Glyn Maxwell takes his readers to a very special place with his poem "The Nerve," a spot on the edge of everyday familiarity. It is a lively position to take, Maxwell writes in his poem, when a person finds himself standing "suddenly very far" from what he knows. It is the excitement that comes from facing the unknown that this poem attempts to identify and encourages its readers to find.
Maxwell knows about standing outside his known parameters. He is a British citizen living in New England, facing a new culture and a new, though similar, language of expression. With this poem, he shares his feelings about what happens when a person "cross[es] a line" and sees life from a different, unexpected perspective. The experience can have several different consequences: some might be positive; others might not. "But you ought to recognise it," says the poem.
"The Nerve" was published in a collection of the same title. In 2002, that collection was chosen by the New York Times as a Notable Book of the Year. The title poem reflects certain aspects of Maxwell's life in suburban New England, but the poem is not just about him. It could be about a man; it could be about a woman. It is about life, anywhere.
Glyn Maxwell, author of the poem "The Nerve," is a multitalented writer well known for his plays, novels, and opera librettos. He is also a teacher and an editor. Of all his abilities, this award-winning author is most recognized as a gifted poet.
Maxwell was born in Hertfordshire, England, in 1962. He received his bachelor's degree from Oxford University. Shortly after graduation, Maxwell won a scholarship to Boston University and came to the United States to study poetry and theater under Derek Walcott. After returning to England, Maxwell worked as a literary reviewer and later as a visiting writer at Warwick University. Then, in 1996, he returned to the United States, after being offered a position at Amherst College in Massachusetts. Since then, he has taught writing at Princeton, Columbia University, and the New School in New York City. Since 2001, he has also been the poetry editor at the New Republic.
Tale of the Mayor's Son, Maxwell's first book of poetry, was published in 1990. Two years later, with the publication of his second collection, Out of the Rain (1992), Maxwell's works began to be recognized with honors. Out of the Rain won the Somerset Maugham Award, while Rest for the Wicked (1995) was short-listed for the T. S. Eliot Prize and the Whitbread Poetry Award. In 1998, Maxwell's collection The Breakage was also short-listed for the T. S. Eliot Prize as well as for the Forward Poetry Prize for best poetry of the year. Three of his books, Boys at Twilight (2000), Time's Fool (2000), and The Nerve (2002) have, at various times, all been chosen as Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times. The Nerve also won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, in 2004. In The Sugar Mile (2005), Maxwell imagines (in a long series of poems) a conversation that might have taken place between two expatriates from Britain who meet in a city bar.
Besides his poetry collections, Maxwell has also published two novels, Blue Burneau (1994), which was short-listed for the Whitbread First Novel Award, and Moon Country (1996). He has also had seven of his plays professionally dramatized and is working on his second opera libretto. Maxwell lives in the United States with his wife and daughter.
Maxwell's poem "The Nerve" begins with a reference to some ambiguous "rough shape," which is not explained fully. The reader is engaged by the intrigue of not knowing what the speaker is talking about, but there is no full engagement. The speaker could be talking about anything at this point. It is not until the second line that this "rough shape" is given a little more detail. The meaning of this shape does not become too much clearer, but in attaching the phrase "your life," the speaker draws the reader immediately into the poem. The speaker is talking directly to the reader, making the reader feel as if he or she had better pay attention. The speaker continues with words such as "your town" and "a dusty shop you pause in," constantly tugging at the reader to participate in this poem.
It is also obvious that it is not just the reader who is involved here. By the tone of the words, it is apparent that the speaker is talking about something that he himself has experienced. He understands the feeling of someone being "suddenly very far" from what is known. He could not have stated this phenomenon unless he, too, had gone through it. Now not only is the speaker talking directly to the reader, he is also sharing something extraordinary with him or her. He knows what it feels like and tries to stir that memory in the reader by referring to childhood. "You found it as a child," the speaker states. This is as if he is asking: Don't you remember? Then the speaker gives an example from his own experience, one that could easily correspond to the reader's experience—playing around one's house and knowing the boundaries of safety, sensing that beyond those parameters lies the great unknown or, as the speaker states in the fourth stanza, "the world's end."
Once the speaker rouses that memory of the unknown, that "breeze of being gone," he takes the reader more directly to the theme of the poem by mentioning "a single nerve." The speaker is not concrete in describing it, but rather comes to it obliquely. First it is "low down." In stanza 5, the speaker continues to throw out hints. The nerve "sags." That is all that the speaker is willing to give away. The rest of the definition is left to the reader. However, in the next few phrases, the speaker empathizes with the reader. He is sure that when the reader finds that nerve, he or she will be thrown off guard, be "chilled" to have found it so suddenly. Then there is a slight admonishment. After all, the speaker relates, "you ought to recognize it." Since it was there when you were a child, you knew it once, the speaker implies. And now, the awareness of that nerve has returned, but it cannot be depended on. It may well "fail" you "utterly." The speaker appears to be saying that if a person is suddenly awakened to the unknown, to a side of oneself that one was not aware of, it will possibly be a shock. This will change a person. That change, however, may not be for the best. It may all "go wrong."
The speaker begins stanza 7 with the thought that the change, which a person explores in oneself because this nerve has been touched, may even betray, that is, "be Judas," the man who betrayed Christ. That is a serious affair. And some "others," whether they are family, friends, or strangers, will offer no support. They will be "mute," unaware of "your pain." Ironically, they will "assume they're safe with you." These others, who remain untouched, will think "you" remain the same as they are. Because they have not changed, they do not see the change in "you." They do not know that because of that nerve, the person being addressed is wandering in uncharted waters, exploring new fields beyond the usual boundaries.
Rather than panicking about this situation, which sounds rather unstable, the speaker turns the reader around. "Treasure the nerve," he tells readers. Despite the challenges and possible disorientation, "treasure its dis- / belief." Do not dwell in the land of safety, where everyone else lives. Strain to see through the known; reach for places that are "inhospitable." A place that has different rules might even be "unfair." The speaker is encouraging the reader to be strong, to go where others are afraid to venture.
Going toward the unknown, beyond the ordinary boundaries, past the safety nets of experience and well-worn belief, will have its challenges, the speaker warns. It will be a place of no set rules, "arbitrary." The reader may well have to endure pain and suffering, something that one will see coming and will think about before continuing on the journey. Choices will not be made for one. These are uncharted waters. The reader will have grave decisions to make. "You will face the choices that the nerve / has suffered." Those choices made, there are two possible consequences: "to be plucked" and "to have brought the soldiers running" or "to lie low" and "have perished years / ago." One is the consequence of love. The other is the consequence of fear.
When Maxwell urges his readers in his poem "The Nerve" to "cross a line" into the unknown, he might well be referring to coming alive with passion. Although there is also the sense of death in the poem, with such phrases as "a breeze of being gone," there is a stronger pull that suggests one should use that realization of death to live life to its fullest, in other words, to live with passion. If people get caught in believing that they will live forever, they may find that they are not really living at all. Life can become very boring, the speaker suggests, if one does not seize every moment as if it were the last. Through the poem, readers are encouraged to push themselves to the edge. That is where passion is found. Excitement flows through one's veins when everything feels new. To find the passion in life, one must clear the vision he or she has of life and must live in the present moment, where everything is fresh and new. The world of passion is one that the reader may have thought of as a child, when passion ran high and dreams were unlimited by social conditioning. Passion demands that one forgo the road that ineffectually promises safety. "For that act / of love," the poem states, one should be willing to endure whatever this path of passion might bring, despite its illogical rules and "inhospitable" circumstances. One should push beyond self-imposed or socially induced boundaries and wander to places "very far from what you know." These are all the ingredients of a passionate life, of someone who is willing to witness new and unfamiliar surroundings and experiences, despite the unexpected challenges that one may be forced to face. It is all worth it, according to the poem. One should "treasure the nerve" of passion.
Topics For Further Study
- Maxwell has often stated that he is influenced by the British poet W. H. Auden. Read several of Auden's poems and find one that is very similar to Maxwell's poem "The Nerve" in style, tone, theme, or all three. Analyze both poems. How are they similar? How do they differ? Write a poem of your own in a similar style. Here are three suggestions for a poem by Auden you might pick: "Let History Be My Judge," "Stop All the Clocks . . ." ("Twelve Songs: IX," sometimes called "Funeral Blues"), and "The Novelist."
- Complete a study of the circumstances of the life and times of the poet W. H. Auden compared with those that Maxwell must face today. In what environment did Auden live? Since both poets write of ordinary life, how were their lives similar? What were the social concerns in Auden's time while he lived in the United States? What are they today? Also look at the politics of the two different eras. How might politics have influenced the societies of both men?
- Read Henry David Thoreau's Walden. Focus on Thoreau's encouragement to his readers not to worry about keeping pace with those around them. Then write a paper pretending that Thoreau and Maxwell are having a conversation. On which topics do you think they would agree? On which would they disagree? Be as inventive as you want to be, without worrying about whether you are representing either of these authors accurately.
- Take a survey in your neighborhood. Ask each adult to tell you about one incident in his or her life that they would define as unusual. Or ask them what was the most exciting experience of their life so far. Then visit a third-grade class and ask for the teacher's permission to question the students. Get the children to tell you what they think would be the most exciting thing to do as an adult. Compare the two surveys and write up your study.
Going against the Grain
Most people, the speaker of this poem suggests, live in a world of set rules and practiced patterns. They live, like children, in a fenced-in, small world. Although they may see the "next field," they are afraid to cross over the boundaries. They feel safe in this enclosed, familiar world, where experiences are predictable and sane. But that is not the world that the speaker lives in, and through this poem, the speaker urges his readers to go against that grain, to push themselves away from the masses of people who "are mute." By going against the grain and not following the crowd, the speaker does not promise an easy life but suggests that it will be better than living half-dead. Going against the grain is not a popular practice. Group psychology dictates that everyone huddle together for protection. This might work in some instances, but for an overall philosophy of life, the speaker of this poem believes that it is more stimulating and more promising to strike out on one's own, "where you will face the choices that the nerve / has suffered." The nerve is what keeps you alive, and that nerve can be found only by striking out on one's own path and not succumbing to the urge to do what everyone else is doing.
Many people have a great fear of the unknown, the speaker of this poem suggests. As children, many thought that by going past the boundaries that were set by their parents, they would come to harm. In childhood, the unknown may have been simply the neighbor's yard or a great wood behind the house. If children went beyond these boundaries into unfamiliar territory, they might have been punished with tighter restrictions, or they might have been told that they would be stolen away by a stranger. Some people still carry those fears with them as they adjust to adult life. Many people, the poem suggests, find a completely safe environ-ment—or at least one that they think is completely safe—and they stay within parameters that they set for themselves. Their boundaries are reminiscent of those set by their parents or suggested by social standards, or at least what some people perceive to be socially correct. Because of their fears, they very seldom wander across those boundaries into the field of the unknown. Everything outside the familiar is frightening. But the speaker paints a very different picture of the unknown. Although he suggests that there is no promised safety and even talks of pain, he encourages his readers not to be afraid of the unknown. It might bring a world of new, "unfair" rules and "inhospitable" environments to those who wander too far, but pushing oneself into unfamiliar places and unknown experiences is the only worthwhile exploration that one can make in this life.
Maxwell's poem "The Nerve" is written in iambic feet, each foot containing first an unstressed syllable and then a stressed syllable. Note the word "perhaps" in the first stanza. The first syllable (per-) is unstressed, with the second syllable (-haps) receiving the stress. For people who speak English, iambic meter in poetry is the most natural rhythm. It is a rhythm most similar to the spoken language.
"The Nerve" is composed of twelve stanzas. Each stanza is a quatrain; that is, it contains four lines. The pattern of the rhythm is (with some exceptions) basically a first line of five iambic feet (a pentameter), a second line of three iambic feet (a trimeter), a third line of two iambic feet (a dimeter), and a last line of one iambic foot (a monometer).The use of iambic meter, because it most closely reflects natural speech, could have been chosen by Maxwell to project the overall conversational tone of his poem.
The tone of a poem is the perceived attitude that the author has toward his audience. With "The Nerve," at times the tone is that of a friend, as if the speaker were talking to someone he cared about. He offers a personal experience to back up his beliefs of how one should confront life. There is no sense of his knowing more than the reader knows but rather that he would like to share something he has learned with a peer. He uses down-to-earth language and images, even to the point of explaining his ideas as those that a child naturally encounters. He also speaks of dusty stores, fields, and bars—commonplace environments.
The speaker's tone is also at times that of a teacher, encouraging and nurturing. This is evident in the phrases such as "you ought to recognize it" and "treasure the nerve." The shortness of the stanzas is easily digested in a relaxed manner, as if the speaker were talking in a quiet, but reassuring voice. The vocabulary is simple, and there is only one allusion—to Judas—which is almost universally understood.
Enjambment is the continuation of the sense of a particular line (that is, the grammatical sense) beyond the end of the line. This might be done for a variety of reasons. One is for dramatic effect, creating a pause for the reader to reflect for a few seconds before continuing. Sometimes enjambment merely breaks the monotony of continually reading the same patterned meters of each stanza. In the first stanza of "The Nerve," a slight enjambment occurs at the end of the first line. "Somewhere at the side of the rough shape" reads as if that were a complete thought. However, as readers go on to the second line, they realize that it is not just some random "rough shape" that the speaker is discussing but rather the rough shape that "your life makes in your town." Then, at the end of the first stanza, there is another, more dramatic enjambment that causes a fairly abrupt change in perspective. The last two lines of stanza 1 are these: "you cross a line, / perhaps." That leaves the impression that the reader may or may not cross a line. That is one interpretation of what the speaker is saying. But continuing to the second stanza, the reader realizes that the speaker is really referring to the idea that the reader might cross this line, perhaps "in a dusty shop." That changes the sense of where the speaker is going. Rather than questioning whether the reader is going to cross the line at all, the speaker emphasizes, in the second stanza, more or less that the reader will eventually cross that line and the only question is where this will occur.
A second dramatic enjambment occurs in the eighth stanza, between the third and fourth lines. Here the poet hyphenates the word disbelief. Although readers may never be certain why an author does one thing or another, one can make intelligent or intuitive guesses. Here, the reason might be that Maxwell wanted to stress the word belief rather than its opposite, disbelief. Of course, one can argue that the metric beat of the poem demanded this hyphenation, but someone else can argue that Maxwell could have chosen another word. It is easier to assume that he hyphenated this one on purpose. He used the hyphen to cause a brief stop, to throw the reader off just a little, to make an emphatic point.
The shape of Maxwell's poem is not based on grammatical construction. The first two stanzas, plus the first line in stanza 3, complete the first sentence. The second sentence ends in the middle of line 1 of stanza 8. And the third sentence continues to the end of the poem. The shape is determined by the cadence, that is, the rhythm of the stressed and unstressed syllables, and the poet's choice of how many metered feet will be contained in each line. By ignoring grammatical construction—in other words, not allowing a period at the end of a sentence to dictate the end of a line—the author has created a sense of flow, like a small creek making its way downstream around boulders and fallen trees. The shape reflects, in some way, the theme of the poem, as it provides a sense of pattern but takes the reader outside that pattern at the same time. The definitive shape is the quatrain, with its patterned lines. Still, the meaning of the poem lies past the quatrains, as it pushes through the empty spaces between the stanzas and continues beyond the normal boundaries.
Brief History of British Poetry
Maxwell comes from a very long line of British poets, who have influenced his writing. British poetry is traceable as far back as the seventh century. It was then that a monk known as Caedmon wrote a hymn in verse, the first known British poem. Although the date is still in dispute, one of the next surviving verses is the well-known epic poem Beowulf, written perhaps in the eighth century but possibly as late as the tenth.
Poetry continued to flourish in later centuries, as witnessed by the several surviving texts composed during the Anglo-Norman period of British history. Poems from this period include Layaman's twelfth-century poem Brut, written in a dialect of Middle English, as well as the Gawain poet's Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and William Langland's Piers Plowman, both dating to the fourteenth century. Poetry would change after this point in British history, as the language of the country went through a massive mutation, evolving into what would become the genesis of modern English. Geoffrey Chaucer, who would become the major poet of the Middle Ages, lived at this time. His central work was The Canterbury Tales, a story of thirty pilgrims who pass the time of their long journey by telling one another stories. Chaucer was a great influence on British poetry into the following centuries.
The next great period for British poetry was the era of Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled from 1558 to 1603. This was a period famous for lyrical songs. It was also a time that saw the development of meters in poetry as well as an emphasis on courtly poems. William Shakespeare wrote his sonnets in the late sixteenth century. Other poets of the Elizabethan era include Sir Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe, and Ben Jonson. This literary period also saw the development of the metaphysical poets, who appealed to the intellect rather than to the emotions. Often associated with these poets were John Donne and John Milton. Alexander Pope followed, with his emphasis on satire.
The Romantic period coalesced at the end of the eighteenth century under the influence of the great poets William Blake, William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, George Gordon Byron, and John Keats, to name just a few. The Romantics moved away from the metaphysical emphasis and focused on emotions and the individual.
Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning are Victorian-era poets, writing during the mid- to late nineteenth century. One of Tennyson's major works was Ulysses, which was published in 1842. While Robert Browning became rich after publishing The Ring and the Book, a long blank verse (a poem with no rhyming) in 1868, his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, became famous for her Sonnets from the Portuguese.
The most well-known of twentieth-century British poets include William Butler Yeats, D. H. Lawrence, Rudyard Kipling, and T. S. Eliot. During World War II and shortly afterward, Romanticism was revisited and revised, and poets once again moved away from the rational and emphasized emotional reactions to life. This movement was best exemplified by one of Britain's greatest poets, Dylan Thomas. The latter part of the twentieth century saw an increased interest in poetry by women and by immigrants, especially from the West Indies. But general lack of publishing opportunities for poets has seen an overall decline in the publishing of books of poetry in the last decade, with poets having to turn to small presses and dealing with a less-than-enthusiastic public audience than poets of earlier centuries enjoyed.
W. H. Auden
Almost every time that Maxwell's poetry is discussed, a comparison is made to the British poetW. H. Auden. Maxwell himself has stated that Auden has a great influence on his writing.
Auden was born Wystan Hugh Auden in 1907. When his poetry collection simply called Poems was published in 1930, Auden was deemed one of the leading voices of his generation. He was often praised for his poetic technical precision and for his ability to write verse in a great variety of forms. He also was known for the way he was capable of bringing everyday events and vernacular, or everyday, language, into his poetry. His subjects also enjoyed a wide range, covering topics as different as social issues, science, and politics.
Auden was a great traveler, and his experiences in other countries provided him with a wealth of material upon which to draw. He explored areas throughout Europe, visited China and Iceland, and eventually settled in the United States. Like Maxwell, Auden wrote not only poetry but also plays, opera librettos, and essays; he also worked as an editor.
In 1996, Maxwell published, with his fellow poet Simon Armitage, the book Moon Country: Further Reports from Iceland, which covers a trip that the author made to Iceland, mimicking a similar trip that Auden had previously made. Maxwell's book covers the politics and geography of this country and is written in poetry and in prose. The trip was made in honor of W. H. Auden.
World Affairs at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century
Maxwell's poem "The Nerve" might be interpreted in many different ways; still, one cannot help but wonder if the underlying tone of exploring the unknown was stimulated by the great sense of uncertainty that enveloped the world after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and on the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., in September 2001. Maxwell was living in Massachusetts at the time and often traveled to New York City to teach. The sense of fear and the mention of soldiers in his poem, as well as the statements that urge his readers to explore new beliefs and new rules, may have been an outcome of these horrific affairs that caught the world so totally off guard.
Before the attacks, awareness of international affairs among most American citizens was in decline. With the demise of a threat from the Soviet Union, many people in the United States enjoyed an undefined sense of security. There seemed to be no need to worry about attacks from any other country. The U.S. military represented the most significant force on the planet.
Then, on September 11, 2001, two planes flew into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. One other plane, several hundred miles south, plowed into the Pentagon. A fourth plane, which some believe was headed for the White House or the U.S. Capitol, had its mission thwarted by a group of brave airline passengers; this plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. Thousands of deaths occurred. And the world outlook changed.
The sense of security in the United States was shattered. Citizens realized that their country was not as isolated as many had previously thought. Their country was just as vulnerable as any other. Terrorists could strike anywhere. This realization brought with it a new fear. The familiar had been shattered, much as in Maxwell's poem. People had to change their beliefs and restructure their lives. The terrorists' attacks altered more than the skyline of one of the largest and most powerful cities in the world. They changed the world itself.
"The Nerve" was published in a collection that bears the same title, and that book was chosen by the New York Times as Notable Book of the Year for 2002. In his review of the book, the New York Times writer David Orr finds that "Maxwell writes smart, formal lyrics that pay conscious tribute to the English verse tradition" and then goes on to describe this collection with words such as "low-key," "specific," and "decent." To explain this last adjective, Orr states that he is not giving Maxwell merely "faint praise." Quite the contrary, Orr says that the way that Maxwell writes poetry makes it appear that Maxwell "grew up talking in sonnets."
Orr comments directly about the poem "The Nerve," relating the theme of the piece to Maxwell's possible sense of feeling a bit out of step with his new surroundings in the United States. "The Nerve," Orr states, is a philosophical poem "in which Maxwell's silvery intelligence gets free rein." Orr concludes that "Maxwell is an intelligent and sensitive writer, and The Nerve is one of the most enjoyable books of this year."
Writing for Publishers Weekly, Michael Scharf refers, in general, to Maxwell's poetry as being "deft arrangements of ordinary (often suburban) experience into elaborate (often Audenesque) stanzas." More specifically, when discussing Maxwell's collection The Nerve, Scharf expects that "readers who seek variety in formal choices will be pleased."
"Maxwell is a substantial writer," states David Mason for Washington's Weekly Standard. He is a cross between W. H. Auden and Robert Frost, Mason goes on to say. In addition, Maxwell knows "how to face his generation's largely suburban experience" as a poet, and he articulates this experience, according to Mason, "with mature precision." As Mason says, "our nerves are lines of sensitive impulse, connecting brain and body," and that is why Maxwell's poetry is indeed "a nervy business."
Maxwell is also compared to W. H. Auden in a review by Daniel L. Guillory for the Library Journal. Guillory writes that this is because Maxwell, like Auden, "is a wry social commentator, fascinated by American phenomena." Later in the review, Guillory adds that Maxwell "is able to bring an effortless moral and aesthetic compression to his work" and states that Maxwell is a poet to be watched.
Hart is a published author and freelance writer. In the following essay, Hart looks for the story in Maxwell's poem and analyzes why Maxwell left out certain details.
Hidden within a poem often lies a fuller story. Maxwell's poem "The Nerve" is a good example of this. This poem, as with many other verses, can be read in many different ways. In large part, that is what makes poetry so fascinating. Some people may read poetry for the sheer beauty of its construction, with the poet's meticulous attention to rhyme and meter kept foremost in mind. Others might read poetry for the beautiful and succinct images that such writing can produce. But some readers pay special attention to the story of a poem, searching behind the short, clipped lines in each crisp stanza, trying to conceive a fuller picture of the material the poet left out. Such readers could be of any age, but in Mortification: Writers' Stories of Their Public Shame (2004), written by Robin Robertson and quoted in Dinitia Smith's review of that book in the New York Times, Maxwell offered the views of a specific thirteen-year-old girl, who, after hearing Maxwell read one of his poems, wanted a more detailed story. This young girl asked Maxwell what the poem was really about. The poet stammered a little as he explained his poem, retelling it in a fuller, more comprehensible story format. After hearing the poem's more detailed version in prose, the girl's response was "Why didn't you just write that then?"
Those who are used to reading fiction may ask the same question. Oh, they may enjoy the beauty of the careful attention a poet pays to words and the position of those words on paper. They also might like the ease with which they read the poem: the way the syllables roll so easily off the tongue and how the sounds of the words feel as if they were born to be together. But sometimes it is just plain hard trying to figure out what the poet is actually trying to say. Of course, that is one of the pleasures of poetry—like putting a puzzle together. A good piece of fiction should also have a few holes, so the reader does not sit back passively, like viewers watching a not-so-enticing television show. Still, poetry can have so many holes, sometimes quite big. As the young girl suggested, Why not tell it all?
What is the story behind "The Nerve?" First, the poem is attempting to communicate a philosophy. The poet has learned a significant lesson about life, which has helped him understand his experiences in a new light. This has more than likely taught him something valuable, because he obviously wants to share it. He wants to pass on his discoveries, believing that they might help someone else. The poet tells his story not by using the pronouns I and me, however; instead, he pulls the reader into his story by using you. In this way, he is telling his readers, through an unstated under-current, that this is what has happened to him, and now he wants the reader to try it. Then he embarks on the journey.
He sets the reader in a comfortable position, bringing to mind an environment that is at once familiar and nonthreatening. "Somewhere," he begins, meaning that it could be anywhere. It could be in a heat-damp southern swamp or in a glacier-cold northwestern mountaintop. He is not specific, because this is not his story (he is subtly proclaiming); it is the reader's. He is also not specific about the details of the life he is describing. He merely portrays it as a "rough shape." This allows his readers the opportunity of trying this poem on without worrying that it will not fit. Everyone can identify with "somewhere" as well as with a roughly shaped life.
What Do I Read Next?
- Maxwell's writing is often compared quite favorably to W. H. Auden's work. To make this comparison, read Auden's Collected Poems (1991). This is an extensive collection of Auden's poems, which capture, at times, his emotional responses as he reflects on such topics as the political, philosophical, and religious sentiments of his time.
- Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970 (1999), edited by Richard Caddel and Peter Quartermain, is a good place to start for an introduction to other contemporary British poets. Included in this collection are works from Caribbean-influenced poets as well as more traditional lyric poetry. Observations from several different ethnicities are represented, most with unconventional outlooks.
- In an attempt to help bridge the cultural gap between the United States and Great Britain, Dana Gioia has put together a book of British poems and offers his own interpretations. The book is called Barrier of a Common Language: An American Looks at Contemporary British Poetry (2003).
- Maxwell has been publishing collections of his poetry for more than twenty years. For a taste of some of his best poetry written in story form, read Time's Fool (2000). This book relates a tale in verse, focusing on a young man who is cursed to remain seventeen forever while the world around him ages.
- Maxwell's Rest for the Wicked (1995) reexamines some of his feelings as he matured into an adult. His use of British slang, polished by his great sense of lyricism, makes this collection fun to read.
- Don Paterson and Charles Simic have put together a book of poems written by young British authors who have yet to receive much literary acclaim. This does not mean that their poetry is not worth reading; these young poets just have not yet been discovered. The collection is simply called New British Poetry (2004) and was published by Graywolf Press. The book offers readers a good chance to get ahead of the crowd.
So far then, there is a person, walking along through his or her town in some unspecified location. The person is not thinking about much, just walking, when all of a sudden, the speaker announces: "you cross a line, / perhaps." This image is similar to one that may have occurred in anyone's childhood. Remember the bully who dared you to cross a line that had been drawn in the dirt? Whether you did or did not do it, you knew that the minute you did cross that line, something different would happen. That is the tension the poet creates in using this phrase. You are just walking along, minding your own ordinary business, when you cross into another world. You could be anywhere, the speaker reminds you—"in a dusty shop" or "a bar." Again, these are common places; there is nothing unusual about them. They could exist in any big city, like New York, or in any small town, like Sisters, Oregon. Every town has old shops and bars. What is unusual is the experience of crossing that line. This situation could be compared to a story from the old television series The Twilight Zone. You—an ordinary person, in an ordinary town, in an ordinary place of business—abruptly find yourself "very far from what you know." You can almost hear the violins and cellos playing in the background as the drama of the story increases to a frenzied pitch.
As in any good story, the poet does not want to strain his readers too much, so he releases the tension. He brings the reader back to a familiar scene—childhood. This strange place the speaker has introduced, so distant from what the reader knows, is no different from what he or she felt as a child, or so the speaker tries to convince the reader. Remember staring across the fence of your backyard into the "next field?" Remember how you wondered what lay out there beyond those safe boundaries? Remember how your imagination swirled with the possibilities? That is where the speaker is trying to take the reader. Yes, it was perhaps a little scary, but the thought of it was also very exciting. It could have been "the world's end, / a breeze of being gone." What would that feel like—to be gone?
That part of the poem is probably the easiest from which to make a story. After the first three stanzas, the poem becomes more abstract, less specific. It is here that the speaker begins his discussion of the nerve, and it is here that the holes begin to develop. What is this nerve? What does the speaker mean when he states that "it begins to give, / a single nerve, / low down"? There seems to be some kind of awakening taking place. To recapitulate, the reader is standing there, and something changes. You have crossed some kind of line, and you begin to feel things (a nerve implies feeling things) that you never felt before. It is low down and sagging, maybe because it has been unused for so many years. It once was higher, when you were a child. But now it has "felt the gravity." Instead of thinking of sagging as falling toward the ground, the reader might want to think of it as sagging in consciousness. You are in the dusty shop, and you suddenly remember the feeling. It is buried beneath a lot of memories and experiences, so it feels slightly familiar, but at the time it seems new and strange. And "you are chilled / to have been told / that way—." It rose into your conscious mind too suddenly. It is at this point in the poem that the speaker offers a warning and an admonishment of sorts. "You ought to recognize it," the speaker says. You should never have lost track of it. It was there when you were a child, and you let it go. Then he adds that if you do not watch out, you might lose it entirely. It might, "one day, / fail utterly."
Readers still do not know what "it" is. The poet invited everyone into his poem by being vague about the town, the "rough shape," and the "dusty shop," and now he is not telling his readers what the nerve is. Like the thirteen-year-old girl in Maxwell's audience, everyone would probably like to know in more depth what he is talking about. After all, whatever the speaker refers to, it sounds as if it is something that has changed his life, and there are moments in everyone's life when they crave something different. If the speaker is, in fact, warning his readers that if they do not recognize this "it," something could "go wrong," why does he not just spit it out? Perhaps, by leaving this hole, this lack of definition, the poet makes the reader work. Maybe the poet cannot take the reader directly to this feeling, whatever it is, because the reader has to find it for himself or herself. The speaker has stated, after all, that it is something that the "you" in this poem knew as a child, and "you" are the only one who knows what that is.
Throughout the second half of this poem, the speaker continues to provide his reader with hints or clues about this nerve. He offers more warnings, too, telling the reader that friends may not understand what he or she is going through when this nerve has awakened. He also counsels the reader that once a person acknowledges this new world, he or she will encounter a whole new set of rules that, unlike the ordinary world, does not provide a sense of safety. The person may find the environment to be "inhospitable" and "unfair." Here, the poem is reminiscent of the telling of a typical myth—a story in which a hero or heroine is called upon to complete a dangerous task. The journey might prove to be exciting and rewarding, but it will not be without its risks. Despite the warnings, the speaker encourages the reader by insinuating that no matter what the risks, the reader will be compelled to go forward; as he puts it in the poem, the reader will "start for."
As the speaker briefly describes some of the events that readers might encounter on this journey, readers can continue to compare this poem with a mythic tale. One may be "plucked," the speaker warns, and may suffer. Then he adds, if one acts out of love, one may be saved. If, however, one acts out of fear, one may perish. Here, one can imagine J. R. R. Tolkien's story The Lord of the Rings or any such story told in a mythlike manner, a tale in which the hero sets forth on a quest to save his village and finds that the journey is filled with danger. The challenges are all but insurmountable, but if the hero's heart is pure, he will survive. According to Joseph Campbell, one of the greatest scholars of mythology, myths have been told throughout the history of humankind to provide clues by which people can better envision their lives. Campbell also was a strong proponent of following one's passion in life in order to live more fully. The clues and hints provided in Maxwell's philosophical poem appear to be telling us the same thing. The poem, despite the fact that it consists of a mere forty-eight short lines, does tell a complete story. Yes, the poem has many holes, but you can fill them with your imagination.
Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on "The Nerve," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
Sandra M. Gilbert
In the following review of Maxwell's The Boys at Twilight and the work of five other male poets, Gilbert praises the collection as "a good introduction to the kind of high-spirited rhyme-&-chime" that Maxwell "does best."
No doubt because I've spent so much of my working life musing on the measures of the female literary tradition, I'm not usually asked to review a same-sex set of male-authored books. Yet as feminist theorists were the first (but are now not the only ones) to note, the intricate and subtle relationships between gender and genre that often shape the cadences of women's writing just as surely and often inform men's work. Taken together, for instance, the six poets under scrutiny here begin to seem eerily representative of contemporary modes of masculinity—seem, that is, like a fairly typical bunch of twentieth/twenty-first century guys—whose recent collections fit into a jig-saw puzzle that might help us figure out, in the words of the old movie, where the boys are.
In a sense, of course, it's reductive to imagine these artists—all serious and accomplished writers—as a kind of pobiz platoon, but I have to confess that now such a fancy has come to mind it's hard to dismiss. For even the titles of some of their books—e.g., Heroin, Atomic Field, The Boys at Twilight—seem to insist on a sometimes tormented, sometimes rueful male sensibility. Indeed, just as women now and then feel the need to write about such supposedly "feminine" topics as, say, grandmothers, kitchens, birthing and nursing, most of these guys evidently feel a need to write about stereotypical "guy" subjects: rootless wanderings, brutal addictions, cosmic speculations, and even more specifically, as the jacket copy of Glyn Maxwell's The Boys at Twilight declares, "men at war, boys at play, boys grown up, men overreaching and reverting." And if women writers can now and then be understood through stereotypes willingly adopted or willfully imposed (female female impersonations like "femme fatale," "innocent virgin," "rebellious feminist," "earth mother"), their masculine contemporaries can also be grasped through analyses of male male impersonations like "tough guy," "sensitive young/middle-aged man," "son of famous father," "recovering druggie/alcoholic," "boy genius," etc. Like most of us, to be sure, these writers adopt different roles at different times, yet it's interesting how well suited each is in a costume of masculinity that's sometimes as aware of its own artifice as it is artfully tailored to fit the demands of the page.
The rather ostentatiously youthful Glyn Maxwell, for instance, who peers cherubically out of a slick flap photo, comes off as both a bravura "boy genius" and a bravura commentator on boys and boyhood. His dauntingly massive Time's Fool: A Tale in Verse is a 396-page record, in Dantesque terza rima, of the travails of a single seventeen-year old, who has been condemned to the hell of riding a "Ghost Train" around and through suburban England—a fate that may seem infernal indeed to those who've suffered the vagaries of the British rail system. Like Wagner's Flying Dutchman, to whom the text helpfully refers us, Maxwell's doomed teenager circles the world in search of love or perhaps some more au courant redemption, and like the speaker of the Divine Comedy, he is accompanied by a "Poet" (capitalized) who raffishly plays Virgil to his Dante. But Edmund Lea, whose name allusively invokes the very Edward Lear who wrote such charming nonsense verse at the last fin de siecle, is a nonsensical creation indeed—perhaps deliberately so—compared to his great literary precursors. Unfortunately, he's also a tedious figure, often puerile in his preoccupations with his old girlfriend Clare and the geography of Hartisle, his allegorically named hometown.
"This place is Chadwick Grove," Edmund explains to the Poet (whose own name, "Glen," allusively invokes the authorial0 "Glyn"),
the outskirts of, though that's a place that's all
outskirt. No one ever says what of.
You'll see a hill come up. Behind the hill
some lights I think are Stortwood, or, who knows,
Chadwick proper. Then there'll come a tunnel
we used to say was haunted with the souls
of a crash in 1930. You'll excuse me
if I don't believe this anymore. Those tales
are little winding relics.
And within a few more lines a monologue that has already begun to seem like something of a "winding relic" frankly acknowledges its own tedium:
Soon the tunnel, home in a bare mile.
I'll know the names of streets by then, I'm afraid,
and tire you like a tour guide.
To be fair, Maxwell tries to help his hapless readers rather more than his self-pitying "Passenger from Hell" aids the unfortunate Glen. As if writing program notes for a post-romantic redaction of Der Fliegende Hollander, he supplies glosses to each chapter. Chapter one ("The Chance in Hell"), for instance, opens with the following portentous announcement:
CHRISTMAS EVE, 1984. Edmund Lea has ridden a Ghost Train for fourteen years and believes he is in Hell.... He tells the Poet how seven years earlier, the Train arrived back at his home town, Hartisle, on Christmas Eve 1977 . . . [where he discovered that] He has not aged, but the world had not waited. Only Clare, the girl he loved, recognized him, but she was now a wife and mother. His family were not at home.
And with comparable solemnity, chapter three ("My First Poem"), summarizes what we will soon learn is the tale's originatory moment:
AUTUMN 1970. Edmund falls in love with Clare, a classmate, and believes his love is returned. He is the envy of all his friends, but on Christmas Eve a stranger, Cole, arrives at the Oak pub and seduces Clare.
Alas, though, if it is a or the Dantesque (or Wagnerian) moment that the author of this tome implicitly defines as a Turning Point, the Scene in the Pub leaves something to be desired:
In my seat
was Clare when I got back, and on her stool
the NAVY man who had arrived that night,
who wore all dark and wasn't from our school,
who lit his cigarette and was engaged
in deep talk with another listening gift,
I noticed, on his other side. I reached
our table and knelt down alongside Clare,
the other side from him. Gently I touched
her hand and she looked down. She said, 'He's
he's coming through the rye' and carried on,
quarreling with Nick about some war
he said was not 'true war.' The NAVY man
was scrutinizing him. The atmosphere
was purest smoke through which I led my hand
towards her thigh, gold-colored and so near,
and let it rest and and have her move away
as if earth had itself marooned me here
by quickening. The stranger had his say
about all kinds of things I couldn't follow,
and "Time!" was called to a great choral cry
O well, Edmund, better luck next time might be a more appropriate response to the disappointment about to ensue than the 200-odd pages that actually follow this moment. For although many who have been seventeen (and which readers of POETRY have not?) remember the age as a year that sometimes seemed both perpetual and painful—as durable as unendurable—whether one is time's wise man or "time's fool," one usually and usefully discovers that seventeen, along with sixteen and fifteen, passes like a train in the night. And that's an especially Good Thing if it entails the kind of Sturm und Drang Edmund Lea, and Glyn Maxwell, might do better to have journeyed beyond.
Time's Fool seems like a particularly misbe-gotten enterprise because Maxwell is in fact a poet of unusual facility and (at times) felicity. The Boys at Twilight, a collection of poems drawn from his first three volumes, is a good introduction to the kind of high-spirited rhyme-&-chime—a sort of darkly postmodern vers de société—that he does best. Certainly its title poem offers a more balanced and distanced view of male youth ("the boy with you as the sun goes red / . . . Has remembered words you forgot you said") than the wretched Edmund's plodding, or do I mean chugging, tale. Better still, the unpretentiously sardonic and charming "Tale of a Chocolate Egg," which appeared in Maxwell's first book, Tale of the Mayor's Son, constitutes a salutary antithesis to the overinflated saga of the Teen on the Train. For one thing, this quest-romance, comically meditating on the desires elicited by a giant billboard advertising a single piece of candy, takes up a little more than fourteen pages, compared to the later work's 396. For another, its tone is chatty and colloquial, insouciantly concluding "What else? The bloke (my hero, I admit) / Scoffed the thing and didn't die of it." ("Scoffed" here looks to me like a typo for "scarfed" but perhaps British spelling for "scarfed" [i.e., gobbled] is "scoffed"?)
Similarly high-spirited though with a serious core, "Sulk" is an astutely observant elegy for the kind of sci-fi, futuristically glamorous "future" Stanley Kubrick and others promised for the millennial year 2001 but at which we (naturally) haven't yet arrived:
What we are at is pining for our lost
Future. How we are doing that is simple:
Slouching beside our low glass tables dressed
In shimmering precious suit from nape to ankle.
That's how it was to have been. The walls of
The doors that slish behind, the ultramarine
Drink, the apotheosis of the letter
Z in Christian names and the light this clean.
Instead it's a sulk we'll have. We're the spoiled
With centuries for uncles, and those uncles
Leaning along the shelves, disabused and old
And letting us learn or not from the foul troubles
They dumped on us....
In a strenuously witty poem entitled "Don't Waste Your Breath," Maxwell makes it quite clear that he knows his strengths and weaknesses, defining the latter at one point as including at least a few of the following:
Reading verse to lesser mammals,
Tailing cats or humping camels,
Pleading with a traffic warden,
Writing things that sound like Auden
In his sleep.
At his worst (as in Time's Fool), Maxwell does sound like someone preachily "hectoring sheep," so it's a whole lot better when he writes "things that sound like Auden / In his sleep." In any case, to do just that is no mean feat, as many of the glossy and shapely verses in The Boys at Twilight tend to prove.
If at his best Maxwell has the boyish pizzazz of, say, a slightly somnolent early Auden, he's a shoo-in for the role of "the Kid" in this platoon, and a kid who radiates exuberant innocence when compared to embittered tough guys like Franz Wright, "the Recovering Alcoholic Son of a Famous (Dead) Dad," and Charlie Smith, "the Former Heroin Addict." Wright's work, for instance, is phlegmy with the kind of regret that the Marlboro Man must have felt after too many packs. Though the jacket copy on The Beforelife, his thirteenth collection, describes him as a "lyric visionary" who is the "son of the beloved postwar poet James Wright," the weighty sufferings he records in this volume seem for the most part anything but "lyric" and "visionary," nor does the "Famous (Dead) Dad" come off as particularly "beloved." On the contrary, unlike the parent to whom he often seems to want to insist on comparison, this Wright all too often appears hellbent on an out-of-the-side-of-the-mouth sneering cynicism, as in "Translation," where we're jokily assured that "Death is nature's way / of telling you to be quiet," or in the one-line "Body Bag," which triumphantly reveals that "Like the condom in a pinch one size fits all."
Presumably "The Dead Dads" is intended to excavate the anguish that shaped these often all too banal ironies, but as psychoanalytic exposition it falls short of the mark, even though as an effort at grown-up poetry it does conclude with a nice neat twist of the knife:
It's easier to get a rope
through the eye of a needle than
the drunk son of a drunk
into waking—oh no, not
this guy, he's intent on
finding out and finding out
what the poor old f—er felt like
all he has asked
is one good cold responsible
look at the corpse
when it meets him, living,
at the door—....
Especially if the reader resists the "look" at father/son similarities and dissimilarities that this piece, like a number of others, so bleakly invites, it's plain that Wright junior has some talent for clear, spare versifying of the raw-and-nitty-gritty. But when even his spare lines are unsparing in self-indulgence—as in "Empty Stage," which begins with a parody of the standard twelve-step confessional opener ("My name is Franz, and I'm a recovering a—hole")—more than a purely formal discipline may be in order. Maybe this gloomy ironist needs to be a bit more ironic about his irony?
At the same time, to be fair to Wright, his poems hardly lack self-knowledge. "Memoir," one of the more successful pieces in The Beforelife, limns a sepulchrally comic self-portrait:
Just hope he forgot the address
and don't answer the phone
for a week:
put out all the lights
in the house—
behave like you aren't there
if some night when
it's blizzarding, you see
Franz Wright arrive
on your street with his suitcase
of codeine pills,
lugging that heavy
of blank texts.
Yet still: even here one wants to say, Hey, hang on a minute, man, these texts aren't exactly blank no matter what color you want to call your manuscript.
Where Franz Wright suffers in taut short lines, Charlie Smith aches in long limber ones; where Wright is tersely glum, Smith is extravagantly grim. Alcohol versus heroin? Both these tormented tough guy poets hint at such a range of addictions and depressions that, apart from the sheer chutzpah it would take to theorize the question, it would be empirically foolish to speculate. What's sure, though, is that Smith's poems have a sprezzatura, an almost Byronic crackle and verve, that's in itself kind of addictive. The title poem of Heroin, for example, begins, improbably,
I left a message for my editor to send copies of the
to my new agent,
and then I read a passage about how no one talks
about heroin anymore, and the old life came back
and then, arrow to terrible target, zeroes in on a Surprise Ending that really works:
I loved the graciousness of heroin, the way everything
and obvious in the daylight opened its shirt and
revealed its soft pale breasts.
The world slept curled in its own foolhardiness.
And my wife came carefully over the blankets to
not to mind who I was. We inserted words
into spaces in the rain. For years I remembered the
and whispered them to myself, half thinking I
conjure her back into the world. They never caught
We missed them on the way to Mexico, to Puebla,
where eventually the line gave out. We slept on a
bench outside a church.
It was two days before she died without regaining
as I say in the memoir they are paying me so
To be sure, the right-on quality of that last line locates its author in a docudrama of hell not all that different from Edmund Lea's Ghost Train through suburban England or Franz Wright's boozy redaction of Hamlet. Things "as they are," as Smith notes in a poem appropriately called "Honesty," include "modernity hamming it up" on and off the page or the screen, and getting paid "handsomely" for its confessional melodrama. But there's a fine line between the wry consciousness that what Sylvia Plath called "the peanut-crunching crowd" will fork over good money to watch the po-mo poet's "big striptease" and the impulse to really let it rip and capitalize on every last drop of marketable angst. "Lady Lazarus" is only one of countless poems in which Plath lunged along that line like a master tightrope walker, but not many can follow in such perilous footsteps. Certainly Smith teeters toward the sawdust pretty often, as in "Of This I Speak to No One," where a versified public tantrum ("stoned & crying, saying impossible impossible") isn't much mitigated by the carefully ironic way the hullaballoo of the text contradicts the caution of the title:
I have been screaming all day in my head
and then I hit the dog across the back
attempting to train it to love me,
the dog that is now scared of me and can't stay
away from the garbage, who lives at the neighbors'
and stands on their front porch looking impassively
like a friend who believes the baseless charges.
Of this I can speak to no one, as you
can't speak of the crows and the terrible thoughts
coming out of the woods like old men in gray
Each night we are exchanged
for something much worse than we imagined,
which is why late in the day
I go out to the woods where the poplars are greasy
and the oaks are against me
and lie down across the grain of the mountain cursing,
trying to tear the itch off my hands.
A little more than halfway through this passage I, at least, am inclined to decide that the poet can "speak to no one" of all this because he should speak to no one. His dog story is great, yes, but the "terrible thoughts / coming out of the woods like old men in gray suits" are just a little too reminiscent of Seventies surrealism at its more simplistic, and as for getting "exchanged" each night "for something much worse," well, exactly what's that "something much worse" to a guy who already has such theatrically "terrible thoughts"?
Nonetheless, the impatience Smith here and there evokes is probably a measure of the admirable invention and brilliance he exhibits in so many other places. The magical "Beds," for instance, has something of the incantatory charisma of Kenneth Koch's "Sleeping with Women"—and deploys a comparable male braggadoccio as it conjures up
drunken beds, sopping watery beds, pissed-in beds,
. . . .all I have slept in,
beds I have knelt beside and dreamed of,
bench one foot wide for a bed in Saipan,
hay barn in Turkey bed, dawn like sherbet
naked men stood up out of, trickling weedy beds,
greetings and goodbyes from beds,
sullen, imperious beds . . . [sic] there was always a
place to lie down, if only for a pause, in jail
or in the aisle of a bus....
Maybe because (unlike Wright, who is a poet/translator) Smith is a poet/novelist, the best of his poems are fortified against self-pity by a narrative precision that gives rich texture to tales of Rootless Wanderings that might otherwise be stereotypical or banal. Maybe Franz Wright, and for that matter Glyn Maxwell, should try prose for a while.
Like Charlie Smith, Nicholas Christopher is a poet/novelist, and like both Smith and Wright, he's something of a tough guy, or anyway a guy given to tough—or perhaps, more accurately, guarded—understatement. He neither reveals nor revels in past addictions, however, and those peccadilloes to which he does confess appear to be the usual features of a well-spent hip youth. In fact, Atomic Field, his sixth collection, consists of two autobiographical sequences that are essentially snapshots of the author, first at eleven, then at twenty-one. And here's where understatement becomes as much a formal strategy as a mode of dramatic self-presentation. For throughout this volume Christopher seems, for better or worse, bent on recording those "spots of time" out of which Wordsworth thought everyone's past was constituted with a kind of "objective" (well, pseudo objective) photo-realism rather than with the feelingful intensity for which the author of The Prelude strove. Thus one of the book's earlier poems begins
A four-story building.
Gray brick with brown trim.
A brown door lighted by a yellow bulb that repels insects.
Eight identical apartments.
Flowerpots in some of the windows.
A fire escape which I climb
to the roof at night.
And another opens
The old woman upstairs with the canary that does-n't
bleaches her shell collection once a year
in her claw-foot tub
while listening to the records she and her husband
used to play at the beach cottage they rented
every summer for thirty years, until he died.
The apparent flatness of affect here—almost a kind of zombie tone—is clearly deliberate, and intermittently effective at capturing the bewildered, sometimes pained, sometimes simply acquiescent sensibility of an eleven year old, as in number 14 of the 1962 sequence:
There is always someone on crutches in this
Or so it seems.
A former GI.
A bus driver who was hit by a truck.
A nurse who never recovered from polio.
And behind the counter, the bald man
with the hook for a hand,
who can twirl his moustache with it.
Too often, though, such a stance of documentary dispassion leads to just plain prosiness. The verse beginning "A four-story building," for instance, ends with its protagonist on his apartment house roof, watching "jets with flashing pinpoint lights" as they "arc in and out of the airport." The (presumably hard-won) minimalist ending, though, inflates a small, childhood apercu into a point that hardly bears Wordsworthian emphasis:
Later I concentrate on the stars,
which constantly change position
while appearing never to move.
By labeling his two sequences with simply the years—"1962," "1972"—in which the individual poems are set, Christopher signals a further documentary ambition: to contextualize the texts of his protagonist's individual history with the social history of two decades crucial to his growing up. And Atomic Field, the title he bestows on the whole collection, further implies that he wants to break down experience into, as it were, atomic particles—constructing each poem out of dots (rather than spots) of time like a literary pointillist—while also conjuring up the threat of: nuclear disaster that children were particularly taught to fear in those years. But again, the social history of the period emerges as both obvious and anti-climactic in, say, the characterizations of culture heroes or heroines. The death of Marilyn Monroe, for instance, elicits the not very inspired comment that she will
never again . . . blow a kiss
laughing from an open window,
never with a careless gesture throw off
the blanket of white roses that covers her now.
And James Bond is tamely described as "Connoisseur of fast cars, crack shot . . . a man of strong appetites and silences . . . whose adversary—a mad scientist / extravagant as Caligula—goes by the name of No."
Christopher's observations of 1972 are just a bit keener, though these too tend to belabor the obvious (i.e., the tie-dyes, groovy pads, backpacking journeys, and psychedelic voyages of a hippie youth). Here and there, a way station on one of his farther-out trips flickers momentarily to life:
On the southern coast of Crete
where even the shadows of the palms smolder
and tumblers of raki waft smoke
and steam pours from bursting melons,
naked girls are lolling, burnt-orange, in the boiling
They live in the black caves along the beach,
and for a week I'm one of their guests,
drinking wine mixed with honey,
making love between handwoven blankets,
gazing cross-legged at the thin line
that is Africa shimmering on the horizon.
So far, so good, as a witty journey back in time. And it's amusing, too, to learn that
Some Americans in loincloths have founded
a school of Pythagoras in a hut beneath the cliffs.
They eat only figs, olives and barley cakes
and at nightfall play lutes and timbrels....
But like so many other components of these two ambitious sequences, this one grinds to a disappointing halt, as we discover that while the hip Pythagoreans "play lutes and timbrels" they
watch stars across the galaxy conjoin into circles
which mesh like the gears of a clock,
measuring—to the last second—every man's life.
Are we meant to regard this final epiphany as the narrator's youthful insight—or as the middleaged poet's backward glance at travell'd roads? Either way, it seems curiously meager, even (or perhaps especially) as a self-conscious allusion to the eleven-year-old's rooftop vision—in poem 12 of "1962"—of the stars "which constantly change position / while appearing never to move."
If in my fantasy platoon Wright and Smith are suffering tough guys, and Christopher is a guarded, low-key guy, Paul Breslin is a sensitive guy, the Alan Alda of the bunch. Perhaps for obvious reasons, this means he's written some of the most interesting and successful of the poems I read for this review: as a "Sensitive Man," he's willing to take the risk of feeling but unwilling to subject his readers to self-indulgent theatrics. You Are Here doesn't have a very prepossessing tide (Heroin and Atomic Field—even The Beforelife—rank higher as grabbers) and it doesn't have the kind of crackling ferocity that marks Smith's verse or the kind of virtuoso sheen that characterizes Maxwell's work. Yet despite an apparent modesty of presentation this fine first book is full of soundly crafted, tightly controlled, often very moving poetry. Like Christopher, Breslin writes about meticulously dated boyhood memories (to which the second half of his collection is devoted), and like most of the other poets considered here he meditates on civilization and its discontents. But his continual interest in moving from his own individual docudrama toward larger issues suggests not just what I'm stereotyping as "sensitivity" but also notable generosity.
Thus in—among other pieces—"The Question," "Book Club," and "White Wound/Black Scar," Breslin transforms recollections of personal encounters with public trauma into incisive looks at identity politics unmarred by preachiness or special pleading. And in the impressive "Three Poems of Elijah," he offers a revision of Biblical narrative that perhaps inevitably concludes with a reference to the Holocaust but, again, a reference that's remarkably fresh and free of sermonizing. In "His Unease in Heaven," the third poem in the series, the ancient prophet, ostensible speaker of the whole sequence, watches "a line of souls ascending, veiled in smoke, / through chimneys of the buildings far below," and in the enigmatic silence with which God responds to the questions of the suffering dead he muses on the hopes with which he himself traditionally haunts the ceremony of the Passover seder:
Each spring at Passover, I walk the earth
until I find a likely looking house,
and watch the family seder through the window.
They pour the wine, though casually, as if
I'll never come for it. Only the children
quicken with the old anticipation,
hearing their father sing, Elijah, come....
He rises, and he sets the door ajar.
O when will He Who Is That Which He Is
unlock the storehouse of the folded rainbow,
and bid me come to sit with them this night
that will not be like any other night,
drinking the heavy wine the living drink?
Breslin's memoiristic poems are often as eloquent and almost always as straightforward as this passage, for as an autobiographer in verse he is both unpretentious and unsententious, avoiding, on the one hand, the temptation of literary "photorealism" and on the other hand the lure of confessional melodrama. Evidently, like Wright, he had an alcoholic father, and in "Scenes from Childhood" he remembers the horror induced by parental quarrels:
Don't they know
the house is alive?
How can they call me
out of the sunlight
into its mouth?
At night it threatens
to grind me apart—
I will live on as pieces.
But though his own sufferings must surely have been as "grinding" as he says they were, he plainly struggles to transcend his own pain in order to articulate sympathy for what he makes clear was his father's torment. Perhaps a male parent's alcoholic angst—in Franz Wright's overheated phrase, "what the poor old f—er felt like"—seems less infamous if the dead dad is less famous?
In any case, Breslin's "Keepsake," subtitled "1962" (no doubt out of an impulse, like Christopher's, to investigate and recreate the chronology of childhood) is impressively charitable in its portrait of a hopeless, hapless, lost father. Beginning with a recollection of personal trauma ("It seemed impossible to move my face / which hung there numb"), this poignantly elegiac piece expands into a vision of someone else's trauma that's moving precisely because it's both clinical and compassionate:
There is no picture of my father leaving
our house on Crandon. Scarcely on his feet,
each arm draped on the shoulders of a friend,
he mumbled an inaudible good-bye
and nodded, meaning he was ready, as
their dark suits filled the doorway, then descended
into the bright spring day, and down the walk.
I must have watched him go: I have this picture.
Similar to "Keepsake" in scrupulousness of observation as well as moral scrupulousness—which is to say, willingness to take seriously the risk of feeling with and for another—is "My Father's Father Before Him." Subtitled "1951," this poem is addressed to the dead dad whose misdoings caused such pain while also eliciting impressive empathy. I quote the work in its entirety because it seems to me one of the most representative as well as one of the most successful selections in You Are Here:
Had he snapped like a dried moth
when I hugged him, I'd have said,
His three-piece suits had pinstripes
so fine they disappeared in the black cloth.
Only the gold chain of his pocketwatch
had light or color, the face
too pale to have blood in it.
Something had gone out
in the eyes. They were done
he gave out presents,
nothing. It was Mother
who told him to stop
while you said nothing.
He came from Toronto. How polar,
how sunless, must that city be
to make such skin and such eyes!
I still mistype it
"Toronot"—abode of nonbeing,
your birthplace and secret home.
Those hot summer evenings, the grill
smoking with meat, your friends
stood around in shorts and short sleeves.
You laughed too much and too loudly,
sprung from Toronot till they went home.
Of the six poets considered here, the late Larry Levis would have been the most likely candidate for the part of the "guy who's been around." He could hardly, of course, have been a candidate for the "old man" of the group: his early death—in 1996 at the age of forty-nine—came as a shock to the poetry community, and I'd guess that at least Breslin and Smith are his contemporaries. But with seven collections of poetry to his credit, two, including the one under review here, published posthumously, Levis was an experienced and masterful artist, and more specifically a writer whose work constitutes a kind of microhistory of American verse from the early Seventies to the present. As I roam through the poems David St. John, the editor of The Selected Levis, has chosen from the poet's early volumes—Wrecking Crew (1972) and The Afterlife (1977)—I seem to be rereading things I first encountered in journals like Kayak and Crazy Horse that were popular in the "deep-image" Seventies. And as I move on to the poems from Levis's later volumes—The Dollmaker's Ghost (1981), Winter Stars (1985), and The Widening Spell of the Leaves (1991)—I sense a strengthening of American poetry's ambition, an outward urge of verse itself, not unlike what Levis so magically calls "the widening spell of the leaves."
I certainly don't went to be teleological here, don't want to imply in some mock Tennysonian way that "all creation [of poetry] moves" to a single "far-off, divine event," nor do I mean to idealize the dead. Even in the carefully winnowed volume St. John offers us, Levis's work is uneven. Some of the early poems, in particular, are mannered and derivative. "For the Country" (from Wrecking Crew), for instance, offers a brand of cynical political generalization that usually emerged more effectively in the productions of Seventies rock musicians and moviemakers, with section 4 of the sequence merely a tissue of easy paradoxes:
You are the sweet, pregnant,
teen-age blonde thrown from the speeding car.
You are a dead, clean-shaven astronaut
orbiting perfectly forever.
You are America.
You are nobody.
I made you up.
I take pills and drive a flammable truck
until I drop.
I am the nicest guy in the world,
closing his switchblade and whistling.
And a piece called "Matinee," section 8 of the ambitious and frequently comic "Linnets" (from The Afterlife), proposes a surrealistic dream-scene in which one wonders whether substitutions of one simile or metaphor for another would make much difference. The opening line—"Your family stands over your bed / like Auks of estrangement"—seems especially arbitrary: why not, for example, Owls or Gulls "of estrangement?" And the final triplet—
They [the family] lift higher and higher
over the snow on the Great Plains.
Goodbye, tender blimps
—sounds dated and silly.
But as his command of the poetic line widened, Levis's poetry became almost literally breathtaking, a kind of verse that spelled itself out and cast its spell in such sinewy inventive cadences that the leaves to which he referred in "the widening spell of the leaves" might well have been those most powerfully American bits of foliage, Leaves of Grass. And imagine having the nerve to ventriloquize Whitman! Yet this is what Levis did in a poem (from Winter Stars) simply—and daringly—entitled "Whitman":
On Long Island, they moved my clapboard house
Across a turnpike, & then felt so guilty they
Named a shopping center after me!
Now that I'm required reading in your high
Teenagers call me a fool.
Now what I sang stops breathing.
It was only when everyone stopped believing in me
That I began to live again—
First in the thin whine of Montana fence wire,
Then in the transparent, cast-off garments hung
In the windows of the poorest families,
Then in the glad music of Charlie Parker.
At times now,
I even come back to watch you
From the eyes of a taciturn boy at Malibu.
Across the counter at the beach concession stand,
I sell you hot dogs, Pepsis, cigarettes—
My blond hair long, greasy, & swept back
In a vain old ducktail, deliciously
Out of style.
And no one notices.
Once, I even came back as me,
An aging homosexual who ran the Tilt-a-Whiff
At country fairs, the chilled paint on each gondola
Changing color as it picked up speed,
And a Mardi Gras tattoo on my left shoulder.
A few of you must have seen my photographs,
For when you looked back,
I thought you caught the meaning of my stare:
A Kosmos. One of the roughs.
And Charlie Parker's grave outside Kansas City
Covered with weeds.
Leave me alone.
A father who's outlived his only child.
To find me now will cost you everything.
Not only do I not want to idealize Larry Levis by assuming him into some kind of definitive Dead Poet's Society, I don't want to sentimentalize or fictionalize him. And yet one can't help wondering what the risks he took did "cost" him. Not "everything," perhaps, but quite a lot, given the gravity of his achievement. The Selected Levis doesn't include any work from his extraordinarily inventive, posthumously published and presciently titled volume Elegy; yet as David St. John comments in a fine editorial afterward, even the last three books Levis produced during his lifetime seem to reflect "a complex midlife reckoning with death's allure and power," a reckoning that may well have been expensive to an artist so wholeheartedly committed to his craft. Certainly the final piece in this collection is suggestive in the deep and dangerous game it plays with the meaning of nothingness, "the blank wave sprawl of fact" that indifferently engulfs the "small crowd of roughnecks at Poe's funeral" and "Lincoln & Whitman, joining hands one overcast spring afternoon" and the assassins Bakunin and Oswald.
As a kind of coda to this meditation on "where the boys are," I'd like to give the last two sections of this poem, entitled "At the Grave of My Guardian Angel: St. Louis Cemetery, New Orleans." For though the text is too long to reproduce here in its entirety, even part of it can serve as a sort of Whitmanic guide to the rich and risky place a poet, male or female, can get to if s/he eschews mannerism, self-pity, toughness, bombast.
But it's all or nothing in this life; it's smallpox,
quicklime, & fire.
It's the extinct whistling of an infantry; it is all the
faded rosettes of blood
Turning into this amnesia of billboards & the
hunh? of traffic.
It goes on & I go with it; it spreads into the sun &
& throws out a fast shade
That will never sleep, and I go with it; it breaks
Lincoln & Poe into small drops of oil spreading
Into endless swirls on the water, & I recognize the
There there now, Nothing.
Stop your sniveling. Stop sifting dirt through your
fingers into your glass of milk,
A milk still white as stone; whiter even. Why don't
you finish it?
We'd better be getting on our way soon, sweet
I'll buy you something pretty from the store.
I'll let you wear the flower in your hair even
you can only vanish entirely underneath its brown,
Stop your sniveling. I can almost see the all night
Up ahead, with its lights & its flashing sign a
testimony to failure.
I can almost see our little apartment under the freeway
overpass, the cups on the mantle rattling
The Mojave one way; the Pacific the other.
At least we'll have each other's company.
And it's not as if you held your one wing, tattered
it was, in contempt
For being only one. It's not as if you were frivolous.
It's not like that. It's not like that at all.
Riding beside me, your seat belt around your invisible
waist. Sweet nothing.
Sweet, sweet Nothing.
In the face of angst—political, personal, metaphysical, whatever—this poem says, even nothing is something, if only an ironically "sweet" something. Whitman, the granddaddy of at least five out of six of these guys, knew that too, as Levis reminds us. And speaking of the Dead Poet's Society, that guy Walt, never tough though always "one of the roughs," may be dust under our American boot-soles but he is good health to us nevertheless and he still stops somewhere, waiting for us.
Source: Sandra M. Gilbert, Review of The Boys at Twilight: Poems 1990–1995, in Poetry, Vol. 178, No. 4, July 2001, pp. 216–30.
Guillory, Daniel L., Review of The Nerve, in Library Journal, Vol. 127, No. 13, August 2002, p. 101.
Mason, David, "A Nervy Business," in Weekly Standard, Vol. 9, No. 31, April 26, 2004, pp. 35–36.
Maxwell, Glyn, The Nerve, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002, pp. 2–3.
Orr, David, "So Long at the Fair," in New York Times, November 17, 2002, p. 7.
Scharf, Michael, Review of The Nerve, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 249, No. 29, July 22, 2002, p. 170.
Smith, Dinitia, "You're Published. Now the Fun Begins? Think Again," in New York Times, April 14, 2004, p. E3.
DiYanni, Robert, Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, McGraw-Hill, 2001.
DiYanni takes examples of literary work from the classics through contemporary works and presents the formal tools of literary analysis. In understanding these basic elements, students can more deeply appreciate the meaning of a particular piece of literature and better understand how creative pieces are put together.
Johnston, Dileri Borunda, Speak American: A Survival Guide to the Language and Culture of the U.S.A., Random House, 2000.
Want to know what it might be like to have come to the United States from another country? Look through the eyes of someone from England or India or Africa and see the challenges they must face in learning not only the basic language but also all the idioms and slang Americans take for granted. This book offers a view from the outside, giving American-born students a different glimpse of their own language and culture.
Koch, Kenneth, and Kate Farrell, Sleeping on the Wing: An Anthology of Modern Poetry with Essays on Reading and Writing, Vintage, 1982.
Although this book is more than twenty years old, creative writing teachers still find it applicable. Koch and Farrell have put together a large sampling of poems and essays about the poems, and then they guide students through a series of writing exercises. This book is useful for the student who wants to do more than just read poetry.
Pinsky, Robert, The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.
The poet laureate Robert Pinsky has a very personal relationship with poetry, and in this book he shares some of the reasons why he enjoys the art so much. His discussions, as he breaks down some of the best poems into their syllables, are not only accessible but enlightening as well.
Ryden, Kent C., and Wayne Franklin, Landscape with Figures: Nature and Culture in New England, University of Iowa Press, 2001.
In Maxwell's poem, the poet offers a look at one man's life amid contemporary New England culture. Maxwell stresses the importance of taking a step back and trying to see life through different lenses. Ryden and Franklin do the same, giving their readers a different way to look at New England—through nature. The land and the history of New England are linked, according to these authors, and they provide another way of understanding how the New England culture has been formed.