Geoffrey Nutter's The Black Dog

Geoffrey Nutter's Water's Leaves and Other Poems

I'm a little standoffish around writers who mix up poetry and philosophy. On one hand, I have a natural prejudice against intellectuals. Why? I understand it's sort of a weakness. It will suffice to say that intellectuals seem to break things in moments of bloodless inspiration and aren't particularly interested in putting them back together again. Look what the think-tanks have done in Iraq. Now think what they could do, and have done, with poetry, whose Republican Guard consists pretty much of Ted Kooser and Billy Collins.

Now, maybe some of you who are inclined to agree with me will also agree that I'm simplifying things. I have to grant you that one. I'll work on it.

In the meantime, these mix-ups between poetry and philosophy confuse what is useful with what is necessarily useless. Why not say that good poetry is good only when it is politically engaged, or improves civic virtue, or helps you grieve for the dead, or gives you the warm fuzzies? Perhaps someday they'll come up with a book of poetry which doubles as a spare tire in case of emergencies. I'm fed up with anyone who can find the use in anything--anything at all--that doesn't have a clearly labeled button. Otherwise our lives, too, may require a proof of worth. Two new rules, then, (subject to revision): anything worthwhile is inanimate and earns a wage; anything livable is not and will not. Jobs and tirejacks and The New York Times in the first camp, lovers and comedians and dogs in the second. That polarity will stick, unless we make an exception for ice cream and Spiderman and poetry, each of which occupy some murky middle ground between bald ambitious ingenuity and total frivolity beyond the kin of an honest witness and beyond the patience of mere wagearners.

So I like Geoffrey Nutter, but not because he's a philosophical poet, or because he falls squarely in the tradition of poets who could, say, make George Santayana palatable. He poses the question of "what is half-seen and half-created" in the mind of the interpreter at least as well as anyone who's work I've read lately. "How much of what we call 'seeing' is actually believing?" he says, and that sort of business. That question is always interestingly asked by a good poet, when it is asked, and it is never answered except in a procession of things seen in rare subjective lights. Someone meets a fact and writes it down and probably changes the fact in writing it. Which is fun, and possibly lazy and indolent, too, in a way that philosophy is not. It produces effects unique to poetry.

For instance, the effect is often one of crazy synaesthesia, as in one of my favorite poems in the collection, "The Black Dog": "I saw a black dog come out of a pond/ and break into a million light-tipped crystals// as he shook the water from his fur./ I was Distorted Man--distorted by what/ I did not know." In a touching act of empathy the speaker of the poem blurs and breaks apart like the dog for a while, and new figures move into the frame. It's frightening and dizzying and you have to appreciate the sacrifice. Yet in the last line, we're rewarded with something thumpingly nice: "The black/ dog came and licked my hand." It's a good thing to reward selflessness in this way, though naysayers may say it ends on a too-familiar and conclusive note. To which I say, we should all be rewarded for being so nice to black dogs as to fractalize with them into frightening shards of surreal otherness.

Yet there's a lot of letting things be in his poetry, too, a sort of watching without interrogating, and this is refreshing. For instance, there's the poem "Titan Cement," which begins, "Everyone loves Titan Cement" and ends "Past the sad brick factory/ and black cisterns, Titan Cement/is coming!" and whose center contains not much more than a thick core of Titan Cement and an ode to its "built-ness" and rough grey blank usefulness, baffling and beautiful to the author. Later he takes us skiing (there is a lot of cold weather in these poems) and it becomes this: "The curvature of the world/ is charged with prescience;/ so that you might vanish/ off the slopes of a snow-freighted/ mountain..." It's plain personification but it works.

Of course, there's something here for the interrogators, too. "The Definition of a Swan," sounds like it is, to such a degree that it offers this helpful definitional tidbit: "To 'swan' is to wander aimlessly." Swan-dives, long necks, and Cygnus are all cataloged and filed away in the poem. As an interrogator, Geoffrey is exhaustive. To ask what good it is sort of begs the question what good are swans. And that's as far as I want to go with it. It was a good time while it lasted. It beats working.

If you live in Chicago and want to meet him and see him read this stuff you'll want to check this out. If you live in New York and want to buy the book or just come to yell at me and stuff you should come to St. Mark's Bookshop.

posted by Greg Purcell @ 11:25 AM,  


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