At midcareer, usually after publishing a fourth book, a poet will step back and consider the entirety of her work, evaluating individual poems’ significance to the unfolding arc of her artistic vision. Holding this mirror up, the poet will then compile a chronological “best of” selected from previous collections resulting in a retrospective of her past and current modes.
How interesting is this ritual for the poet presiding over it and for the reader receiving it? Though a new and selected volume is both a career achievement and a milestone, it’s still a book of poems, and so it risks, as with any book, rehearsing expected gestures. For critically acclaimed poet Lynn Emanuel, “a book of poems is a damn serious affair” just as it was for Wallace Stevens. She possesses too original and restless an intellect merely to dust off the tried and true within her oeuvre and tidy it up with a table of contents.
So in The Nerve of It: Poems New and Selected, Emanuel assembles a new book—one driven by self-consciousness of the task at hand. While a rebellion, her decision is more importantly the logical outcome of reflecting on the new and selected’s formal techne of omission and rearrangement. The absence of—as well as the relationship among—parts makes a composition. Comparing her corpus to canvas, she writes, “As with painting, one can’t just take out a patch of blue from the left-hand corner of the canvas and expect the painting to remain the same. As soon as you start taking things away, the whole thing changes” (“Preface”).
The result is a new thing bound by an extreme brought into view by poems chosen for their intensity of collision. In an April letter, Stevens urges William Carlos Williams to pursue in his manuscript “a communicable extreme.” “To fidget with points of view,” Stevens writes, “leads always to new beginnings and incessant new beginnings lead to sterility.” Instead of assembling a linear record of her aesthetic permutations starting with Hotel Fiesta (1984) and again and again down through her almost forty year-long career past Noose and Hook (2010), Emanuel opts out of all that fuss in favor of staging her own self-interpretation:
However, I have decided that, since you are my guests, I should save you this work and do it myself. You may be thinking ‘Well, the nerve of it!’ but I thought this would be less boring for both of us. You’re welcome. (“Preface”)
It’s an audacious move—one that might seem at first blush to strip pleasure away from a reader who is accustomed to parsing text with a #2 pencil in hand. Yet, as Frank O’Hara said, “You just go on your nerve.” Emanuel invites her reader to an experience, unexpected from a new and selected, in which she identifies leitmotifs throbbing inside her poems and scores them into a conversation essential to her art: what a reader is and does locked in a dance with what a poet is and does, the pages pressed between them. In this drama, the poem is alive and dead center.
This conversation opens in “Out of Metropolis” with the glorious possibilities of invention figured as a train pulling into the station, out of pastoral America. Then the train, vehicle of change, transforms into another type of revolutionary machinery—a talking cinematic image fading out across the silver screen of the page:
The noise of a train gathers momentum and disappears into the distance,
and there is a name strolling across the landscape in the crisply voluminous
script of the opening credits, as though it were a signature on the contract, as
it were the author of this story.
This “name strolling across the landscape” is constructed from two traditions that conventionally have been viewed as opposite of each other. Emanuel positions herself in the center of an American romantic lyricism and an east coast French-influenced avant-garde, laying claim to both sides of her inheritance from the previous century. Rather than compartmentalize and follow the tribe across prairie grass or inside the salon, this name, possessed of so much locomotive energy from an engine inside an engine, pushes past binaries to ask a reader what is this moving text that is contractual between us and has its own auto-poetic power?
The invention of this name—this it, not she—unfolds in a series of juxtapositions in which Emanuel compares artistic process with technology’s role in creating and shattering selves. From the television to the car to the atomic bomb, she weighs and inspects the materials and their explosive potential tied to social experience. In “Planet Krypton,” which appeared earlier in The Dig (1992), this terrifying observation imprints on a young girl’s imagination:
Bathed in the light of KDWN, Las Vegas,
my crouched mother looked radioactive, swampy,
glaucous, like something from the Planet Krypton.
In the suave brilliant wattage of the bomb, we were
not poor. In the atom’s fizz and pop we heard possibility
uncorked. Taffeta wraps whispered on davenports.
A new planet bloomed above us; in its light
the stumps of cut pine gleamed like dinner plates.
The world was beginning all over again, fresh and hot;
we could have anything we wanted.
The poem’s ambivalence toward invention’s promise of progress figures as an early object lesson: “In the atom’s fizz and pop we heard possibility / uncorked.” Lethal in its seductions, the bomb is a romance that a circumspect Emanuel holds with asbestos gloves, sharply noting its luxurious dangers. This device can consume you like any other material split in its wake. Be aware of your love.
This cautionary subtext seethes in the arrangement of subsequent poems, in particular in the sequence “She Is Six,” “When Father Decided He Did Not Love Her Anymore,” and “Outside Room Six.” Selves split apart and multiply as they navigate the limits of the post-confessional lyric. Although Emanuel “loves the dangers of memory,” she will not be locked inside them. In the spaces among these poems, she reveals the urgency to gain greater awareness of the processes that have, for example, used up a model/muse who is cast aside after the artwork’s completion. Seeing this endgame, this little death, as an inevitable consequence of straightforward representation, she experiments with word-consciousness built inside self-consciousness. The result is resurrection:
The curtains reach for you.
I am full of grief. I am going
To lie down and die and be reborn
To come back as these roses
And wind myself thorn by
Thorn around your house
To fit into the nutshell
And the flat seed, the scar,
The door, the road, the web,
The moon’s bald envious eye
Staring at you through the drapes.
This encounter with the reader at the end of “Ordinary Objects” is followed by Emanuel’s slip inside the machine in “Big Black Car.” Read together, these poems appear as a gritty decision to survive, not as a self intact, but rather as a nimble consciousness that wants to go the distance as the car (“Homage to Sharon Stone”), the typewriter (“inside gertrude stein”), the dogg of 21st century doggerel (“Stray Dogg”), a reader talking to poets, a poet talking to readers.
Yet for all that propelling in and out of selves and language, this consciousness recognizes its grand limitation in the form of the body (“The Angels of the Resurrection”):
They find the body because
there is no where it can go, there is no death
deep or dark enough, no unlit alley bleak enough to hide it.
Even hidden it brings the resurrection to it,
even lying low in the slot of the unmarked grave,
its carnality works like a magnet.
On one hand, a consciousness needs a body, but on the other, the body has its own properties—in addition to the one of dying—that continue to arrange its surroundings even after its death. Auto-poetic, it maintains its summons, its field of attraction. Similarly for Emanuel, a poem doesn’t need a spontaneous overflow of emotions to challenge time. Its materiality persists speaking despite its techne set on erasure such as in the brilliant poem “Then, Suddenly—”:
[…] Now I am surrounded by
the faces of strangers which I also erase
until there is only scenery. I hate scenery.
I wind rivers back on their spools, I unplug
the bee from the socket of the honeysuckle
and the four Black Angus that just walked in
like a string quartet. “Get a life,” I tell them.
“Get a life in another world, because this is
a page as bare and smooth as a bowling alley,”
and, then, suddenly—renouncing all matter—
I am gone, and all that’s left is a voice, soaring,
invisible, disembodied, gobbling up the landscape,
a cloud giving a poetry reading
at which, Reader, I have made our paths cross!
“Renouncing all matter,” Emanuel detonates the devices tearing apart the page between herself and the reader. Although a voice soaring like a cloud and “gobbling up the landscape” recalls devastation, it also enacts optimism in the extreme that all her inventiveness has led her to. In the wake of this voice’s exclamatory heat closing the book, the reader stands confronted by the pure force of Emanuel’s significant art—its mastery of metaphor and tone, its jolting consciousness—and is simply unable to stop reading.