by J. D. Nelson
Mad Verse Press 2006
Nelson’s chapbook, xiii, contains thirteen poems that you can read through in about fifteen minutes, but you could ponder their meanings for limitless days. Note what it says on the book’s last page. (Not the one that says, “Printed on Recycled Paper,” the one before that, About the Author.)
“J.D. Nelson, (b. 1971) experiments with words and sound…”
In two instances Nelson’s poems consist of, not including their titles, but four words.
That is indeed an experiment, to make an artistic statement in four words.
This is the first of those poems:
this isn’t a ransom note
If you exclude the title, and you exclude the concluding explanation, then the poem consists of this:
I like that because I’m left free to insert any thought I like.
This is an example of apophatic poetry, describing something only in terms of what it is not.
If we compared this style to a numbers puzzle, it might be like stating, “This number lies between three and six, and it is not five. You could deduce the number was four, not because I told you it was, but because I told you what it wasn’t. But numbers by themselves don’t strike me as poetic.
Looking back at Nelson’s poem, he doesn’t tell us what the poem is, only that it isn’t a ransom note. I feel all good poetry has a dark space in the center, a place where you can read into the work. This one certainly leaves room to read in. Over time many people have attempted to write about what poetry is, but I’ve never read an attempt to say what it isn’t.
Combining this apophatic style with what could be termed an experimental absence of examples, I’m free to interject:
this isn’t a ransom note
it’s not a demand for reparations
there are no directions here
in case of my mysterious disappearance
this is also not an apology, an explanation
or a suicide note
it’s just a poem.
And since no two readers would likely come up with the same response, the prompt,
this isn’t a ransom note
could start each one down his own path of deciding what poetry is in terms of what it isn’t.
In “World Weight: 80” Nelson seems to ponder along the same lines as William Carlos Williams might have, trying to decide just what depends on that famous red wheelbarrow beside the white chickens.
World Weight: 80
In my atlas
I thaw those
to say minus.
eating our clothes.
with bloody paws
Wooden? This is
not a blank numbers slot.
sign their names
in my atlas.
In his day Dr. Williams was also breaking experimental ground with his theory of “No ideas but in things,” and his claim to writing with what he called “the variable foot.”
As I read Nelson’s poem, I see bloody paws, rats stiff with the death, and sparks shooting, golden, and blue upon the white pages of an atlas where the maps do not contain any geo-political boundaries.
I ponder the symbolism of each strophe. Who are these kittens? Who are the rats they are bloodying their paws on? How are these numbers leaving us naked, and if there is no blank numbers slot, just what is there? But I have not been able to come to any satisfying conclusions.
As you ponder “World Weight: 80” I expect you’ll receive different impressions. That’s the idea, to form your own ideas in Nelson’s things. If you see different things, the experiment is a success. If you see the same things as I did, the experiment is a success. If you see nothing, try getting glazed with rainwater.
The truth is, I still haven’t reached a satisfying conclusion as to just what depends on WCW’s wheelbarrow. But no one seems to know exactly what his “variable foot” is either.
The most purely experimental poem in the collection is this one:
Star of the Salad Bar
o. the ant n t ant an t ant a ants hOney
spO.On ‘Kube’> 5DO//AR5: ElsE:24th,s>
have nO :re/loaf>bldgs (O) 3XT> ur3
>slO ::wly, as-not-tO> d-dist > urb the
sud ddd den --:::--- spr(ou)ts), aa’nt
There are three similarly symbolized stanzas that follow, but I think you can grasp the nature of the experiment from this first one. In graphology, the study of written language, the smallest unit of meaning is the grapheme. In English graphemes are usually the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, punctuation marks, and some symbols such as the ampersand. Nelson’s experiment, writing with unconventional graphemes, is interesting because it pushes our minds to search for alternate meanings to the graphemes we are used to seeing in other contexts. For example the two backslashes on L2 are easily accepted in the stead of the double L normally found in the word “dollar” and the numeral 5 at the end is nearly as easy to accept in place of the letter S. But I can’t say I understand the extra spaces, stray marks, deliberate misspellings and repetitious letters inserted into words here. For me, this poem remains an ongoing experiment.
To my thinking, the most straightforward of the collection is this one:
Remember when salads were fun
inside every cherry tomato
lived a tiny tomato shark.
the kids would scream
There is a world of experimental difference between Star of the Salad Bar and Remember when salads were fun? Nearly every reader can relate to the latter’s link between fun and the wildly amused screams of young children, and it’s easy to appreciate the example of childhood imagination found in such a concoction as the tomato shark.
The remaining poems in Nelson’s collection will excite you, more or less, as the four I have chosen to present in this review. In a day when writing must provide instant gratification or risk losing its audience, this collection of poems demands that time be taken with it. That may be the grandest, and riskiest, experiment of all.
|J. D. Nelson
's writing has appeared in many print and online publications, including 'The Best of The Dream People Poets' chapbook. He lives and writes in Colorado. Visit J. D.'s website
for more information.
Mad Verse Press
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