The Life and Opinions of Nels A. Nelson

Listen in while I talk to myself

Let it be extravagant!

I was listening to the Poetry Foundation’s podcast, Poetry Off the Shelf, on my drive to work today, and heard this poem, by Jane Kenyon, read. The last sentence is just so lovely in the middle of our dark and dormant season.


Taking Down the Tree

By Jane Kenyon

“Give me some light!” cries Hamlet’s
uncle midway through the murder
of Gonzago. “Light! Light!” cry scattering
courtesans. Here, as in Denmark,
it’s dark at four, and even the moon
shines with only half a heart.

The ornaments go down into the box:
the silver spaniel, My Darling
on its collar, from Mother’s childhood
in Illinois; the balsa jumping jack
my brother and I fought over,
pulling limb from limb. Mother
drew it together again with thread
while I watched, feeling depraved
at the age of ten.

With something more than caution
I handle them, and the lights, with their
tin star-shaped reflectors, brought along
from house to house, their pasteboard
toy suitcases increasingly flimsy.
Tick, tick, the desiccated needles drop.

By suppertime all that remains is the scent
of balsam fir. If it’s darkness
we’re having, let it be extravagant.

Sitting I sittingly on my ass in chair with cushion
sit and as I sit, wait with nothing coming I wait,
but I rest and restfully seated the time,
a time will come,
then choose to:

1. Go
2. Indecide
3. Reseat my ass in chair with cushion

A chair, a cushion, a me,
potential relationships stacked with realized relationships;
our planes like meanings go on forever.
Geometrically intersectingly significant.
If not parallel, then meeting.

Beguiled, or Charmed, I’m Sure

(Note to self: I had these saved on a now-crashed hard-drive, so they weren’t really saved, except they were in that I had a hard copy, which is as it should be, but, at any rate, I’ll put one up here, from time to time, for posterity and et whatevera. All are in-progress.)

she turns a wrist
like a head

like a phrase
or a table

like a wrist
one quarter, one

half of a revolution

like my head
like my attention

Some noted, quoted things, in whatever order.

“Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.” …Gustave Flaubert

“Prose is a man walking. Poetry is a man dancing.” …Paul Valery

“Whatever I have to do has not yet begun.” …W.S. Merwin

“you can’t you can never be sure/you die without knowing/whether anything you wrote was any good/if you have to be sure don’t write” … W.S. Merwin

“We are all worms, but I do believe that I am a glow-worm.” … Winston Churchill

“Digression – a movement away from the gradus, or upward escalation, of the argument – is sometimes the only way to be thorough, and footnotes are the only form of graphic digression sanctioned by centuries of typesetters. And yet the MLA Style Sheet I owned in college warned against lengthy, “essay like” footnotes. Are they nuts?” … Nicholson Baker

“Words are all we have.” … Samuel Beckett

“Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; – they are the life, the soul of reading.” … Laurence Sterne

“God may reduce you/on Judgment Day/to tears of shame,/reciting by heart/the poems you would/have written, had/your life been good.” … W.H. Auden

“You got a song, man, sing it./You got a bell, man, ring it.” … Robert Creeley

“There’s a time for reciting poems and a time for fists.” … Roberto Bolano

“…I need never go on another TV or radio show and find that, however the discussion was described beforehand, what we’re really meant to talk about is how poetry is dead, or the novel is rubbish, or the short story is irrelevant. Fuck that, quite frankly. Really. Fuck that with vigour and from a strange direction…” … A.L. Kennedy

“I stopped three feet from the top/of Everest. Fuck it, I’m not going/a single inch farther.” … James Harrison

“When we are young, the words are scattered all around us. As they are assembled by experience, so also are we, sentence by sentence, until the story takes shape.” … Louise Erdrich

“Like a tear falling in a field of snow…” … Frederick Seidel

“You fit into me/like a hook into an eye//a fish hook/an open eye” … Margaret Atwood

(now the ears of my ears are awake and/the eyes of my eyes are opened) … E.E. Cummings

“And poetry’s not there for information.” … W.S. Merwin

“As any poet can tell you, one often sees better with eyes closed than with eyes open.” … Charles Simic

“…We’re tied to the mast of these huge crazy ships, ploughing into dark, icy seas, and our only recourse is an occasional change of hat…” … from The Paris Review blog, 11 March 2011

“Let him that stealeth a Book from this Library, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with Palsy, and all his Members blasted. Let him languish in Pain, crying aloud for Mercy and let there be no surcease to his Agony till he sink in Dissolution. Let Booksworms gnaw his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, and when at last he goeth to his final Punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him for ever and aye!” … Curse Against Book Stealers, Monastery of San Pedro, Barcelona

“Some people – and I am one of them – hate happy ends. We feel cheated. Harm is the norm. Doom should not jam.” … Vladimir Nabakov

“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” … Andre Gide

“your life is your life./know it while you have it./you are marvelous/the gods wait to delight/in you.” … Charles Bukowski

“The unit of wine is the cup. Of LOVE, the unit is the kiss. That’s here./In Hell, the units are the gallon and the fuck. In Paradise, the drop and the glance.” … Anthony Madrid

“I got a tattoo of God. You can’t see it/but it’s everywhere. If I seem out of it,/do the math. I was put on earth.” … Michael Robbins

“…the man fitted to his job like a man to the exact pocket of space he displaces.” … David Foster Wallace

“A work of art offers a paradoxical liberation: it is something that changes everything while being perfectly useless in any ordinary sense…no one gains social status from knowing or ‘owning’ a poem. Art’s role in the contemporary world may well be precisely to be un-useful, to reveal the importance of uselessness in our lives.” … Jane Hirshfield

I Need a Step-Mother Tongue

The last two books I’ve read are Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife and Aleksandar Hemon’s Love and Obstacles. After I finished Love and Obstacles, I realized that both authors, coincidental to my reading their work, are 1) from the former Yugoslavia (Hemon is from Sarajevo, Obreht is from Belgrade), 2) both works deal with, in whole or in part, the war that resulted in the break-up of Yugoslavia into its component parts, and that both wrote beautifully done books in a language that is not their first.

I’ve felt like a writer since I was in the third grade, when I wrote a story about monsters for a class contest that I was pretty proud of (even though a totally flaccid hack who dealt in cliches and banalities was given the class prize). I wish I had that story so that I could go back to it like a talisman and coax some wordly magic out of it. But anyway, now and many years later, the vocation is still calling, has always been calling, but I can’t understand its mysterious voice. And that’s it. That is just it. Viola! The oh-shit realization that will end a lifetime of frustrated attempts and non-attempts and fits and starts and failures: I’m writing in the wrong language. English, the only language I have, is no good for me. I need to acquire a second language, and then this writing gig will take off. Do I reverse course on Obreht and Hemon (and other Slavs for whom English was not their first language – Nabokov and Conrad), and learn and write in a Slavic language? Maybe I’m naturally inclined towards expression via the Cyrillic alphabet?

Морам да се на посао.

Seeing New Things Seeing Things New

I wanted to go because it’s like going to a church but where I can believe and accept the service because it’s all about the expression and the search and the beauty of humans grasping and reaching. Like a library like a bookstore it is a perfect place. L wanted to go to get a better look at a few works that she saw briefly on a quick stop there a week or so ago, specifically At the Moulin Rouge, The Drinkers, and America Windows. So, this past Sunday, we visited the Art Institute in Chicago.

When we got back to the Chagall windows, a work I’ve seen any number of times, I’d never noticed something that my wife pointed out to me – that if you look hard and up-close at parts of the work, especially where red and blue glass are next to one another, the red glass seems to pop out of the work, floats out in 3D fashion. It’s so very cool to see something new in a work of art I’ve looked at a lot in the past. Seeing something new is the answer to how-come question of why I can never visit too many times. Even the permanent collection is never exhausted. I’m so grateful to my wife for showing me this!

I got some new favorites to add to my list of favorites in their collection, especially these three portraits by William Bonnell in the American Folk Art gallery, this sculpture by Lee Bontecou, The Collectors by David Hockney, and the paintings of Gerhard Richter.

After writing, visual arts appeal to me the strongest w/r/t how we express whatever it is we feel needs expression. What is it about something, mostly something static, often something made many years and many-many years ago, that reaches into my mind and starts throwing switches? Take the Bonnell portraits. Until yesterday’s visit, I didn’t know him, had never seen his work; the portraits were tucked into a pretty small gallery that included, along with some paintings, some examples of carpentry and wood-working and furniture-making. Maybe it’s the caricature-like quality? The heads are outsized for the bodies they rest upon, and each subject’s eyes are too big in his big head, giving the portraits a modern feel, something ironic and cartoon-ish. Bonnell painted these in 1825, well before the period of hipster irony, and so I doubt that he intended them to be funny or unflattering. And I like them despite and because of their off-ness, their serious amateur quality. Were all resources unlimited, I’d love to have one of these hanging in my home, and not because they’re funny though they are unintentionally funny, but because I’d like to look at them more closely and more often, because there is something beautiful in them.

This was my first trip to the new wing (new as of 2009) of the museum, and I don’t remember ever seeing the sculpture by Lee Bontecou before. The construction of it, canvas and burlap stretched over and onto a wire frame, sort of like a canvas and copper-wire translation of a stained glass work, is very tactile and because the canvas is worn and thin and in shades of brown/tan, it seems very earth-bound and man-made, and all that works out to the void in the middle (the inside is lined with black velvet so just blank and unreflective) and I stood there in front of it, staring into the void she made for us to look into, and while knowing that the artist Lee Bontecou constructed this void, that it was a finite, artificial thing, the effect, on me, was a controlled stare into a real void. I looked into the black and there was nothing there and something there. It was a finite artificial thing and I know this and when I looked into it I couldn’t help feeling, “Whoa.” And that’s art. The whoa. The what the fuck?

So here’s to everyone who has something to say and says it, who has something to show and shows it. To quote Robert Creeley, “You got a song, man, sing it./You got a bell, man, ring it.” (from “Old Story: from the Diary of Francis Kilvert“, in the book, On Earth)