by Jesse Nathan
Unbound Editions 2023, $24.00
If you were half as free as me you wouldn’t go— you who leave not once, like guests, but over and over, like friends. (“What the Cedar May Have Said”)
Jesse Nathan’s Eggtooth is a book about such leavings, in particular how ruptures inflicted and suffered—when the leaver becomes the left—contribute to what Robert Hass, invoking Wordsworth in the foreword, calls “the growth of a poet’s mind.” On a superficial and macro level, Nathan’s collection recounts the journey from childhood and southcentral Kansas to maturity and San Francisco, but this trajectory is not that of the conventional poet who uses the pastoral as a steppingstone to the wider world—Virgil graduating beyond the Eclogues to the Aeneid, Milton vaulting from Lycidas to Paradise Lost. Rather, Nathan’s poet, unlike the coniferous evergreen cedar, is more of a deciduous organism, leaving again and again. As a figure in one poem says: “there’s an accuracy / to nostalgia, / but no precision.” Nostalgia, which originally meant homesickness, continually restages the return and the departure because it knows where home was but not where it is.
Eggtooth is preoccupied with departures not only because the book wants to explore our obligations to place and to people, but also because it wants to accommodate emotionally and intellectually the leavings that keep on happening. The lover with whom the speaker leaves Kansas eventually leaves him. A taxi driver in Athens admits the city is nice “unless you want to leave.” The book allows us to see that an act of leaving will resemble betrayal for some and survival for others, since escape and escapism are sometimes difficult to tell apart.
In what seems like a deliberate rejection of that Virgilian and Miltonic career path, of the poet who uses the bucolic as formative but disposable material, Nathan devotes the long poem “Archilochus” to a poet “who had no epic in him.” Archilochus, an ancient Greek poet, was known for a vitriolic poetry of censure but was able to assert an individuality, however acerbic, in contradistinction to the Homeric model of a martial poetry in the service of nation-building and a warrior ethos. Nathan’s poem ends with Archilochus, in the middle of a battle, renouncing “duty/to any reckless collectivity.” He casts aside his shield “because he can run faster without it,/and abandons those slopes, to start over.” This kind of leaving is a disburdening. We can also see, in that final word, one of the many ways in which Eggtooth resonates internally with reconsiderations of concepts, and a contrapuntal music of poetic thinking. On the one hand, there is the finality of something being “over,” yet in “What the Cedar May Have Said,” the “over and over” signified a painful repetition. Here, “to start over” combines that finality with a sense of reprisal in order to arrive at a new beginning.
Whether it is the ventriloquized cedar, or Archilochus (and his critics), Eggtooth continually incorporates the voices of others into its poems. Nathan’s poems frequently yearn for a larger choir of perspectives, even at the cost of relinquishing the poet’s individuality. We read of “[a] thirsting to have/my sensibility immersed, drawn through/an othering element.” The poems brim with imported proverbial sayings and the idiosyncrasies of family expression, as in: “There’s Auntie, who pronounces it/play-zure,” a note that gets picked up again in a later poem: “A pleasure went out through me like a gale/though pleasure is much too shallow a word/for what roils me like ribbons in a wind.” The voices of others can assist in reaching toward a communally defined language, but they can also challenge the speaker’s ideas, reinforcing the unknowability of the other and the absence of displaced voices. One poem refers to the original inhabitants of the land as “a people who must’ve had scores of words for/zephyr” (a bit further on a half-rhyme makes striking music in “the sod rent open/with a sound like a zipper”).
This brings us to the title poem of Eggtooth which contains the book’s most daring invocation of the voice of another. Much in the manner of T. S. Eliot in “Little Gidding” or Seamus Heaney in Station Island, Nathan summons up a long-dead literary ancestor to give a monologue and serve as a figure of guidance and validation. “Eggtooth” begins: “And so at last spoke John Donne’s ghost.” Nathan’s Donne offers the precedent of a poetic form, a seven-line stanza that Donne used in such poems as “The Good Morrow” and that Nathan employs throughout Eggtooth. The title of this poem, and of Nathan’s book, refers to the sharp, and temporary, outgrowth on a baby bird’s beak that allows the animal to pierce its egg and hatch. The egg tooth, so far as I can tell, does not come from Donne’s poetry, but its weirdness and aptness is worthy of Donne’s peculiar imagination. Nathan’s Donne says:
use me like an eggtooth, break the shell that shields you, let me be the germ, hoarder-of-calcium, the bulb of sharp caruncle, expression of beak (of horn) that makes a toothlet to snout-thrust, a barb to barb what’s chipped away by the very thing maintained and encased.
While Nathan uses the voices of others to many different ends in his book, here Donne’s voice becomes a weaponized projection grafted onto the poet’s voice—other voices in the book might function to challenge or submerge Nathan’s own, but here the voice of Donne is used as a tool to facilitate the poet’s own birth (or rebirth). Indeed, egg teeth are either shed or fused into the bird’s beak after they have served their purpose. Donne invites the speaker to use him, perhaps in order to surpass him, but then, crucially, to dispose of him. This is not a ghost with an appetite for any prolonged haunting (Donne’s erotic poetry, after all, suggests that he had problems with commitment).
The seven-line stanza that Nathan inherits from Donne, with its ABABCCC rhyme scheme, offers the poet a flexible instrument and a formal challenge that is invariably met with real brio. The character of Donne presents the stanza as encoded with a kind of signifying ambivalence—the seven lines correspond to the days of creation, but also to the deadly sins; the three of the tercet suggests trinity, but also Peter’s three denials of Christ—and this morally indeterminate quality of the form makes it an ideal vehicle for Eggtooth’s complex landscape, an environment in which such oxymoron as “a wild calm” preside. Here, as an example of the form, is the final stanza of “Shock”:
Some say it was lightning in a mineral bisque that triggered first life. Grandpa said in 1933 he lost six head—his life savings—to one strike. And I, in the soaphouse later with an EMT, would sense in the rafters swallows veer, loop, follow as if a shadow had a shadow.
Among its other functions, form is the way that a poet controls the passage of time, and elements of this stanza participate in Eggtooth’s overall testament to time’s passage: one can follow the deterioration of the family soaphouse across the volume; the swallows become a tattoo that is eventually overgrown with a “thicket” of body hair. But Nathan’s general ease with this difficult stanza-form has the effect of making the reader think less about what the rhyme scheme constrains than about what it permits: the beautiful almost-rhymes in their balance of affinity and irresolution, the juggling of successive perspectives and tenses, the range of tones from scientific to anecdotal to metaphysical. Like the birds described, the language seems to veer, loop, and follow, performing a shadowplay of sounds and images.
But the inclusion of other voices is not the only way that the poems of Eggtooth relinquish the primacy of the first-person protagonist. From “Straw Refrain,” the first poem in the volume, with its depiction of hissing grasses, wind, and wildlife, with its varied repetition of “[o]n days like this,/my mind, you hardly/seem to be,” Eggtooth offers up a vision of the pastoral in which the natural world, by its persistence and power, continually entices the speaker into a fantasy of non-existence. Elsewhere we read of the chalk formations of Kansas which “did not grow/so much as gradually remain.” The pathos of this observation lies in the fact that at this moment in the book the speaker is living out the consequences of choosing not to remain. It is surely not coincidental that one of the book’s more conventionally affirmative pastorals comes in the borrowed voice of “What the Farmer Said,” a poem that concludes with the plea: “Stay on, won’t you?” But Eggtooth’s speaker cannot reconcile the act of growing with the act of remaining. The poem with the simple title “Pastoral” conjures up a vision markedly different from the farmer’s rhapsody of bucolic light: “smashed wet wheat”; “baby/birds strewn about.” A spring storm has laid waste to the countryside, and insects have already begun to devour the young animals that did not fly away.
Of a piece with larger questions of belonging, Eggtooth’s refusal to embrace the typical celebration of the land characteristic of much earlier American nature writing culminates in the long poem “Between States,” a sustained meditation on territory: the straight lines imposed on it by settlers who cheated and dispossessed the native peoples. Denouncing the poet who “blunders on with his eclogue,” Nathan weaves together a tapestry of threads from the American imaginary—from William Cullen Bryant to Little House on the Prairie, Whitman and Dickinson and Frost and Willa Cather—to evoke and challenge the cultural image of the “so-called open land” that was forcibly cleared of such indigenous Americans as the Osage, the Kaw, the Pawnee, and the Arapaho. Here is “a culture/of extraction displacing itself,” a history in which violence is omitted or mythologized, a landscape filled with misapplied names, memorials to an original ignorance: “the misnamed prairie dog,/not canine but squirrel, the meadowlark not/any kind of lark.”
For a book that so rigorously channels the voices of others, it is fitting that Eggtooth concludes as it does, in the poem “This Long Distance,” with Nathan’s persona distanced to the third person, on the phone with his parents. They work their way through small talk, updates on the landscape that the reader has come to know over the book, a variety of attempts at maintaining contact despite separation. The poem ends with one final gesture towards the need of familiarity to be nourished by memory:
And they, who in his imagination are in the dining room he knows well, hold up their phone, up against the back window to let him hear the call—so personal and clear— of the train out there.
The call of the train, nested inside the call home. Calling home can mean a variety of things. It can take the form of a phone call home to catch up and exchange news. You can also call someone home, as in a summons . Yet, as the son describes parts of “his city,” we get the sense that he has decided to call San Francisco home. It is part of the achievement of Eggtooth that Nathan so exquisitely and subtly orchestrates the emotional complexities of his own formation, a process that depends upon people who cannot always be kept close, and places in which one cannot always linger. In this, his debut, Nathan demonstrates the strength of his vocation, his calling.