by Nate Pritts
H_NGM_N BKS 2013
Reviewed by Lucy Biederman
“…the leading man in a Romantic poem”
Nate Pritts has said that he is interested in poetry as opposed to individual poems. One can locate this focus in the attention and emphasis Pritts places on creating and forming a speaker/self across the space of a book. In his sixth book, Right Now More Than Ever (H_NGM_N BKS 2013), Pritts not only allows but cultivates a sense of the tossed-off, the experiment, even the mistaken—there are tries within these poems that other poets might have edited out or not have thought to include in a poem in the first place.
Much of this book is spent considering the imperative to poetry and engaging with and against the traditional or expected topics of lyric poetry, like nature and the self. In the stichic “The Hills Have Justice,” the speaker declares:
I will never confess what I did.
I will never reflect on my life
so I won’t have to feel bad about it.
Overhead, the sky full of etcetera
Etcetera, full of verse chorus verse.
Pritts possesses a poststructuralist Romanticism that, even in the long shadow of Ashbery, does not ironize itself. The speaker’s dramatized search for self and poetic school seem to be one and the same: his refusal to “confess” himself seems an eschewing of (and a tip of the hat to) Confessionalism, and his refusal to “reflect on my life” recalls—and complicates—Wordworth’s definition of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Moving his gaze to the sky as if out of other options, the speaker describes it as “full,” but full of “etcetera etcetera” and “verse chorus verse.” The poet speaks within a world that seems empty in its fullness, or a poetry that has already been filled before he arrived. The imperative, then, throughout much of this wonderful book, is to invent or discover a poetry of space, an imperative for an imperative for poetry, when the sky is already “full of verse chorus verse.”
As that passage from “The Hills Have Justice” suggests, Pritts’s speaker routinely travels through potential selves, and through the history of poetry, searching for a place. In this landscape, there seems to be no division between poetry and personage. In “Collected Recollections,” the speaker seeks and creates opportunities for various utterances and selves:
I was dressed like the leading man in a romantic comedy
from the 1940s, debonair in grey flannel. A flower
in my hand or a flower held out to you.
I was dressed like the leading man in a Romantic poem
from the 1840s, soaking wet in ruffles. O I fall
upon the thorns of life several times per season
but most often in the Spring. It could have been any day…
Here the speaker’s “style of dress” works both metaphorically and metonymically, suggesting that a change in form could change the implications and meanings of one’s poetic utterances. Being dressed as a “man in a Romantic poem” changes the speaker’s diction and tone: “O I fall / upon the thorns of life.” Ironically, though, the poem maintains its form, continuing along in long-lined couplets as Pritts performs these stylistic experiments.
The typical poem in Right Now More than Ever has a four- or five-beat line and consists of neat tercets or couplets—usually slightly more than a dozen of them. Some of the book’s most exciting moments, however, occur within poems that are looser, longer, or less formally rigorous. An example of this is the beautiful long poem at the heart of the book, “Rise Time,” which begins with a kind of parable in which the speaker hears a crash in another room: “I knew then that my life’s work would be reassembly / & I thought that would be a fine way to live.” Reassembly seems an apt word, given this poet’s “life’s work” of reimagining Romanticism using the poststructuralist tools that contemporary poets hardly know how not to use.
One reason “Rise Time” is so successful is that its length and formal looseness speak to the book’s central themes of self-creation and the multiplicity of selves that are present within a single self. Pritts uses the white space between pages, stanzas, and lines to create a sense of breath, thought, and time passing—a sense of, as the poem put it, “dailyness.” Across the poem’s nine pages, Pritts has the space to feel and express a wide variety of feelings and selves, some of them contradictory, in a variety of forms. “You shout the present alive with your mouth. // I see it all turning into a ghost” one page ends; the next begins, “I like a wild cosmos.” With each new page, the speaker starts again with a new tone, like going to bed depressed and waking up feeling better.
The lush and gorgeous occasional poem “35th Birthday Vortex Sutra” is another of the book’s successful departures in form and content. The poem’s form, as its title suggests, follows that of Allen Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” But it seems to take Ginsberg’s swirling and various lines as a suggestion, a starting-off point, rather than a strict blueprint. Its variety of line lengths and tones provide the speaker a form suited to his multifaceted sense of self. Here there is room to repeat and reiterate, to say and un-say, to try and try again:
And he that stays
is you, he that stands if you & all honor
to your name, Nate Pritts, 35, ceasing now,
blundering stupid, wondrous strange,
& so what.
I can see so much of me, can see
with the flame of what bright light
that, O, if there be more of this here
then alright, okay—
lonely & torn up & screaming
for more, hallelujah, Happy Birthday, amen.