DASHED OFF: Brett Ortler on Tim Nolan’s The Sound of It

The Sound of It, Tim Nolan, New Rivers Press

The Sound of It, Tim Nolan’s first book, is an accomplishment; the book exemplifies the craft at its finest, and its poems are fresh, funny, and most importantly, accessible—these are poems that your mother will understand and enjoy.

Nevertheless, this accessibility doesn’t make Nolan’s writing any less impressive—too often contemporary poetry seems almost intentionally esoteric. To be sure, in some circles, accessibility is sneered at and difficulty is synonymous with excellence. (I suppose we have T.S. Eliot and company to thank for that.)

Nolan’s poems are accessible in part because they deal with a variety of familiar subjects—everything from family life and love to writing about writing—and they are successful because they handle such subjects without getting maudlin—or worse—being too earnest. The book has a machine-gun start in “Who I’m After”:

I’m after the Hittites, the Druids, the 1932
Yankees. I’m after Socrates, Ibsen, Shaw
(I was almost alive with Shaw). I’m after

Chekhov, the Poles who charged the German
tanks on horseback. I’m after the Greeks
who waited inside the horse at Troy.
I’m after those who lived through the
Potato Famine. I’m on the branch of the old tree
that survived. I’m after the stegosaurus.

I’m before Derek Jeter. I’m after Walt and Emily
and Abe. I’m after Mark Twain. I’m before Shania Twain.
I’m after Jerry Lewis—even if I die tomorrow—and he lives.

But with you—I’m before and after at once—
I can’t quite figure it out—it’s my breath—breathing
then—somehow—it ends up belonging to you.

The poem is fast, smart, and funny. And then there’ s the turn at the end and there Nolan is, writing successively about writing—one of the hardest things to do. (Too often writing about writing seems self-indulgent or worse, plain damn boring.)

The last stanza of “Who I’m After” also introduces the reader to another aspect of Nolan’s work. He uses dashes. Lots of them. I’d seen Nolan read a number of times, but I didn’t see his work on the page until I read The Sound of It. When I first I saw his poems on the page, they reminded me of William Carlos Williams and the poems he dashed off on the back of prescriptions while he was out making house calls and delivering babies. For Williams, such intermittent work was a matter of necessity.

Nolan’s dashes are something else altogether, and they’re essential for an entirely different reason. Nolan’s dashes are conventional in that they redirect emphasis, but he’s not simply using them to highlight isolated phrases or clauses—instead, Nolan’s dashes propel the poem and redirect it. Like an engineer shoveling coal into an engine, each dash gives the poem new energy, and potentially a new direction.The first three stanzas of the book’s title poem are a good example:

I thought of something today that I thought
would lead me into something—not a poem—
necessarily—but some insight that I could

tell someone else—as in a joke or a quip
such as the last words of Oscar Wilde—
“Either the wallpaper goes or I go.”—something

lasting that might be repeated and would
carry a life of its own

The dashes in this poem let us see the genesis of an idea, and the dashes make a good deal of sense here, as thought—and life, generally—almost always comes in bits and pieces. And that is what the book is really about; more often than not, Nolan’s poems puzzle over and revel in the strange ways that everyday life is transmitted from person to person. In this respect, Nolan’s book is simultaneously a story of a life and an exploration of how living actually occurs; because of this focus, Nolan’s poems commonly feature events from everyday life—they almost have to—and any event, however seemingly trivial, can enter his work: from driving his daughter and her friends home from the movies to a simple gesture passed between a father and son at a baseball game. In this respect, he reminds the reader of William Carlos Williams and Richard Hugo, writers who wrote about just about anything, from Williams’ famous poem about plums (“This is Just To Say”) to Hugo’s poem about a softball tournament (“Missoula Softball Tournament”). His poem, “Wealth” is a good example of this:

Down the block a garage band plays
“Isn’t She Lovely”—here’s a kind of wealth

Even if the song is fractured—and listening
tonight to the sequence of birds—I mean

their unintended consequences—is wealth

It’s these unintended consequences that make Nolan’s book so worthwhile, as the reader gets a glance at how moments in one life come together and how one thing, however strange, can lead to another. This is something that most people can appreciate, especially when conveyed with Nolan’s skill.

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