by Nate Pritts
Cooper Dillon Books 2009
Reviewed by Steven Karl
“this rigid world”
What to make of Nate Pritts’ The Wonderfull Yeare? The book is unabashedly informed by Romance poetics, especially the pastoral, yet the collection feels completely modern. The Wonderfull Yeare is divided into sections that mirror a shepherd’s calendar; appropriately, its shepherd suffers a terminal detachment from the very landscape in which he plants his feet. The book starts with a Spring Psalter. “ Tulips- An invocation” begins, “Every year it’s the same damn thing, / a constant red ache.” Thus our psalm for spring begins with an invocation, which nods to Plath’s wiry angst. Later in the poem, Pritts writes:
if my heart had knees those knees would fold.
A flimsy curtain separates Memory from
Imagination. Do I remember a better life than this?
Here we find a shepherd, tasked with the caretaking of both sheep and land, yet is a little lost in the care-taking of self. The “flimsy curtain” hangs throughout the poems, sometimes casting shadows of doubt upon the life being lived, always dividing our speaker from his landscape. It is this tension between the exterior duties and the interior questions collapsing into one that makes this book such a success. Pritts sculpts coteries of words that add and subtract in images and idea, balances limned in the space between action and imagination, which might be called the space of wisdom. From “Spring Psalter,”
Darling, I leave you the forever unblooming
twig half-sunk in spring mud & the Nature that allows
such delicate & lasting atrocity.
Darling, darling, darling: my voice is a branch that would reach.
“Darling,” becomes the hinge-word for supplication. Later in this long poem we get, “Sunlight through branch-bone, the cool of night & pink.” The price of accessing beauty is possessing knowledge of the extent to which beauty does not consider you in turn:
& the landscape doesn’t care about me at all. Fifteen ants
just beyond my backyard fence…
Is there a better life than this?
… so many elements
of this landscape don’t care about me at all. Fifteen ants
crawl all over the mint plant…
As reader we are drawn into the season, the near-comic expression of the shepherd’s lament, the atrocity that life blooms and continues. The ants continue to work, the mint grows, the poet needs nature, but nature doesn’t need the poet. Closer to the end of this cycle he writes, “It was the spring of getting-by, of starting up, purged bodies/ transient, changing, always holding on & then the summer & then…” “Darling, I leave you the forever unblooming/ Darling, even in this are indicative things. Proclaim with me, /”
Although the “darling” never blooms, the speaker tinged with melancholy clings and invites, even invokes her. The hope is that she will “proclaim” a way in which two voices can be combined in melody, ushered into the world, and in their song, become as elemental and transcendent as any portion of nature. Insistently, the shepherd looks for a space to join in the “constant” ebb that is the seasons and cycle of life.
The second cycle is “Endless Summer.” If Spring Psalter found Pritts channeling John Clare’s alienated and unstable self via the language of the Romantics, then the second cycle propels Pritts into the verve of rock n roll angst. “Endless Summer” begins,
It was the summer I fucked up the summer fucked up me
fucked up a fuck-up in the summer & I spent time laying under stars
too much time I wasted the stars…
If “darling” was a form of supplication in the first section, then fuck (& it variations) begins the heart’s riot in the second. Through the use of serial prose poems, Pritts manages to beautifully capture disappointments and failures.
Pritts is one of several contemporary poets, among them Lynn Xu and Laynie Brown, writing some of the most compelling sonnets of our generation. He shows off his chops in the next section, “(sonnets for the fall),” which consists of fourteen sonnets:
& me & you naming everything
all those complications growing darker
the last fall leaves
Here we find the two again in unison in the act of naming— a necessity to partake in creation and in the intimacy of personal language. Naming is a way of interacting with and understanding nature, if only a self-satisfying way:
the whole world brand new again
chill in the air & it’s making me
one cloud this one bird
darker gaps against
& me slipping
The world continues to recreate itself, “brand new again.” He slips from himself, perhaps achieving transcendence — losing a separatist notion of “identity” and becoming a part of the natural landscape. Yet darkness remains a gap, and the speaker struggles to watch the world begin again. Perhaps he isn’t transcending; perhaps he is merely escaping. Maybe both. It’s a subtle shift, and it is indicative of the poems in this section and the final section, “Winter Constellation.” While the calendar continues to reveal the pastoral changes of nature, the Shepherd is also transforming. But it is necessarily a slow and incomplete transformation, much more complicated than cataloging the reoccurrence of 15 ants. The last poem in the collection, “the stars within reach,” concludes the cycle as such:
Sunlight falls sharply,
hidden light beneath so much rock;
your skin brightens as you move in my chest.
Startled by desire’s inflexibility,
this rigid world.
Of pure night, of rush. Outside,
the blue night rains down.
& then afterward
The afterward is continuation literally of the cycle, the Shepherd’s negotiation of place in one’s reality and imagination and the space, the prayer, the song of that other, that darling that remains even after the darling has left. This is exactly what these poems will do, they will remain in your chest, they will curtain-dance the branch-bone bathed in the sunlight of your imagination. These poems will become you and you will become these poems & the ants will notice — none of it.