On Cities At Dawn by Geoffrey Nutter

John Ebersole

Seattle, WA: Wave Books, 2016. 120 pages. $18.00.

Geoffrey Nutter’s poetry recalls the charm of a Wes Anderson film: so full of sculpted artifice that it manages to achieve authenticity. Nutter (as with Anderson) has a boyish reverence for retro technology, talismanic objects, field guides, bold colors, and continental manners. After reading him, buying some vintage luggage seems like a swell idea. Always charming, always too precious, the poet creates miniature kingdoms that make our lives seem dull.

Perhaps what connects Nutter to Anderson most profoundly, though, is how each juxtaposes emotional restraint with elaborately staged scenes. Where Anderson is able to sneak moments of startling earnestness into his films—think of Max Fisher announcing near the end of Rushmore that his play is dedicated to his dead mother and Edward Appleby—Nutter’s poems are colder, like figurines trapped inside a curio. In his latest book, Cities At Dawn, affect is in short supply. It’s not that Nutter doesn’t ever try to insert feeling into his poems. It’s just that when he does, you don’t feel anything—unless you consider style itself an emotion, in which case Nutter’s whimsical poems are tearjerkers (from “Cloud Iridescence”):

Balloons were drifting over the world at dawn,
air balloons, airships, weather gauges made
of weightless silver foil, children’s balloons,
globes of shimmering thought, clouds, gases,
large golden tufted spores. And down below,
the people lived their lives as ever, the misfits,
the star-crossed, the wooden proletariat,
and those just surviving off the oddments.

Geoffrey Nutter was born in California and now lives in New York City, where he teaches Greek and Latin classics in translation at Queens College and runs the Wallson Glass Poetry Seminars in New York City. Unlike most poets, he’s taught at all the right places: Princeton, Columbia, University of Iowa, NYU, and The New School. For the most part, Nutter is considered something of a throwback. His work is solidly traditional, though perhaps not in form—his poems are lush polysyllabic arrases of prose weaved into lines (he’s got a good ear though; see “startling” below). He’s old-school certainly in content and temperament: his literary resources would make an internet poet feel spanked and sent to his room, and his interest in the natural world out-hipsters hipster. He has a poem, for example, about the nineteenth-century-born botanical artist Charles Faxon, who “used to find warblers in the fall / startling them from beds of jewelweed.” It’s called “May I Join the Choir Invisible” and, like most Nutter poems, it’s as lovely as a rowboat seen through binoculars.

When he’s not pillaging The Ornithologist’s Dictionary, he’s name-dropping people you’ve never heard of, some entirely made up. He has a scathing poem called “My Name Is Dustin Hemp” (the poem relentlessly mocks the protagonist) and the only Dustin Hemp I could find was a police officer residing in Flagstaff, Arizona. Other names just sound simply made up, but turn out to be real. He has one poem not about Milton, but Milton’s friend and amanuensis, Cyriack Skinner:

Whenas in silks the Department of Reviews
and Rebukes sends you its assessments
of your late performance, implex
with invective as a stick bug in a grass ball,
and unlike the false tangents of the dream dialectic
at play beneath the surface stream,
these stun us with an aptitude for pointed
shadows, fanciful descriptions and polyphonic
narrative, the prayer book’s rainbow-colored-text—
turn the page of light to the blinding
sonnet addressed to Cyriack Skinner.

This stanza, from the poem “The Blooming of Significance,” is trademark Nutter: the bureaucratic super-title (Nutter probably volunteers to be on committees just to be on a committee), the sentence employing stream-of-consciousness (the poem’s final sentence is twenty-six lines long), the surrealist imagery, and the excess of arcane language (transcribing a Nutter poem into a Word document had me clicking “Add to Dictionary” more times than I would have liked). As the poem nears its conclusion, it seems to delight in its own drunkenness: “O, how that glittering taketh me, / toiling away under the stars. . . .”

While Nutter prefers town over the country—and finds more inspiration in the past than present—all blend together in the poet’s capacious imagination. Right when he habituates you to things like “scented pocket calendars,” “headgear of radiating spikes,” mustaches “combed out to flaming points,” and his endless parade of clocks and towers and sea cliffs, he’ll throw in a can of beer and an Elvis impersonator. The effect is both delightful and ridiculous.

One starts to feel bad that Nutter has to live with the rest of us wireless bums in the twenty-first century. The poems in Cities At Dawn are a mix of rich explication, precocious babbling, and Victorian fable: they often start in painstaking description before pivoting—usually at midpoint—into more wondrous territory. The phenomenologically titled “Why Distant Objects Please” begins with a depiction of what is possibly a Theo Jansen kinetic sculpture (known as “Strandbeest”), but then takes rhetorical flight—something the sculptures aren’t engineered to do, but Nutter is:

A wind-driven machine constructed
of myriad delicate sticks arranged
in an implex trestlework
of struts and quills and dowels
walked elegantly across the beach
on its hundreds of slender appendages,
two winglike sails revolving on its back.
If music is the universal language
then it is speaking to us silently
with mantis-like telepathy. Let us
turn from it (though not away)
with superhuman equipoise,
and otherworldly grace, toward the sea.

Nutter’s poetry, time and time again, reminds us of our slow divorce from objective reality whose physical resistance to human desire we have always relied upon for proper development. If his poetry infuriates us (and it can; it does), it’s not so much due to its confection but because it relentlessly shows us a world we never really got to know, that makes his poetry so sweet. His poems are full of things that proudly stand distinct from us (e.g., a freight car, maps, statues, steel domes, cigars, steeples, and on and on) as if to remind us that our reply to nature was once to negotiate with it, imagine into it, not replace it.

Starting in 2007, the first generation iPhone was released and the smartphone gave human character a collective software update, and the updates have never stopped. Now, with virtual reality, we can strap a bulky blindfold to our faces and leave this world altogether, but Nutter seems to say wait a second and advises otherwise:

Then let us make an observation
on some object whose attributes depend
on something hidden, and which are changing
imperceptivity—something other
than what is gathered up by the memory
and stored for later.

In other words, let’s look at something generated into existence not by a squad of digital utopians, but by forces that predate human ingenuity. The poem ends:

Over there near the dunes, and some distance
from these signs of human habitation, two human beings
are sitting in the light of the benign sun,
watching a confluence of forces
come together to produce a sunset.

For years now, Nutter has been quietly writing some of the most beautiful poems in America. Despite the fact that his poetry has the excessive (and exhaustive) quality of an acid trip, and he prefers hyper-eloquence over a more user-friendly register, his poems ultimately are not frivolous trinkets, but rather make in their totality a serious claim: our capacity to imagine is far more important than our ability to store and process information.

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