Friday, February 28, 2020

Alden Nowlan's Collected Poems

In the past few years, as many young and not-so-young poets exhibit their narcissistic doldrums or ideological accusations in volume after volume of insufferable verse, it's timely – and about time – that Alden Nowlen's Collected Poems (2017) arrives 34 years after his death. Biographically and aesthetically dense, editor Brian Bartlett's lengthy introduction takes pains to present Nowlan's personality, life, and poetry in human terms, whether the concerns are spiritual or social. He also lays out the Collected in the appropriate manner: all of Nowlan's volumes are titled in the index, and appear in chronological order, against the (sometimes operable) maddening tack of presenting a Collected thematically.

Nowlan has sometimes been accused of composing off-hand homilies and anecdotes lacking prosodic sophistication. Though Nowlan at his worst is, at times, indeed indicted on that count (the man simply wrote too much, and there's nothing like a doorstopper Collected to bring that point home), his seemingly dashed-off personal studies often reveal much more than a fleeting first reading may lead a reader to see. For every “Letter to a Young Friend”, in which “[a]n aging freak,/for whom there was no choice, wishes you strength/to bear it should you find that which you seek”, there are many more succinct, emotionally devastating, direct entries like “The Factory Worker's Poem” where “I am as limp as a puppet/from which the ventriloquist/has withdrawn his hand” or fearless investigations into personal weakness from “Hide and Seek” wherein

if I believed
in God
would ask
him to
forgive me

for being one
of those
who know
how to hide.

Another misconception, by some at least, is that Nowlan's unruly personality spilled over into his poetry so that not only wouldn't he write a more or less 'accomplished' poem, but that he couldn't. Here's a wonderful sonnet, perfect in its execution, and wise in its understanding of others, and oneself in relation to those others. This is “Golf”, in full:

My friends believe in golf, address the ball,
however bent, to an appointed place.
Newtonians, convinced no orb can fall
out of the numbered course of time and space.

But I, from clumsiness or pity, drive
balls out of bounds and into woods and traps,
my knees and wrists vindictive in their love
for dark and tangled places not on maps.

“Golf's not your game,” they say. But I persist.
“Next one goes straight ...” I promise. Oh, they're fooled
right cunningly by my secretive wrist
that treacherously lets the world go wild.

Let them attack the green. As for myself,
I pitch into the darkness, like a wolf.

There are too many facets of Nowlan's poetry, too much diverse subject matter, too many astonishing nuances and ambiguities within lines of poems – indeed, within phrases and even words – to do justice to them in a short review of a Collected by a major poet, but the beauty of Nowlan's Collected Poems is that we now have that evidence in a one-stop book which, at least for this reader, deepens and stamps with awe the experience each time the poems are returned to.

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