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Home > Book Reviews > A.L. Nielsen–”A Brand New Beggar”–Open Tuning Poetry

A.L. Nielsen–”A Brand New Beggar”–Open Tuning Poetry

A.L. Nielsen’s new book is praised by Evie Shockley in one of the blurbs on the back cover, for the fireworks lit under its language, and the way in which it stitches together places, people, and moments.  Stitching al those things together is actually, in Nielsen’s case, like playing series of chords (with riffing and variation) on a (blues) guitar; only he uses an interesting and quite hard to master technique—open tuning.
“Seven Series,” for instance, is a poem that illustrates Nielsen’s preoccupation with seriality (whence the recurrent motifs of trains, train sets, traveling, slide-shows, etc, and whatever involves sequences or cycles or reformulations), which relates him to Spicer, but it would be a mistake to make of that a pervasive feature, as Nielson is actually related to so many and to nobody in particular.  (Apropos of Spicer, though, “Hidden Lake” is a funny but convoluted reprise of “Concord Hymn.”)  The first one of the seven series stands proof—“An end to all this// Eschatology”—a distich which, pardon my punning, should indeed make history.  Or is, in any way, an opening that promises a lot.  Nielsen chooses ‘not to deliver’ though, and so, what follows sounds (not like Spicer but) more like a sequence of Koch’s blandest surreal (yet metropolitan) jokes—“I have/ To hurry// Here// They close/ The dictionaries/ At seven” (5th series)—and after trying to compensate for the lightness with a ‘hard surrealist’ totally puzzling 6th series, the last one, like a Dadaist farce, confirms the closing of dictionaries “at seven”: the 7th series contains no words.
Many other ‘jokes’ in the book are actually much more relevant than that, such as “41” which is a “series” of mass media and political and everyday clichés in a crescendo where totally probable absurdities (“Continuous/ Breaking developments,” “We ran a touchdown/ And the enemy didn’t show up”) lead to a black humor cynicism that would make Frederick Seidel jealous: “We get more punch per bomb// A struggle to the last child.”
“Higher Math”—higher because it’s about wild geese flying up in the sky, and math because the shape of the flocks is equated with the greater/lesser than symbol in mathematics—describes the phases of a contest between the hunter and his game which reminds one of Charles Simic’s mathematical symbolisms of crows in winter, only now (depleted of the visionary tone and) humorously remixed by a laconic Billy Collins.  Still, Nielsen manages to compress there both ecological concerns and a subtle ars poetica—“I wait unlicensed/ In the caesura of their seasons/ Scrawling with my shotgun in mid-mud.”
After a number of such poems the reader realizes that there are apparently two poets taking turns in this collection (both of them versatile and alluding to quite a deal of contemporary writers, as already stated), one that writes song-like (and most of the times deceitfully) light poems, and another one that specializes in hard to follow, contorted syntax, nagging indeterminacy, and non sequiturs.  The former’s palette ranges from idiosyncratic limericks, “A is for an/ Other/ Part of our/ Name a/ Part…[etc]” (“Anna”), to emphatic blues poems, “Really doesn’t matter/ How hard I sing/ Night still/ Removes everything”) (“Small Song”), to political critique and creed, “Word arrives that Jesse Helms has died/ Tolson’s Africa shakes off a fly” (section IV, the best in the book), and the oracular (and therefore, political) poetry of place “There’s no/ Their there” (section II).  The ‘other poet’ often places his pieces right next to the first, letting the reader decide which poem is a make-up for which, as for instance, right before the above quoted “Small Song”, “Rivers” (meant to also be read as “reverse”?) deals with the same theme, only in a more complicated unnecessarily philosophical (and thus facile) way—“An idea/ Pitched in the rest//Taken up by the rest/ Rests.”  Compare the two finales, “The finite work of morning/ Refrains// Evening/ The score,” and “Really doesn’t matter/ What I might will/ Night/ Still.”
Nielsen sometimes acknowledges the ambivalence (“I hear voices/ From the other’s side/ As if someone wore/ Reading a Poem” (my emphasis)—he puns in a poem involving an ingenious typographical word-play, “Silence of the Iambs,” where the sparse irregular iambs are themselves the silenced… lambs), but the ‘less likable’ ‘other’ breaks loose in the last (and weakest) section, where he over-insists on the trite figure of the slide-show as disparate and sometimes painful or nostalgic memories.  When the jumbled enjambments and rumbling syntax seem to find a way of cohabitation and signification in “Zoo Slide,” the poet drops them altogether and switches to end stops and romance.  Still, the poem concluding the section and the book is an excellent one (and like most of the best poems, an instance of collaboration between the ‘two writers’ in the collection), a blues of strong rhythms, unexpected phrase turns, both sudden rhymes/puns and remote echoes fusing the personal and the political, “This suitcase intends/ A world/ Broke at the clasp/ Grasp// World gone wrong// […] These unintended/ Blues stones/ In my passway/ Cinders rasp/ In my draw/ Rail against the night/ Smokestacks steel strings/ Open tuning…”
Still, the book’s major contribution is its poetry of place.  In section II, “From Kansas,” which is actually just a short preview, and then in the full-throttle section IV, “From Ghana,” Nielsen writes an intriguing, both alluring and aloof, mysterious one-of-a-kind poetry of locality.  The complexity and immensity of a place and culture are made palpable not by erotic immersion or elated enumerations, but by what we gradually sense is being left out—as well as by the speaker’s own puzzlement and wonder.  Yet it is not primarily ellipsis that does the trick in these laconic poems, but the always fresh eye of the observer, and the refusal to categorize or generalize (mainly manifest in the amazing capacity to shift and turn and [still] be inclusive within draconic brevity).  These are poems in which the tools of imagist poetry are used to the opposite ends. As (perhaps) post-post-colonial poetry, such verse not only refuses the stance of the western colonist/traveler/tourist/orientalist, but, without professing the old news of postmodernist disenchantment, does not even consider the option (as it is strongly skeptical of the actual possibility) of description (while being, among other things, once in a while descriptive as well).  The result is a sequence of multifaceted puzzle pieces for us to (re)arrange and approximate the mystery(ies) of both the place and the speaker, and thus participate in the incomprehensible experience of being a contemporary inter-cultural person interacting on different levels with a certain place of wondrous culture and landscape marked by political injustice and tragic history/ies.  Just like in open tuning (a figure so relevantly employed by the poet in the above quoted blues), Nielsen does not bother to ‘fret’ the strings of the reality he encounters, but (apparently) plays them as they come, and the strong effect results from the order, frequency, and rhythm in which he chooses to pick or strike them.
Gratitude for such wary
Signage as
Sings to me
Each morning
Such as this
Muddy Waters pouring
From seaside speakers
Sounding
Homecoming baptism
The echoes—sing/sign—of the speaker’s personal cultural background present on the public globalized speakers’ playlist represent signage for him to get back home every morning, but (the “gratitude” for) such experience is best expressed by an oxymoron—“homecoming baptism.”  Certain layers of American culture here (the icon of Muddy Waters but also the more recent blues and pop hits with lyrics celebrating being baptized in muddy water) gain unexpected relevance as the speaker, in Ghana, is baptized in the muddy water of his true “home,” African(-American) culture and literature which he has studied and celebrated for decades.
In dialoging with or evoking other major rock culture figures, the poet seems to almost forget about the place he’s supposed to ‘tell us about.’  In a poem referencing “[Frank]” he writes, “The/ Mothers// Of necessity// Sang// Kansas/ Kansas/ do-do-dun to-to// It was/ For them/ An invention,” being as ironic at Zappa just as the latter once was at everybody, but at the same time giving him credit as a major artist (of the ‘necessary’ proportion).  Moreover, the doo wop refrain, if heard as forms of the verb to do, unexpectedly renders the language, the politics (necessary and of “necessity”), and the politics of language… of Kansas (and not only).
Other times, the reader has more dots to connect as (in alluding to Nkrumah’s biography for instance or) in the poem concluding “From Ghana,” where the actor Omar Epps (who, we are not told, but presumably know, starred in Deadly Voyage, playing the part of a sole survivor of a group of stowaways from Ghana) introduces himself to the speaker “in the market” (‘here’, ‘there’?, what difference would it make?) and is “Surprised/ As I am/ To find himself/ Talking to Elvis” (my emphasis).  What we have here in the ways the poet references rock culture is a (long awaited) brilliant sequel to David Wojahn’s rock and roll sonnets (since, after all, both Wojahn and Nielsen share an interest in “mystery,” as well as in… all sorts of “trains”), while also bringing such a different approach and perspective.  And, at last (in the poetry trying to speak of place and history and identities by manipulating symbols of popular music and culture), such a different purpose.
[A.L. Nielsen. A Brand New Beggar. Bolder, CO, and Normal, IL: Steerage Press, 2013]
—MARGENTO
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