Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Review of Paul Nelson's "Sea Level" (Wild Goose, Winter 2008)

Review of Paul Nelson’s Sea Level (Main Street Rag, 71 pages, $14, www.mainstreetrag.com)

I remember Paul Nelson as a very even-handed teacher, treating the good poem and the bad one with the same respect, recognizing and valuing the student’s effort above the quality of the product, quietly and sincerely interested in everything that went into the work and even more in what had been, intentionally or otherwise, left out. That was 25 years ago, and I haven’t seen or spoken to him since. What great joy it is, then, to discover that his new collection of poems, Sea Level, is the perfect testimony to his education legacy.
These are meditative poems, achieving what my best focusing experiences have done for me, at once calming and provoking, familiar and deepening, ultimately helping the reader gain or regain a vital perspective. The last stanza of “Machias River Meditation” serves to illustrate my point:

My father carved a full-sized loon, shavings and dust
piling at his feet as the shape from poplar took
its place in air. It will never be a loon.
But if I carried it down to the marsh,
set it on one of the mounds, sooner or later
an eagle or osprey, perhaps ambitious marsh hawk
would stoop, helplessly, as some decoyed
hunter in the fall would be compelled by the sitting duck,
the fear of missing something,
to stud its painted feathers with steel shot
chilled by passing briefly through the universe.

Such perspective is repeated in the wonderfully balanced poem, “Fishing:”

Below the barber shop, perched on ledge
above a deep, rich pool, men stand on thumb-ish boulders,
or wade the strength of the eddy, casting
filaments as spiders do, toward nothing but hope,
that promontory. This is metaphysics.

Under the bridge, salmon
cleave shadows and rocks, roll up, leap,
thrilling hell out of anyone, as they steer
toward some ignoble backwater
to drop their eggs, squirt milt all over the gravel.
This is truth.

Between the cast and the fish floats the fly.
All winter long a grown man with fat fingers,
under a high-intensity lamp, hangs above a tiny vise,
slowly wrapping silk and hair and fluff around a hook’s shaft
devising an amulet, having failed all summer long
to raise a fish. He knows a man is lucky
if even inspiration hits once or twice a lifetime,
though some, infinitely patient, gifted with presentation,
do better. This is art.

These lines also illustrate the geographical underpinning of the manuscript. Living in North Carolina, where there is a town named Sea Level, I expected these poems to be bound to a particular location, and they do, indeed, have a strong sense of place, albeit not the one I anticipated. In this case, the place is Machias Bay, Maine, where the author grew up and has periodically lived and worked throughout his life. This sense of place is captured in the luscious imagery of each poem, as in “Eucharist:”

. . . I plane full throttle, roar
down the black belly of the lake, cottages,
one lamp each, streaking by, then downriver
through the gullet beneath the green, rib-cage bridge,
its port and starboard lights, then out, out,
into the iodinic air, sheering weed-rafts
and swells of tide, deaf to what I am saying,
my mouth a seven mile windsock.

The sea level of the title, however, is not simply a place, but also a frame of mind (think of the imperative homophone “see level”), a philosophy almost, existential and environmental, stoic and transcendental. This very human and humble frame of mind is hinted at in the title poem, where the speaker wonders “What won’t I remember, inexactly?” and further developed in poems like “Sea Smoke,” which ruminates on the temporality of human striving:

. . . Now I am content with
dragonfly breath on my corneas, thinking
I may have scratched the surface.
I am aware of the long gray body of fog
still well off-shore, beyond Cross Island.
I see in my mind my wife’s beautifully articulate
bare feet on the marsh, the fading
impression she makes on moss,
goose and eel grass.

The final word on this perspective comes in the book’s final poem, “Springfall:”

I’ve heard the various faiths
mock the breaking lakes, inland,
the march of trees at the pasture edge,
swelling, thickening toward the bloom
of dropsy fruit, huge, ancestral
roots of blowdowns, gaping in air.
Not one such word of man
has delivered more than hope.
I have decided not to live at all,
at least, not by my own hand.

I don’t often find it useful to compare poets, but as I read through Sea Level, I find myself thinking of Gary Snyder repeatedly as Nelson creates a remarkably compelling riprap of human existence, a living testimony of a man apparently content with but never fully happy about life on Earth.

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