA:S:PRESS will release the new book of four long poems by Stanley Nelson entitled City of the Sun, a work that asks for and deserves both sides of the coin.

Heads: The book is unified, exhibiting throughout the four meditations extensive use of anaphora, repetition of key words, phrases and images. There is an intention or plan to the formal oddness of Nelson’s language. In building long poems out of isolated blocks of wording used over and over, rather than giving the reader a sense of amplitude from the long works, Nelson’s picked-out vocabulary hammers on us the idea of a narrowing of language and experience. This effect of the poetry, a sense beyond the literal meanings of words, the prosody, impresses upon us an uneasiness, like the dissonance of Bela Bartok’s irresolute music. Nelson’s themes, as I have eked them out, call for such “tonal” disturbance and alarm: solar or nuclear energy and waste (“City of the Sun”), the destitution of spiritual initiation (“Fragrances”), the violence of social transgression, apocalypse and rebirth (“Genesis Vibes”), and the silence and revealing or “Con/Cealment/Un/Concealing” of holocaust (“Heidegger/HEIDEGGER”).

Tails: the general impression left by reading through City of the Sun with all of the repetition can become annoying. Beyond the mimetic sleight of a narrowing circular verbal representation of a like society, the poems come off as superficial. One strong objection I had was the impertinence of the language itself, the pseudo-apocalyptic symbolism of odd beasts coupling, of “Solarians” and “Pythagorean hymns” and twice-baked Dylan-like doggerel (“Dominican friars/Become louts and liars…) in the poem “City of the Sun.” Similarly “Genesis Vibes” ignores the general reader by riddling the text with names and events from the Old Testament. Most of us will recognize a reference, say, to enslaved Joseph who dreams prophecy for the Pharaoh. But over and over to drum up

jebuzite, hittite, hivite
japhethite, caananite, hamite

on donkeys…

—over and over, is asking to have most of your readers fan through looking for the next title page or drop the book altogether.

Back to Heads: From “Genesis Vibes,” a poem pronouncedly inspired by T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Nelson goes onto “Heidegger/HEIDEGGER”, a poem about the disputed German philosopher Martin Heidegger who derived his ontology from Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology during the rise of the Nazi regime. The juxtaposition of a Judaic theme with this specific philosopher evokes a dubious time in history, and we wonder to what extent Nelson explores the pattern repeating itself in our day. What parallels are to be drawn is a question that plays both sides: the possible implied responses and the making of the question itself.

The second poem, “Fragrances,” because it is based on a more individualistic experience and displays a clearer narrative progression, asks for a short discussion.
The repeated elements or characters of the poem involve “the mouth of a dying god” forming into “a perfect O,” the god’s initiate in the tottering rain, the courtesan in her boudoir preparing scents and illusions. The “plot” of the poem circles patiently as the initiate approaches, through 19 sections, the courtesan’s boudoir, clinging to the death of the god. The ablative “Notwithstanding” is repeated, along with the images of arches, fountains, musical instruments, the woods “pine and fir” and animals and religious symbols. The poem climaxes in the final section with the initiate’s entrance into the courtesan’s boudoir as the god dies. Yet with the miracle of the god’s song being resurrected in the courtesan’s post-coital caresses.

In and around these basic reappearances in the poem Nelson adds incidental music, variations to the structure which, simply because they are not part of the choral incantations, like the variation lines of a villanelle, delight us with surprise:

The dying god
Caught in the shadow of the arches
Dreams instead of a realm
Of storybooks and shy giraffes. (Section 10)

For his innovation with the visual lining of verse, Stanley Nelson has been compared to Apollinaire and E.E. Cummings. The traditionalists may find it difficult to embrace Nelson’s effluence of disparate elements, yet may also perceive a neoclassical dream-like quality to his “worlds” with their gravity from the Old Testament, reminiscent of the artificial settings in, say, Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” or Blake’s lithograph of Cain fleeing from the body of his slain brother Abel.
The poetry does have an impact, if it convinces us beyond our private discretions.
If not, oh well, Stanley Nelson has a readership among the avant-garde in America and England where his plays have toured. He has a long list of publications to his credit, and City of the Sun is his 17th published book of poems. Whatever poet may claim a license to do as he wishes with words, Stanley Nelson ranks among them.

City of the Sun by Stanley Nelson will be available through PRESA:S:PRESS/P.O. Box 792/ Rockford, Michigan 49341, for $16.95.


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