“Nice, but that’s all,” Cicily Janus on Nathaniel Bellows’ Why Speak?

Why Speak?, Nathaniel Bellows, W.W. Norton



In Why Speak?, Nathaniel Bellows debut book of poetry, I find myself wondering why the poet is calling this a book of poetry rather than a memoir stolen from an overwritten book of his musings. Bellows works take a retrospective glimpse at one’s childhood and brilliantly paints landscapes and still-life bowls of past fruits from his memory. All the while, Bellows leaves out the true emotionally wrought excitement, perk, or pull that would normally lead a reader from page to page.   


His words without a doubt are well placed within what some would call prose rather than traditional or even experimental forms of poetry. Within the second part of the book, Bellows Foaling is unfolded before the reader as a series of images rather than something that has true meaning or something with real substance:

The hay was wet with blood and something that looked like tea. In the boughs of the firs behind the barn, where the chickens roost and drop their waste on the rusted cars hood, the cock was crowing. He cries at all hours for no reason. One time he cried all night


and no one came.  The next day half the hens were gone—only feathers left in wads around the yard. …………


With a knife I shaved soap into a bucket to wash down the horses. The shavings were white like the feathers I’d found in the fields—the place the fox had gone to finish the goose. In a shaded spot beneath the trees. 

This poignant series of descriptions is nice, but that’s all. I can see feathers, I can see the foal as it’s born in other parts of this “poem” but to tell you the truth, I would rather read Black Beauty again as an adult than this. Every poem, every peek, and insight into this life is utterly boring. For a writer who has blurbs and publishing contracts through an esteemed publisher such as Norton, I have to wonder if maybe they were lacking in something “middle” American to put out for the world to fall asleep to. 


The Boston Review heralds this as collection on the back of the book as coming from a novelist who has an “ear for sturdy, rhythmic lines, writes with wide-eyed candor of both the marvelous and the grotesque,” actually it is quite the opposite. Where is this rhythm?  In the third part of the book, in the poem An Attempt there are more awkward line breaks and phrases that again read as prose, instead of the poetry promised within the pages:

            The children dragged bluefish alongside the boat having lured them with

            flies. The fish flew as they were yanked from the waves, like sparks

jumping and spoons spinning in a sink’s cloudy pool. I thought of the fish


while looking at the bird, a living jewel sullied in the garden shadows. I

thought of you. Your gift to me a capacity for sympathy, mostly because

at times I feel sorry for you.  Not in the way I feel for the fish. Or the


bird whose beauty seemed absurd the longer I watched it

The rhythm is lost among the length of the phrases, the awkward breaks, and, most of all, the subject matter. How do fish flying and spoons spinning in a dirty sink relate to one another? Maybe my imagination is wrought with a surplus of traditionalists, or the imagery of Frost, Thoreau, or even Angelou for this caged bird is one that needs to stay home. 


Perhaps, I shouldn’t be so harsh for there is a wonderful display of self-indulgent skill in this book. The length of the book says enough and his words and his command of the language are clearly not amateur. His novel, On This Day, was marvelous and full of memorable characters and scenes. But as to the poetry…I would have rather read this as a series of prose musings, maybe backstory for his memoir. Yet in this form, the question “Why speak?” simply cannot be answered in the positive, and the art of what Bellows attempted to achieve seems as lost as the answer to his symbolic question.