Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
Cities at Dawn by Geoffrey Nutter (Released by Wave Books, 2016)
In an age of excess, what better task for a poet than to figure out proper organization of images both past and present. The corral of the image is a proper analogy for the poetry found within Geoffrey Nutter’s latest book, Cities at Dawn, which is following in the great American vein of "the list poem." It was impossible for me to ignore the Whitmanesque plateaus and cascades presented in these short but punctual, defiant poems. Poems of breath and breathing. Poems that call forth the lives and lifestyles of worlds Americans urban and pastoral held dear to their souls: machinery, industry, a revolution of commerce, a modernization of a country. The counterpoint of today’s reading environment, where we sit and wonder of ghosts and histories that have been outsourced, abandoned, transitioned, or evolved, Nutter’s poems become an effective staging ground for describing, through nostalgia and romance, the realities that have passed for many.
For this life is lived in fragments, made of fragments,
remembered in fragments—even before they bring down
the retributory cudgel to smash the thing that you have made.
(from “A Pythian Ode” on page 34)
Following the pre-Anglo and Anglo traditions out of Europe and earlier Americana, we have tones and settings that are worked through with lists of image and circumstance, assertion of an understanding of the icon and the highlight. Nutter’s ability focuses to sort through the countless fragments of the archive of a country’s spirit, from the individual inhabitants whose lives are folkloric if not legendary, to the landscapes and venues of liveliness, activity, and progress. Where breaths exhaled outward were the results of (reflections of) labor and the marveling sighs of various successes. Though some interpretations might result in a somber recollection (isn’t such a morose state always the potential case with memory in general?), the poems in Cities at Dawn are reflective of the book’s title’s core symbol: the beginning stage of a congregation or gathering of people and the onset of development, when the light is first arriving to show us ourselves, and who we are, and what we amount to in this rapid (and rapacious) whirlwind of society, hub of potential.
Will they rebuild something on the far
horizon of the snows, the rusted-metal
golem of the snows? And as the choir
of the landscape sings about the beauty
of the land with the land’s voice,
and the beauty of the bare and shredded trees,
the freight car passes us, passes bridges,
headed toward the sun.
(from “Class E Ordinary Open High-Sided Wagon” on page 3)
The book progresses from the industrial to the inner worlds and closer portraits of the peoples and places of generations distinctly pre-digital--an age where, arguably, images of all the senses were more distinct and the vocabulary to describe them significantly vaster. Through this succession, the book becomes its own microcosm, its own portrait of qualities of life of the individual and the collective. Contemporary poetry, though beautiful to the original beholder (its poet-owner(s)), has the potential to fall flat in the graces of aesthetics. Nutter’s shines through the aforementioned vocabulary (sublime but subtle), situations of arousal (historic but enlivening), and the rhythm of lines upon lines opening up (visionary but not epic) through rhythm and form. These poems are the multi-angled jewels whose light is derived from the fragments Nutter calls out directly about a third of the way through the book. And their gleam, their shine, forms a successful brightness in the context of the book as a whole.
. . . The paths there
were long, and the hours pressed apace,
their permutations were disorganized
and it seemed all friends of friends
had been replaced by changelings, and we
had fallen among the smoldering embers
of our living kindred spirits, just outside
the city that was all things to all people:
superstructures leaned above the thoroughfares;
and were we living in some fool’s paradise,
and did we take apart the radio and put it back
together in reverse order, treasure up the crystal?
(from “The Harkening Knell” on page 29)
Did I ache for anything in particular while reading this book? Was there any degree of lack or disagreement? I approached Cities at Dawn rather openly, finding joy in how the pages flipped quickly, and in the stories of these poems and the lessons therein, as there are always lessons, whether from the images collected themselves, or direct and slightly didactic personas and speakers within. I saw such lofty descriptions, such intensive inspections, and imagined a book of constructions more explicit in its purpose. Reading this book with little context, as an open reader, has many joys, and the mystery within from poem to poem, where questions like “who is this person?” and “why does this object exist next to that?” abound, creates for an engaging experience. And yet, this could be an early iteration of roughly forty poems that could grow and manifest itself so much further. I know not what Nutter has in store, but I imagine a future where a Maximus-sized tome carries the worlds upon worlds of history, anthropology, and reverence for humanity Nutter truly situates as author. An edition where the the lives of the people described are suddenly described in total, together. And yet perhaps that vision is distinctly my own, and Nutter’s charms and will is driven in smaller, more manageable chunks. Such an approach would emulate my initial point in this review: that here we have a significant distillation of the image and description in a world where images and descriptions are in desperate need of distillation.
. . . Every man on a bridge
made of rag and glass is born, and some in a comet
year, some in a year of wonders, some steeped in marl for widows,
some beneath a mushroom, some beneath the vulcan furnace,
some in a garden pink-tinged with bees and amarayllis near an ornamental
fountain, some near the sea. This is where he can be everything at once, . . .
(from “Six Records of a Floating Life” on page 66)