The Living Method, by Sara Nicholson. Brooklyn, New York: The Song Cave. 92 pages. $17.95, paper.
The cover of The Living Method is reminiscent of that painting, “Vertumnus,” by Guiseppe Arcimboldo, (ca. 1590)—so reminiscent that, save for its red monochromatic color scheme, it’s a close replica of the original. Fertility, this image expresses (as the original does), with all its grape lips and hair and potato cheeks, and yet, the redness transforms the image again—screams blood and fire and anger and love—a fitting cover for a collection whose poems seek to reconstruct nature as it is (not as it seems) with unusual riggings.
Indeed, Nicholson’s four-sectioned book (presumably for the four seasons?) is an awe-inspiring quest into what language can do. In “Residence,” she plays a kind of controlled syntactical game with the various technical jargon of cartography, math, chemistry, and language:
She who does not accept the world
may build no house in it. A winter thinks
of eating a house. Houses
come as they ought to.
The house will be what it is not—a song—
a song is not like a house but it could be.
We must not think of ourselves as inhabitants
but as workers who descend
who will wait without fluency for the water
that does not answer us, for the water
that does not build along with us.
“Residence,” parts meditative, lyrical, and surreal, proceeds with a series of implicit inquiries. Here, Nicholson pursues the concept of “residence” through aphorism into the nature of winter, its relationship to the one who builds a home, the simultaneity of “water” (a lyrical formulation whose magic lies less in its sense than its sound), and the overall “whole” that these fragmentary images and ideas constitute. With this exploration of the metaphysical—“fluency for the water”—Nicholson seems to make the argument/inquiry that order lies in disorder and that linguistic experimentation may bring us closer to who we are (a modernist sentiment that Gertrude Stein would have certainly fist-pumped to).
Like Stein’s Tender Buttons, there’s considerable range in the kind of experimentation Nicholson engages in, and also a steady focus on the natural environment—on trees, birds, mountains, stars, and the like. But Nicholson’s poems also focus on the nature of language as its object—how it defines our experience. For example, this excerpt from “Everests”:
I know the grammar compels us,
a grimoire of sound—the sounds the letters make.
I know that if the continent turns outward,
timber will be internalized for us,
carried into literature and an image that is erected
in the action—arctic, antarctic—of the eyes.
It is one note that drifts inside the snow,
absolute value that shatters the poem for us.
The plural of this mountain
singularized by winter.
Those last four lines buzz with elated semantic inquiry. “It is one note that drifts inside the snow”—that “note” indescribable because “absolute value” doesn’t quite do it, “singularizing it” when it is actually “plural.” Yet Nicholson’s effort to find the objective correlative sings through.
There are moments, however, when Nicholson’s book briefly devolves into unsatisfying and “talky” argument about the “need” for metaphysical inquiry, such as with “Trakl Was Sleeping”:
Lockets of air obscured by trees.
Nothing in a landscape is consistent.
Vegetation does not expose itself, it lies down
and waits to be translated
into telescopic wind.
A plant lets us look inside the air,
gives meaning to it.
So I begin with consistency, trees.
Unsatisfying, this, because it doesn’t work beyond the meditative. Nonetheless, it does offer another dimension to the book (as a statement about the poet George Trakl and his methods), even if not completely successful on its own.
Nicholson’s best poems in this collection succeed when they reenact a familiar experience using unfamiliar tools. Consider “Vanishing Point”:
When with nocturnal ropes
we bind the duplicates of nature—
trees composing, suns decomposing.
When evening reveals beneath us
its identical stone.
When foliage drones beside us
and the identity of oak is darker,
more rhythmic, and the blood reveals
itself in an organization
of secular light. Only then will
the tree not gild our throats, but reach
out to us with a knife.
It will write its name—
no longer predator, no longer prey,
but a poet, like us, mixing ink
in the furious hyperion of cells.
The momentum of this poem, given by its anaphoric refrains, earns that strange final invocation of Greek myth—“hyperion of cells”—in the midst of a poem that describes the interrelatedness of things (“trees composing, suns decomposing). Myth, then, is at the heart of Nicholson’s collection. But not just myth—also mythic thinking—a kind of chemical working out of the relationships between things in a way that ignites, somehow, a sense of reality. As T.S. Eliot wrote in his essay, “Metaphysical Poets”: “When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary.”
Most certainly, little of the The Living Method is the latter; her collection reveals a dexterity and sleight of hand that is controlled but never stale—one has the sense that there is always something new about to materialize from the absolutely exciting wilderness of Nicholson’s mind. And this is just the first book we’ve seen.
Sarah Katz writes poetry, book reviews, and short fiction. She studies poetry in the MFA program at American University in Washington, DC, reads poetry for Folio, and works as Publications Assistant for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), where she reads and edits essay submissions to The Writers Chronicle. Her work has been published in Ploughshares, jmww, Deaf Lit Extravaganza, and others. She lives in Fairfax, Virginia, with her husband, Jonathan.