‘Aim at the Centaur Stealing Your Wife’ by Jennifer Nelson
“my task is to wait in the rear with our sign”
I remember an evening shortly after the Women’s March when my uncle posted a clip of Madonna’s speech in DC on Facebook, arguing “if you’re going to say something, say it with class.” I tried to tell him that if he looked at the whole of Madonna’s speech, he’d see that he’d decontextualized her language to make it seem that she wanted to blow up the white house, when in fact she went on to describe the shortcoming of her anger, ending her speech with a reference to Auden on the eve of WWII. But when I pointed this out, I was met with his refusal to acknowledge the whole of Madonna’s vision. My uncle’s friend chimed in to say that he would be ashamed of raising a daughter who spoke like Madonna.
It is this act of refusal that Jennifer Nelson attends to in her poems, and in many ways I think her speaker serves as a model for those young girls told by their father not to speak their minds. It’s nothing new to look at art not as an escape, but as a means of of understanding one’s reality and the variety of human experience and presence. When one needs to make this argument, as I have in recent months, one may look to Aim at the Centaur Stealing Your Wife as a source text.
We follow the speaker from her home in Jackson Heights to a church in Germany, to Wall Street, and elsewhere. Along the way, the poems slip into explicit investigation of artworks corresponding to the book’s six sections: Niccolò Paganini’s Variations on a Theme of Rossini’s Moses in Egypt; Angela Gheorghiu’s Casta Diva as Heard in the Films of Wong Kar Wai; Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism. In the Capricci and Scherzi di Fantasia of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, the poem “The Birth of Fantasia” invites us to study, alongside the speaker, the way Tiepolo thought about a person—a pregnant hermaphrodite—and his aesthetic decision to draw out the surrounding figures (a serpent, an owl, a collection of skulls). But at the end of the poem, the speaker invites us to linger on his process, revealing his fascination with the shift in focus from the whole of the picture to the person within it. Here it is in its entirety:
The Birth of Fantasia
the other apprentice is boy and pregnant by
since the snake rose from its urn our master
hasn’t chanted for years but waits
spreading his lap his face
drooling and dark
as when someone wants something the jaw
forgets his jaw forgets his desire
tilts his pose it
illustrates the perfect
orthogonal of his time
without expected torque its
torpor stops torque
and still the snake rises
Master has forgotten he waits for the infant
born of one fertile
He’s obsessed with his owl
walking in alchemy
of skulls and codex and battle-flagged trumpet
my task is to wait in the rear with our sign
the true living snake
beside the Chaldaean
which is real though another
Tiepolo appears where Fantasia ends
on the bottom
this game of Fantasia
for fragments of a frieze he found
the more he reconstructed it the more
the outlines wouldn’t fit
he etched them apart
the original frieze showed a famous surrender
the noblest surrender
one bent neck
This poem follows “The Shrine of the Later Sibyl” in which Amiri Baraka appears, speaking. Nelson teaches us what ekphrastic poems can do, honoring the artist as much by inhabiting their world as by responding to it. The resulting relationship is beautiful, to me, as a correspondence across historical as well as spatial time; they exist as correspondence between [poet and artist] and [poet/artist and reader].
In the section-long poem “The Beauty Mark is Infinitely Deep,” the speaker stitches social interactions with moments of isolation, referencing poets from Stevens to Copp to ultimately declare “[d]o not fear my boundless pleasure.” This is why I find it such a necessary collection to turn to when I doubt my own ability to persuade a person such as my uncle to reconsider his stance on Madonna’s language as transient thinking rather than static. Nelson’s work is so useful to me because her poems gently render a fierce advocacy for the variety and validity of human existences across time.
In “Occupy Wall Street” we are shown a Brueghel painting of laborers in a landscape spanning six different seasons; the speaker begins by teaching us “[c]ontrary to popular scholarly views / of landscape, you don’t / own what you see, nor does it own you.” Building upon this argument, she tells us that Brueghel draws, in form and aesthetic, on a painting of “drunks / and other fornicators” by Bosch, asking us to listen to the sounds the workers in Brueghel’s painting make, to see them squatting in a landscape they have been placed in. Through her rigor and attentive ekphrasis, we apprehend the significance of the now-historical Occupy movement. The poem ends late at night, in the speaker’s bedroom, where she is alone with satellites, acknowledging that the work she has done and will do to make sense of art—to teach us about 16th-century landscape painting—is empowering.
Thus, as much as this collection slips in and out of artwork, it slips in and out of the speaker’s present reality. Nelson, as I know her, is a rigorous poet, art historian, runner, baker of scones, and lover of life. All of her different sensibilities (save perhaps her baking skills) are present in her collection, which is why I find its necessity both timely and timeless. This is what makes her debut collection so essential, whether or not we read it as a precursor to her highly anticipated, prize-winning second book, Civilization Makes Me Lonely. Her work teaches me that survival is a balance of rigorous attendance to my own preoccupations and emergence from them frequently to invite others—even resistant folks—to come play.