I’ve been reading a bit of Shelley lately, and realizing that it was Percy Bysshe, as much as Hopkins or anyone else, who paved the way for Dylan Thomas. The poet-seer, the visionary who breaks through the boundaries of society and can find harmony only in the boundless natural world, fit Thomas like the perfect jacket, and he wore it, willingly or not. And it’s Thomas who seems to have paved the way for Fargo poet Rodney Nelson. Nelson’s poetry, appearing after a twenty-year hiatus in his chapbook Mere Telling (The Simon Johnson Guild), is as evocative of the lakes and prairies of our Northland as Thomas’s was of Wales; and like Thomas, he writes in a subliminal, punctuation-free style that seems to capture the thought-pictures of the mind, sometimes at the expense of coherency. From “Fair Hills”:
we were boys rowing out in a northern lake on an autumn day of no weather and not much wood or leaf smoke moving out toward what we did not know and needed and meant to and might have found had we made it over one bay to where woods that had not turned went higher up
Most of the poems in the chapbook begin in this way, with a poetic weather report of sorts, and continue on through a beautifully leafstrewn path recapturing (hazily) a certain moment of the past. What these moments mean and why Nelson is remembering them require several readings of the piece and an afternoon of thought; often they lack context and teeter on the brink of solipsism. But in the end Nelson’s “Fair Hills”, like Thomas’s “Fern Hill”, appears to be a land of lost innocence. Reliving these moments requires something more than just telling—requires an incantation of sorts, which is what the poems in Mere Telling seem in the process of becoming, and why, slight at it is, it may be the most important volume of poetry to come out of the upper Midwest in 2009. I only hope these poems, “driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing” (Shelley’s words) find permanent sanctuary in our literary memory.
Of course, not all great poets are seers. I imagine George Bishop to be a man of around sixty, a bachelor who has recovered from drinking and homelessness and has now grown reflective, perhaps a bit like John Crowe Ransom’s gentleman in a dustcoat. He is not the sort of scribbler one imagines would write about love, and indeed his chapbook Love Scenes (Finishing Line Press) contains nary a passionate kiss or midnight tryst. Instead we have the Baudelaire-like “At the Bones Beginning to Show”, featuring a bird decaying under a bus stop bench
on the sidewalk, feathers pulled back by the wind like a glove half off an old man’s hand.
The last line of the poem sums up the atmosphere of the collection: “of a Spring grave of air.” Yet above the sparseness of these poems—memories of the poet’s relatives, the garden in late summer, boating or fishing on lakes or estuaries, a leather jacket he bought one day from a church bazaar—there glitters a bit of stardust, a terse lyrical charm. So perhaps after all these are love scenes, penned by a gentleman who is just trying to make us see,
Unable to stop sharpening the unobservable sword hanging at my side.
More spectral is the narrator of The Gravedigger’s Roots, a sexton character created by author Robert S. King (who is, by contrast, a retired software engineer). Our unnamed cemetery worker is by turns macabre, philosophical, and comical, and if he overplays his role a bit, and works with a shovel rather than a Bobcat like most modern practitioners of the gravedigger’s trade, he pays us back with some memorable lines and imagery, such as the opening of “Snowhaunt”:
The snow comes and adds two feet to my digging. I remember once, as I was turning white and burrowing, how I fell through a rotten box, crashed into the open arms of bone.
The Gravedigger’s Roots, a full-length collection published by Shared Roads Press, can be confidently recommended for the teen goth or dark poet on your gift list; or even you, dear reader, for that misty day when you long to wander among the melancholy marbles.
- Joel Van Valin