Geoffrey Nutter has always been among the go-to poets to relish an unfettered language of almost pure play, music, color, humor, the memory of English poetry’s baroque and deliciously languishing phrases, it’s all there. But what interests me in these new poems, drawn from his new book just published, Cities of Dawn, is the subtle and poignant way in which history enters and is re-imagined. To imagine something is not something, in workaday reality, under the endless barrage of journalistic reality, we are usually inclined to take seriously; or if we do, it is seen as a leisure, detour, a hobbyist’s pursuit (not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course). But to imagine is also, in the Romantic aesthetic philosophy that I believe Nutter is continually indebted to and playing against, to restore life and feeling to what had been before merely received knowledge, inanimate, cold, bloodless. Here the loss of a father, the sense of being a veteran or having partook in a great war — ageless themes for any poet, admittedly — are given absurdist, screwball turns. They intensify and heighten the overall experience, rather than diminish it through levity. What could be more characteristic of Nutter’s art than to make us remember how our dreams, even in their soft, dallying radiance, seem to contain the heavy violence of being alive, of being everything else.
—Adam Fitzgerald, Poetry Editor
The Man Who Was Used Up
My father was wounded in the Great War.
He lost his face in a fierce battle,
a flanking maneuver, a counterattack,
a mission of “forlorn hope.” But which Great
War? One of many wars. One of many
Giant Wars. One ordinary titan war.
And my father kept a glass cabinet
of wax noses in his study, and changed
it several times a day. He had
lost an eye in an offensive, a night
operation, a minor skirmish, one
of many small loose parts that are pulled
together and called “The Great War.”
Now he had a glass eye. One eye was glass
and the other was pewter — though the pewter
eye had been his eye before the war, before
the bayonet charge, the reckoning barrage.
These are among the things he carried:
a steel jaw, a diamond tooth, a prosthetic
limb, an arm, to be precise,
a hook for a hand. And he kept his eye,
his tooth, a hook, a pair of pinking shears,
and the rubberized semblance of a hand,
in a wooden case with small compartments
like a box of chocolates from the country
where he had fought amid the dykes
and earthworks, during the land war,
the one between the sea war and the sky war.
And he had children, too, beside me. There
were children, legitimate children, and two
or three false children; there were bastards,
doppelgangers, changelings. There was
a wax child, and a glass child, and a fire child
(though that last was not a child at all,
but merely a fire with which he lit his pipe).
And he had a mandrake root, a mandragora,
a suit of armor made of bone. And we
who consisted yet of all our original parts,
were strangers to you, or so it seemed.
You had a gun kept on the wall near the head
of a deer bearing very large antlers.
And we were there crouching down in the flower beds,
watching you remove your flowered shirt.
And we stood tall among the presences.
This is one hand’s flowing blue script
on a page set aside for later. Are you just
one small person sleeping in the billows of your life
like everybody else? Observe the sunset
on the green prison turrets
downriver from the new mall full of vacant stores
of this provincial town, its feral cats and hoarders,
its decorative weaponry trained on the perplexed
and opposite shore where every crooked house
is cobbled together from adages and junk,
chunks of yellow ice and tripods; volts and wire:
cylinders, fuses, paste, and fire.
The circumfluent waters by the planing mill are violet–
they are the waters of the city, and the waters of the sky.
And in one of that town’s shops that sells antiques
the Five-year Diary of Florence Mangham is propped
between Chinese plate and a Civil War sabre:
page after page of yellowed entries in a flowing hand
in deep blue ink: “February 21, 1957:
Busy all the a.m.; busy all the whole day….”
The child prodigy was a prodigy
beyond description — a colossus,
a titan, saturnine, prodigious
in stature, an Elgin marble.
His wig stood tall atop his head
as if a small person, perhaps
a smaller, younger child prodigy
were standing there hidden cleverly
inside it. And one might say that one
yet still smaller lived inside this one.
He was normal in some ways:
his mother loved him, his father
took him to task but loved him, too,
as the sky lit up in the light
of the comet, or darkened in the dark
of the eclipse. The child prodigy
composed an opera involving love
and magic, evil, honor and treachery,
ice-like men, visible through vine-leaves,
and how the dead took revenge
against the universe for vastness;
and he composed this opera
mentally amid the laurel trees
in the aspen forest, or among the leaning
moss-covered houses of ghost cities.
And do you remember how, while he played
the harpsichord for grown-ups
in his golden ringlets, the ruffles
from his silk sleeves dangling down,
how we walked along the seaside
at dawn near the Rainbow Alfoxden
where the saline meadowlark nested
and the indigo bunting would never
be aware of the meaning of her song?
Storm clouds had something to say
to us — just not something very
significant. Under chandeliers
we are small for a very short time,
growing like grass, at the tall door.