Going on Nerve: Lynn Emanuel’s “The Nerve of It: Poems New and Selected”

“WE’RE HEADED for empty-headedness” it begins, but the poems that follow the first one, “Out of Metropolis,” seem to proceed from a head brimming over with perceptions, imaginings, conversations, arguments, sensualities, obsessive pursuits, and total emersions — rivers that branch into tributaries. But one must factor in to those wayward metaphorical rivers — and to Lynn Emanuel’s The Nerve of It: Poems New and Selected — the poet’s masterful control of pacing, tone, her daring imagery, and deliriously pleasing language. Rivers, tributaries, they aren’t quite the right metaphor. And I admit to this here, in this fashion, to prepare the reader for poems, from four books spanning three decades, which will double back on themselves, contradict each other, reconsider — in other words behave not quite like rivers.

In the part-real, half-imagined, and largely bereft desert town of Ely, Nevada, of the 1950s, to the “grandmothers / with their shanks tied up in the tourniquets / of rolled stockings” seated in the Roxy theater, appears a Marilyn Monroe spin-off:

There in the narrow
mote-filled finger of light, is a blonde,
so blonde, so blinding, she is a blizzard, a huge
spook, and lights up like the sun the audience
in its galoshes. She bulges like a deuce coupe.
When we see her we say good-bye to Kansas.
(“Blonde Bombshell”)

That’s the deliriously pleasing language I’m talking about. And here’s more:

When I drink it is always 1953,
Bacon wilting in the pan on Cook Street
And mother, wrist deep in red water,
Laying a trail from the sink
To a glass of gin and back.
She is a beautiful, unlucky woman
In love with a man of lechery so solid
You could build a table on it
And when you did the blues would come to visit.
(“Frying Trout While Drunk”)

A reader might take these for exceptionally skillful and alluring autobiographical poems, the first establishing a childhood environment, the next revealing something of the family life. And the reader would be wrong. These two are probably not autobiographical in the strictest sense. Lynn Emanuel did not grow up in Ely, Nevada, though a series of poems from her second book, The Dig, might leave one with that impression. She grew up in Denver, Colorado, her mother a business woman, her father an artist. “Raoul,” the focus of several poems and, seemingly, the object of erotic fascination in her coming-of-age years, Emanuel has described as “partly invented and partly a composite of ‘characters’ I’ve known.”

The poet’s “Note To the Reader” reveals that this selection will dispense with the usual ordering: “I have ignored chronology, placing new poems beside old, mixing middle and early poems with recent work, and liberating all my poems from the restraints of their particular histories, both aesthetic and autobiographical.” This is in favor of an order, she says, that will involve both “linkage” and “collision.” Here, poems of imagined scenarios, dreamed up and dreamt-of characters, mix with memory (though at times, for the reader at least, those imagined scenarios seem so palpable one could, well, build a table on them). In this manner, Emanuel’s shifting relationship with linear narrative doesn’t express itself simply through non-sequential movement within a poem, but through a fluid reimagining or rearranging of her life, or a life. Or a psyche. And throughout, various poems muse on the relationship between Writer and Reader, between Poet and Poem — these along with pronouncements too resolute for the gentile word muse.

In our age, such investigations, and such bucking against the business of how-things-have-been-done, calls up the Specter of Postmodernism, its cousins, and its progeny, and some decades of mixed results. Not everyone’s shattered narratives, stylistic potpourris, meta-fictions, and meta-poems satisfy on all fronts. But here, no matter how cerebral the exploration, a vigor and sparking wit enliven these writings. It is not humor precisely but something that flashes across the brain to similar effect. If we’re hardwired to search for narrative, for story — a condition Lynn Emanuel has reflected on elsewhere, in another collection — we might also be hardwired to desire surprise. In line after unexpected line, surprise is among the rewards these poems offer up. From “The White Dress”: “it’s an eczema of sequins, rough, gullied, riven / puckered with stitchery, a frosted window / against which we long to put our tongues.”

Each of the six sections ends with fierce finality. Recently, I read a Lynn Emanuel poem to my poetry workshop, and, responding to the bravura of the closing lines, one of my students gave tribute with that generation’s cry of highest praise, Drop the mic! Of course, fierce finality notwithstanding, when we turn the page Lynn Emanuel is still going at it, with a new project this time, a new circuitous undertaking.

In The Nerve of It, the more solidly located poems give way to some that flip about fretfully, self-critical, jumpy with desire. At intervals Emanuel expresses what seems a kind of restlessness, a burst of impatience — with herself? With the poem? Something is lacking. Something more is required. She places upon herself — demands.

Tiresome, tiresome is the poet
Recumbent on the davenport
Lost in raptures of self-regard […]
I am what is wrong with America.
Standing debauched, bereft,
Empty-handed for first one
Eternal verity and then another …
(“Self-Portrait”)

And later, in the same section of the book:

Where did she come from, that dig
in the ribs? Who is she to pretend
she’s me and to take on that ditched-in,
hopeless tone? Who is this phony
yokel? This two-dollar bill, this
pig knuckle? Honey, I tell her,
my name is Lynn Collins Emanuel,
someone whose whole manner says
I’m over-educated but recovering.
(“The Past”)

Sure enough, sometimes a writer wants to plunge into the self and milk it for all its worth, and other times to kick it off — Tsk! — the Self and Past both, like a pair of irritating shoes one’s been stuck in all day. And sometimes it’s everywhere, that self. “Homage to Sharon Stone,” which sprang from an occasion when Sharon Stone was situated across the street from Emanuel, in some city, whirls us through a self that morphs like silvery liquid, or cool CGI effects, into characters, into objects, “then I am the train pulling into the station / when what I would really love to be is Gertrude Stein spying on Sharon Stone / at six in the morning. But enough about / that, back to the interior decorating.”

Not everything’s subjective, malleable. Sometimes an occurrence flat-out happens and the fact of it is immutable. While she was working on Then, Suddenly—, her third book, Emanuel’s father died, and she’s spoken of how the shock and grief affected her poetry, divesting it of certain luxuries. For a time afterward, she lost confidence that contemporary language, imprinted with contemporary sensibilities, could express the great elegiac emotions — she meant, of course, without slipping into sentimentality or melodrama. She’s said that after the death of her father she did not have “the stamina, the control or the resources to create a more shapely line.”

This news provides an insight that might help the reader take in more fully, more usefully, certain of these poems. There’s a restraint in them, and, even now, a wit — though a different tenor of wit — that might otherwise be misread.

Suddenly, I turn around and there he is just
as I’m getting a handle on the train pulls-
into-the-station poem, “What gives?”
I ask him, “I’m alone and dead,” he says,
and I say, “Father, there’s nothing I can do about
all that. Get your mind off it. Help me with the poem

about the train.” “I hate the poem about the train,”
he says. But since he’s dead and I’m a patient woman
I turn back to the poem in which the crowds have gone home…
(“Halfway Through the Book I’m Writing”)

This apparition might seem somewhat comical, rather like Elvira in Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, or the dapper ghosts that provoked Cosmo Topper — mischievous, impertinent visitations. A reader coming upon this poem by itself — perhaps the very same reader who took the Ely poems for historical fact — might suppose this death had made a long slow approach, that the “I” was ready for it and took it in stride. And be wrong. Again. The poem that follows, “The Burial,” presents a stranger mood, closer the bone, closer the nerve. A hallucinatory image has the speaker standing before a grave holding a shovel: “the blade is / drenched in shine, the air is alive along it, as air is alive / on the windshield of a car.”

Intimations of death will recur in the last section, death imagined, then death imagined differently:

I dipped my pen into that inky place.
The cloudy brow of night

Was furrowed in concern,
Because the living did not seem to know
That they were being stalked by me.
(“The Murder Writer”)

“Ars Poetica” appears just before “Halfway through the Book I’m Writing,” and might not anticipate what’s to come. Or maybe it forecasts one of those collisions that the note to the reader warns of.

Personal experiences are chains and balls
fatally drawn to the magnetic personality.
I have always been a poet
who poured herself into the shrouds
of experience’s tight dresses […]

But now I have other things to do.
(“Ars Poetica”)

Some disenchantment, or hankering to venture elsewhere, or desire to speak out of a more ageless voice, gave rise to the Dogg poems. Here, they appear in the penultimate section, and a poem called “Metamorphosis” ushers them in. Ah ha, we’re in Greeksville, among the persona poems — the Persona, that mask that both Is and Is Not s/he who wears it. (Ask any performer who’s run away with a traveling masquerade theater — they’ll tell you all about it.) Dogg breaks entirely from proper language, from civil discourse. Dogg the outcast, the impoverished, proud and despised. It speaks — Dogg.

I wuz followin a boot
down the avenew,

The smell uf wet meat clung to it.

I wuz leapen over ashes an trashes
wit out a license

runnin frum the p’lese—the gas, net, an boot.

This iz the life, I thot—
a planet uf ruin an disorder

an the dogs uf the world
runnin the world.
(“Stray Dog”)

Out of another age, an earlier poem came to this reviewer’s mind. It is by one Irene McLeod, born in Victorian times, 1891. I would not mention it now if I didn’t believe that the sisterhood, the brotherhood, of poets might leap across centuries: “I’m a lean dog, a keen dog, a wild dog and lone / […] I’ll never be a lap dog, licking dirty feet, / a sleek dog, a meek dog, cringing for my meat.”

With respect to other relations, Dogg also has something of Coyote’s supernatural presence, though little of his totemic power — Coyote of the Northwest tribes and other regions. This one’s a totem for our age, our cities, a rundown, slumming mongrel whose only talent is survival. Survival and omnipresence.

(At the pound, Dogg is interrogated)

Who iz that scrawnee filth?
they ask Dogg.

Who is that pack
that runs together?

Who is that racket of instinct in the brane?
Ribs stickin out like bucket staves?

Who iz those howls? Who iz standin-at-the-post-in-chains
an puts itself between us an our rage?
(“Who iz Dogg?”)

It’s called The Nerve of It, this collection. “The Nerve of her!” some people said of somebody or other, back when that was a phrase — “What nerve!” And then there’s the “nerve” of Frank O’Hara, from his essay, “Personism: A Manifesto,” an ars poetica of sorts. “You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout ‘Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep!’” I’ve always loved that line — and never been quite sure how to apply it to poetry. Lynn Emanuel appears interested in both meanings, as an expression of social disapproval involving, perhaps, an offense against propriety, and the primal nerve, that bundle that transmits sensations to the brain, gives commands. “Run!”

Emanuel’s New and Selected reveals an uncommon talent, together with a restless, adventurous spirit. And over the course of the book, especially in its final pages, it seems one prospective adventure might involve a negotiated truce between brain (“over-educated but recovering”) and nerve. No, not a truce, more like a rendezvous. No, more like an affair. No, a cellular fusion. To touch a nerve! What an undertaking! What nerve.

¤

Suzanne Lummis’s poems have appeared in notable literary magazines across the country, including Ploughshares, The Antioch Review, Hotel Amerika, and The New Yorker. Her most recent poetry collection, Open 24 Hours, received the Blue Lynx Award and was published by Lynx House Press.

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