The first thing one notices when one reads a Jesse Nathan poem is: one’s body humming along to the music of his words.
How does such a thing work?
It’s the sound patterns—rhyme, inner rhyme, alliteration, assonance—yes, but it’s also how the poet uses the sound patterns on the line-by-line level, and as connective tissue between different poems, and finally, between different sections of the book. So the meaning lives in the music here, on both the micro and macro level, as the sound plays a live role in Nathan’s explorations of memory, his various investigations into ecology, into poetics of place, into history.
Which is to say, Eggtooth is not an ordinary debut but something quite different.
Tradition also plays a large role in this book—both poetic tradition as is the case with Nathan’s ongoing conversation with John Donne, whose music is echoed throughout and who finally appears as a character in one of the poems. Jesse Nathan is no New Formalist, tradition is not a loud (but short-lived) pronouncement on these pages, but a fluid thing, one that is renewed constantly via hearing nerves, by way of lyric poems as different as invocations of memory, reconsiderations of heritage, touching erotics, poetics of ceremony (as in a striking poem about the ceremony of footwashing). Music is also present and quite active when Nathan breaks with tradition via the very movement of his lyric hero, who abandons home for the city: the sound-pattern literally changes when this happens.
How does he do it, I keep asking, and towards the end realize that it is the large palette of musical possibilities, yes, but also, really, a generous variousness of this poet’s lyric impulse. That is, Eggtooth’s music is so fresh, in part because Nathan constantly blends sound-pattern and tone. The collection begins with a memorable series of very short short narratives that (“O voila!” or, perhaps it is “O volta”?) subtly change into lyric fragments even before we know what hits us, just as it promptly concludes. But later on, in slightly longer poems (reader, I recommend you open the book to such poems as “City Beach” or “The Student”) the short lyric fragment we have grown used to transforms itself into a fragment of memory akin to a scrap of a city-life myth. As the poet has moved to the city, the music has changed. But so did the tone.
Such subtle orchestration is no small thing. What the readers of Eggtooth will quickly discover is that this book gives us that rare thing: a debut by an already formed writer.
Because his book has so much to do with literary tradition—its musics, its silences, its obvious problems, the tremor of its possibilities—I wanted to ask Jesse about his sense of the past.
ILYA KAMINSKY: How is tradition important to you and your work?
JESSE NATHAN: I feel as Faulkner did, that the past is never past. Tradition is with us whether we want it to be or not. There’s plenty of oppression in the traditions of our species, plenty of bad habit. Things are such a mess right now, and that’s partly why. So I think there’s a certain undercurrent of suspicion we sometimes have toward the so-called past. But I’m unwilling to cede “tradition” to the reactionaries. I want to participate in the process of cherry-picking from it: of taking from our various inheritances that which worked, and might work again, to preserve and retrofit it. It would be much easier to throw out the baby with the bathwater. To imagine we might make a clean break. But I think the cost is too high, the loss too great. I want to keep the baby, and help her grow into a new kind of future.
Eavan Boland, I think it was, described the difference between a literary tradition and a literary canon. She argued that a canon is a static thing, unchanging, defined. A tradition is living, breathing, always updating, revising itself—its borders are unclear, its reaches contested, its center always shifting. That’s the relationship to the past I’m interested in. I think of poetry—of all art, really—as a vast intergenerational conversation. So when my book engages with a form used by John Donne centuries ago, not only am I speaking to Donne, and to all the ways of making a poem that have emerged since he wrote, but I also like to think I’m sending out a signal far into the future. Maybe I’m flattering myself. I don’t think that to be “contemporary” a poet needs to abandon rhyme or formal inheritances. I think that if you live now, your poetry will be of the “now” one way or another, without you having any control over it—it will be a reflection, an outgrowth of our time somehow. I’m actually most suspicious (and often most bored) by poetry that is trying hard to come off cool or trendy or—in a forced way—“contemporary.”
But in any case, what matters to me is not only the process but the result. Does the poem move me? Does it change my life? Does it change my perception of reality? That’s what I’m after—the unforgettable, the necessary. Nothing less. And I’m in no way dogmatic about how a poet gets there. It may be by way of ancient methods, ancient secrets, and it may be by way of much more recent discoveries. I think what’s deadly is not only dogmatism about this or that method or form or style, but also any unthinking approach to tradition, a mode of venerating what we inherit simply because it’s inherited—giving undo credit to something just because it’s old, or because it’s always been done that way.
Of course, these days the conventional idiom—the establishment—is free verse. On the other hand, there’s a reason rhyme and meter have been a part of poetry’s history from the beginning—there’s lasting power there. Why not try to fit a new skin on an old drum? Even if that doesn’t interest you, you might at the least, as Ezra Pound says, get to know the full range of the art you’re working in, even if you never use most of that range. Maybe it’s a matter of respect. Maybe it’s a matter of craft, allowing you to better manifest the narrow range you call your own.
As for me, I’m not interested in nostalgia. I’m interested in the present—when I write about the past I’m writing about the present. My fix is the living past, the way the past is part of our present, right now, shaping us. I’m interested in causes and origins as much as their present-day eruptions. I hope my poems refuse to choose between the primeval and the contemporary, the so-called old and the seemingly new. And I hope they do some of the work of cherry-picking, of helping to see what we want to bring over from the flood of time, to save for the new world that is each day.
One of the traditions I love in poetry is the idea that it ought to sound good, that in one way or another it ought to be music with words. Another tradition: my poem “Footwashers” tries to get at a ceremony practiced still among some Mennonites in the United States. If you’ve ever had someone wash your feet, you understand how beautiful and strange and vulnerable the experience can be. Now imagine it in a public setting. Centuries ago in various parts of the world footwashing was a dignity you bestowed on guests who traveled to your house from far away. It was often performed by a servant, but Jesus of Nazareth turned that on its head by encouraging everyone to wash each other’s feet. Radical stuff.
I’m not a believer in any recognizable way, but I was reared in Judeo-Christian communities and those stories and vocabularies still mean a lot to me. There’s a biblical concept that I love, and it’s based around the phrase “saving remnant,” which occurs quite a lot in the Hebrew Bible. When the Temple is destroyed—when the people suffer what is basically apocalypse—they become wanderers. And if they want it to survive, they must carry the best of their past, the best of what they believe, as a “saving remnant” of the ark of the covenant. They must work to build it into their new lives in new lands. That is to say, their charge is to be stewards of the best of their tradition through the hard times, in the hopes that one day there will be fertile ground to rebuild. I think our work in the coming years will be partly this: to hold on to what we value in poetry and in ourselves, and to carry it with us.