‘The Rose of January’ by Geoffrey Nutter
“monstrous children / bearing grown-up bodies”
In The Rose of January Geoffrey Nutter fills his soundscapes with taunting repetition and slick vines of syntax. If you are not familiar with Nutter, it is worth reading a few excerpts to get used to the poet’s observant, intelligent voice:
Here before you is the protevangelium. It was
here before you. Here is the rose fountain,
rising, terminating, instantaneous. There are
newnesses of a familiar tint—a greenish tint
of lost familiarity; there are lavender.
(from “Fireworks Display in Early Summer”)
And how long will this daughter hold her hand
to the stove in the subpassages of foundries?
How long will the air castle hover, green-shielded,
In it gargantuan curriculum?
(from “Nineteenth-Century Novel”)
As a ptarmigan lays aside its winter plumage,
lay your burden down beneath the trees,
in the cool shadow of the moss: your life
will be there still when you awaken,
like a grape-colored ribbon laid across
the tinted page of a book that you have closed.
(from “Prelude to What Comes Next”)
Elsewhere, we find phrases like “nocturnal centennial,” “the sidereal hegemony of monthliness,” “rye of futurity” and many more curious souvenirs. The subjects of his poems are less in your face than his diction and are sometimes difficult to tease out. Nutter is a lackadaisical, but intentional poet, romanced more by the petitions of language than any straightforward topic. His poems sing, but rarely about the poet’s interior life. At times, the poems come close to reflecting a world discharged of desire and self, and therefore, they behave spiritually; at other times, they appear to be governed by a deliberate lack of personal force.
Nutter gives us the kind of speaker whose absence winds up maximizing his presence. Some might claim the speaker’s vanishing act reflects a disposition of coyness, and that might very well be the case, but it also seems designed specifically to divert attention away from himself. It’s somewhat odd to see a speaker so devoted to one mode of expression at the expense of another. His consistency begins to feel compensatory, like putting all your weight on one leg because the other hurts. For instance, when he writes, “I am full of negativity/ and criticism”–a humble admission–he immediately follows with “I sleep/beside a ferbile taproot—”. He’s charmingly wayward, but also a master at deflection.
His poetry seems to exist for one reason, then – to pursue the ecstatic:
handlers and the water lobsters in the brine,
the foyer painted black with golden leaves
of rococo design; the lilies and the sea-waves
come; they come, they come to us…
(from “Purple Martin”)
…glory-of-the-snow, and in
the intervening years, turnips
tall as houses, swarms of venomous
frogs, monstrous children
bearing grown-up bodies;
under the eel-colored sky
a great sheaf of orange fungus
blooms atop a fallen log.
(from “The Rose of Sharon”)
…and as the sun went down he carried
his basket of rainbow-colored people
of the finny tribe back toward
his shack, which stood like a good-sized plug
of shag tobacco in a stand of trees…
(from “Mountain Man”)
In moments where the poet does attempt to reveal something intimate in a sustained way, he becomes openly timid, which can be a welcome reprieve from his austerity, a kind inadvertent admission. For example, here is the full text (interrupted) of “Rapprochement”:
I awoke as from a dream. And I rose
near dawn, boiled and drank the blood-colored tea
sweetened with berries and wild honey,
and started to compose a lengthy list
of all of the day’s necessary tasks:
a visit to the aluminum mills;
a meeting with one Solomon Mighty;
an appointment by the tall yellow gates
on the Street of the Hyacinth of Waters—
it all somehow added up to a day,
at least on paper. And as I walked out
and down a path that bordered the forest
a wind came and blew this list from my hands.
So having passed the lapis lazuli–
plated fountains and the octahedral
towers that receded to a blue prospect,
and having arrived at the green-black trees,
I decided to cut through the forest;
and having entered I could hear, just barely,
the thumping fulling hammers of the mills
of the waking city in the distance.
The primrose, amaranthus, violet
and balm; the marigold and cornflower
trembled in the zephyr. Honeysuckle
in profusion, the yellow-green vine grass
intertwined with stems of blinking daisies,
mushrooms in the deep shade of the saplings
swelling, white-yellow, with the liquor of the dew,
so unaccountable to pantheists
seconded and blessed, the blue diurnal
water monarch and the water anarch.
And pretty soon I came to a clearing.
It was a glade, cool, green, lambent shadows
sweeping, fan-like, over lichen-covered
boulders strewn about a half-collapsed berm
with reddish vines and wide leaves of burdock,
These first 35 lines demonstrate, among other things, Nutter’s ceaseless affair with fauna. He swoons like Hölderlin, whose influence is palpable everywhere, cooling his eyes on silver poplars. Yet something odd will happen when Nutter mentions a single word: house. Here, we can pinpoint the exact moment when the plain vernacular, an utterance foreign to Nutter, fights to humanize the speaker. It is that remarkable instance when the object of language and the person crafting it are contesting one another, shiftinesss in tone foreshadowed as the “wind came down and blew this list from [his] hands”–a list he’d been gripping in every poem in the book. With the list gone, the speaker decides to “cut through the forest,”:
like the ruined foundation of a house
that had been washed away in a great flood
or burned to the ground in an ancient fire.
This seemed to be the perfect place to sleep.
And as I walked toward the sunlit clearing
I noticed, half-reclining in the grass,
my mother and father, a small child
playing near them in the overgrown grass.
The two were newlyweds, apparently,
young and carefree, seemingly much in love,
laughing and enjoying their small child.
They had wine and bread and green plums spread out
on the blanket where the child had gathered
a pile of polished pebbles from a stream.
They asked me to join them. I accepted,
though I knew, in some vague and quiet way,
that I had to be elsewhere, and I noticed
the rusted weather-vane standing in the grass
tied with red strips of fluttering ribbon,
and scraps of red cloth fluttering in the trees.
It was strange to think that these three people
had been here since long before I arrived,
like the trees and rocks, the stream and sunlight,
like the house that once but no longer stood,
and as I sat down to join this family
the clouds rose in great vertical towers
behind the trees as if a fire burned
uncontrolled in a faraway city.
And they were not unkind to me, only
so very involved with one another,
fascinated by and in love with the child.
And of course they didn’t recognize me,
my young father, shirtless and reclining,
nonchalant and smiling in the sunlight,
my mother, slim as a willow, her hair
tied up loosely in a light blue kerchief;
both laughing and younger than the May leaves.
And me, feeling lazy and safe, a stranger
getting groggy in the afternoon heat.
I fell asleep. And later when I woke
to the sound of crickets after what seemed
like a lifetime of slumber they were gone.
This last section of the poem is helpful to understanding Nutter. When he destabilizes, he regresses. When he cuts loose of the luxurious language, presses STOP on his Zen/Heidegger mix-tape, he sounds frightened and removed, like a child asked to recall a trauma. Suddenly, he’s no longer basking in floriography, but laboring, as he drags not his usual airy repertoire of language into the poem, but rough and heavy things like rusted weather-vanes and trees and rocks and towers. The more private he gets, the less flamboyant he is, and the more unnerved he becomes. That actually makes the passage somewhat exciting as he progresses into his touching (and surprisingly innocent) flashback scene; the last three lines are right out of a children’s book, revealing innocence and frailty from an otherwise passionate, but impersonal voice. The appeal of Nutter’s poems lies in their freedom to reach back and forth through time, snatching one exotic word after another, not so much to construct arguments, but to delight. In other poets this would be taxing, with Nutter, the effect is often peaceful–even if we’d like even more to coax him out of the dark.