Not too long ago Nathan E. White read at the poetry series I host in Los Angeles. He gave a very unusual performance. He didn’t read in a natural speaking or reading voice, but rather in a kind of elevated chanting style that owes something to the far-out manner employed by Ilya Kaminsky. The young lady who followed him was wowed by his poems, and I bought his book. It has taken me a while to open it up; now that I have studied it, I have of course a better understanding of White’s art and point of view. My overall feeling is that this project would have worked better as a chapbook.
When White and I briefly spoke, after his reading, he told me about his bad MFA experience at New York University. He said it was overwhelmingly (though not completely) negative. I notice in his book he doesn’t acknowledge any poets or readers of his manuscript who might have helped in the final shaping process; no “thousand thanks to so-and-so and so-and-so without whose help . . .” and so on. He’s done all this work feistily on his own. I can imagine him in workshops, stubbornly and angrily resistant and closed-off to other people’s suggestions.
Much too often these poems sound like notes rather than finished products. For one thing, he tends to clog up his writing with long Latinate, lecture-sounding words: from “Discretion”: “During our break, we heard his final shouts— / eliciting concern, trepidation. // Alarmed, tempted, our welfare subsequent . . . // Twice deprived, wrecked, the conductor’s body / hidden beneath rails and ties, dissevered.”
These word choices, as well as the general tone and diction, serve to create a voice so reserved and aloof, we get the feeling this poet has spent most of his life in a sensory deprivation tank. There is little drama, very little that is compelling. And yet he does have a good book inside this book—a chapbook. Because the most interesting, and the only moving, aspect of this project is the horrific event of his mother’s suicide, and then its aftermath. Most poems here that address this terrible loss directly or indirectly (or flow out of it into the adult man’s mind and soul and way of dealing with the world around him) are immediately attractive: in these he throws out the lecture-sounding voice and finds real poetry: “When I Stand With My Brother at the End of God” begins:
Light as light is our light . . .
have us brace for the cold
and stand in silence,
while we must assume
the late shift: winter
fields, the first neighbors
who would show us the sky
at night, names we would learn
Many poets can’t get out of the Poetic Voice (much moon, much use of the word “luminous” and “wafted” and so on), but White seems to have the opposite problem, having trouble distinguishing between a draft and a polished poem, between a collection of notes-toward-a-poem, and something to be published out in the world. In many of these pieces, though, he shows he can be a master poet when he wants to be. From “Preliminary”: “Were you sick? Everyone circles you, unable to get closer.” From “Subjunction”: “I advance to the lion fully lion.” From “Closed Hold”: “I understand, / finally, should the sky be removed, there’d be no relief / from night.” From “Whether I Last Desire: “I am always half a thought away from answer.” Or the simple, lovely observation to his deceased mother in “Assignment”: “I like to think you enjoyed sewing and the Doxology. // I know that no degree of faith / recovers a suicide. The speculation exhausts me.”
There are enough brilliant passages and whole poems in here to make a strong and memorable chapbook. Too often, as in the title poem, White proceeds clunkily:
First thought somehow the flash forced
your eyes: those central apertures enlarged
so that the iris seemed overmatched—
edged out by twin spheres growing
colorless and parallel.
I would rather (wouldn’t you?) see more of the following, from “Order of the Day”:
Brisk, wading through our creek, you caught my voice
lifting from shadow. I could not follow.
In the beginning, no word fell between.
Absence we fashioned early from mother’s
suicide—absence, for us, first language.
In the house we knew, we found substitute.
Say nothing, for nights are still bountiful;
each breath between us is strictly binding.