Seattle, WA: Wave Books, 2010. 85 pages. $14.00.
Thomas Merton claimed that “there is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessnes, a hidden wholeness.” Geoffrey Nutter’s poems accept this proposition, and try very hard to reveal this hidden wholeness—not by questioning the meaning of things, but by striving to see past the very stuff of the world. Such effort, of course, can be very frustrating. One can eternally strive to see the true strawberry-ness of the strawberry, but as many Zen masters have pointed out, the intellect is woefully insufficient at this task; knowing this, Nutter invites his readers to play “the way children played in this pavilion / when the saber-like grasses were green / and pointed upward, not unthinkingly, / but without having to think.” Indeed, Nutter feels that if we are to find truth in the physical world, we must seek a lucid-dreamlike state.
If the book stopped developing at this point and simply instructed readers to take a sideways step into our childhoods, we would lose interest very quickly. But the book doesn’t wallow in idealized childishness. The act of play allows Nutter to methodically disassemble and reassemble reality and in the process discover the “hidden fecundity” in all visible things. In “The Alliance,” Nutter gives us a landscape with incompatible objects compatibly sitting on a table: “two alien things / in alien dawn, somehow in alliance.” To put things next to each other that don’t belong together is Poetry 101. Nutter’s innovation is an interlocutor: the objects find “a closeness more alien than day / to the Nightwoman Onofra and her dark / apron stained cerise—Onofra . . . Onofra / Calabaza.” Who is Onofra Calabaza? It turns out, after many internet searches, that she exists nowhere but the poem—and through the use of ellipses the reader can glimpse the act of her invention. She exists much like the strawberry exists—without explanation, but with the solidity of fact.
Nutter treats imaginary things as undeniable facts throughout the book. He fully invents characters, objects, and landscapes but presents them in ways that suggest they have always existed and don’t need explanation. He often signals their sudden appearances via capitalization: we see “Trees of Unknowing”; we learn that “Christopher Sunset” is a book within the book; we watch as “the barrister turn[s] aside from the Book of Holy Unbeloved / Sunshine.” Although at first these moments are baffling, it becomes clear that Nutter is seeking a pact with his readers: he will write the poems, but we must accept them and give them life in our imaginations—as Jack Spicer says: poetry does not invent, “poetry discloses.”
Nutter’s imagination works through varied kinds of poems, but there are always obstacles that keep them from achieving their idealistic visions. The speaker of “Katherine Somerset” wants to “Reanimate the Prothalamion,” but there are “wedding columns fallen in the watercress.” In “The Opera of the Clouds,” a “graffiti-flecked seawall” stands between the speaker and the sea. Everywhere the speakers look they find litter, pollution, and post-industrial waste, bringing a central question of the book into focus: how can one skip happily through the meadows when they blossom under high-tension wires? Nutter answers: include it all, the wires, the smokestack, the particulate-ridden sunset.
Much like Walker Percy in his essay “The Loss of the Creature,” Nutter realizes that obstacles can be used to the truth seeker’s advantage. “Thanksgiving” begins: “I’ve been puzzled long enough / by modernity and its poems.” To be puzzled privileges the obsessive intellect, so the speaker looks up from the book:
And under the bridge, and nearer to me,
shards of bottles and the gravel
of the down-at-the-heels marina,
its broken-down boathouse, the gray
cinder blocks in the weeds, an overturned
boat, a length of black tubing.
From this poem’s rejection of modernism and Williams-style reporting, a koan emerges: “It’s all coming together now. / It’s the sky and the earth, resting together / in the unassuming darkness.” Nutter spends a lot of time meditating on rubbish for a pastoral poet, but his meditations boost him beyond it: he finds insights that include trash and also transcend it. Nutter’s most delightful boosts often come from his playfulness, not only from meditative revelation. “If he begins to vocalize / insult him with a gadget / or strike him with a violet,” Nutter writes in “Poem Against Winthrop,” and we see that nursery rhymes also forge pleasure from refuse.
The book ends with the tenderness at the heart of play, anchoring Nutter’s roving attempts at understanding to an optimistic vision: “Your friend, the sea, can hear us coming. / ‘I sleep,’ he seems to say, ‘but my heart is awake.’” Christopher Sunset gives its readers many reasons to read and reread, especially those readers who glory in the imagination’s ability to enrich the phenomenal world.