Something Bright, Then Holes, Maggie Nelson, Soft Skull Press
Lately, I’ve been going through a self-hating-poet phase, essentially viewing poetry as socially irrelevant pretentious drivel or as described by Mark Russell “coded messages passing between lonely aliens on a hostile world.” While this may be accurate (“solitary melanin-deprived upright short-pelted carbon-based primate given to puns and obscure references, seeks”), it does not endorse writing poetry as a valid craft or means of social change. I crack open any volume of recent verse daring the author to prove to me that contemporary poetry is something other than odious, solipsistic, onanistic ink-spurting or concretions of greeting-card anodyne inspiring horizontally-projected fountains of bile; well, Maggie Nelson succeeds.
The title of her collection comes from a reference to Marius van Senden’s Sight and Space in the Annie Dillard essay Seeing. Van Senden’s book, published in 1932, describes the responses of those blind throughout their lives when given sight through new cataract removal procedures; thus, to be blind then see. Nelson informs us that “‘something bright, then holes’/is how a girl newly-sighted once/described a hand.” Nelson’s eye is open, gaze unflinching, and pen-hand both assured and firm. Good work occurs through balance such as clinical clarity and recognition of the human animal’s capacity for affect, a cool hyper-awareness remaining emotionally engaged. Nelson achieves this in At the Hospital for Special Care:
O this dome of sadness
How to be a pupil laced
in it, be a pupil of it
Today I will learn how to hoist her onto the board (49)
Everyday we learn things in this “dome of sadness” if we possess the awareness to hear the lesson. Characterization is unveiled through the documentation of the mundane as when the destroyed friend “hates the holiday décor, ‘it’s obtrusive/and aggressively secular.’”
The poetry of Something Bright, Then Holes is divided into four sections: ‘Something Bright, Then Holes;’ ‘The Canal Diaries;’ ‘The Hospital for Special Care,’ and ‘Something Bright, Then Holes (reprise)’ with the verses being sparse and terse, delightfully brief couplets and tercets with a sprinkling of prose-ish pieces verging on the narrative. As Stuart Dybek recently said in an interview in The Missouri Review, “Genre is malleable, a reference point to imitate, allude or expand; genre has a past that the present can play to and against, to cross-breed, to violate.” In addition co-mingling forms, any worthwhile work is not only no respecter of specifically segregated structures, but also no respecter of persons being willing to juxtapose topics both sacred and profane.
Something Bright, Then Holes has its hands in the mire and the light. Paeans regarding relationships are sparse enough to achieve universality (Mercurial, Morning Prayers), while the same vital and direct connection is maintained through a litany of the mundane. As when Nelson describes the tasks of attending a newly quadriplegic woman in A Halo Over the Hospital, At the Hospital for Special Care. Here the double-amputees are now targets of envy—“the space that’s injured/is no bigger than a chocolate bar and yet/here we are. Jelly cord swollen with broken blood.” (47)
With the formidable weaponry of an unsentimental use of language and imagery, Nelson addresses topics ranging from environmental desecration to the fragility of the flesh. In ‘The Canal Diaries’’ Special Water, a father tells his young daughter,
This is special water
he says, gently shaking her
little body. It may look pretty
But it’s very, very bad for you. (12)
In addition to objects and emotions, there are, of course, allusions to greater themes. These Days provides us with a telegraphic metaphor for the poet’s duty:
it’s so much work
to dredge it, to face a century
of muck. (20)
The water is dirty, her friend’s face has been flayed and rested on a rack and then replaced and stitched back on. The character of a black-wearing derelict is a stand-in not only for every riverbank’s marginal indigent, but also Death,
The man in black
The man I feared most
Is now the man with whom I sit
At every sunset.
I didn’t know (10)
Every place has a drunk that wears black. And for everyone who has a large family, the chaos and generosity of a holiday gathering (Thanksgiving) is nailed into history through the random opportunity to teach when a small child joins her at a book. A history of cod includes the slave trade, and the kid asks, “’People for rum?’ – Yes, I nod. People for rum.” I appreciate these moments, whether in observation or in dialogue, for Nelson makes me feel personally connected: “Live with your puny, vulnerable self/Live with her.”(42) Most of all Nelson informs us, “You say I don’t have to be ashamed of my desire/Not for sex, not for language.” (46) The only shame is that more writing isn’t like this.
Erika Mikkalo lives and works in Chicago. Recent writing appears in fence and MiPOesias. She seeks collaborators in all media, and if anyone can present her with a compelling argument for poetry, she’d like to hear it.