The Thomas Salto, Timmy Straw’s debut collection, offers what very little poetry in our time seems to manage: work that is both overtly political and unflinchingly aesthetic. Ben Lerner, Brenda Hillman, Jay Wright, Anne Boyer, Chris Nealon are others whose work comes to mind. But Straw’s work marries politics and aesthetics in a way maybe not seen since George Oppen, and the gift of this collection is both the lyric mystery it generates and the position of moral clarity from which it operates. To do this, Straw refuses any neat resolutions that pay lip service to the fashionable pieties—these poems, like Hillman’s or Oppen’s, take those pieties for granted, as background noise, as a starting point at best:

our freedom intrudes on us

like real sunlight thru a snowglobe
like real sunlight on a painted sun

hot as a fresh-cut tree

as a flung side dappled saw

To turn and see it face to face,
to be

both sight and self
it swings upon

If there is a time and place—a center the book returns to—it is the 1980s, the America of Ronald Reagan. No poet I can think of has so directly—and yet so gorgeously—found a way to talk about the damage Reagan and his ilk inflicted not only on the country’s material progress, but on the psychic lives of anyone who has grown up in the shadow of his policies, in the disaster of his legacies—a legacy of austerity, of reaction, of the denial of basic services, the dismantling of baseline decency in the state apparatus—the list goes on and on. At various points in the book, Straw makes poems out of Reagan’s speeches—his now ludicrous-looking denials around Iran-Contra, for instance.

But if they refuse to look away from all that, they also look through it. I mean to say that Straw refuses to sacrifice the basic element of lyricism—and of a fresh point of view—by rendering an alertness to detail that “generate doubts,” an alertness whose allegiance grows out of one of the basic tenets of poetry: a poem comes from the body, from its sadnesses and hopes. Eugene Ostashevsky describes the collection (which takes its name from a cruelly impossible move in gymnastics) as graceful, “graceful like Super 8 movies of Victorian poetry.” Here’s the beginning of “Looking west out of Wilson Elementary during a Friday D.A.R.E. presentation”:

Twin cyclones, tall as traffic cones,
two blank cognitions spun
across a room—twin genies from a wish escaped
to watch a shitty basement VHS.
No prize can guess what we will do.
And further up the edifice
a teacher moves to drop
the west-faced
blinds, that scabbard sound,
tho without sun our names embarrass us
in angel boredom’s bright odorless wings.
That loaf-faced cop, his famous badge
glints like a sprite can in the lake …

Sprite, not capitalized, winks at the spirits harnessed by corporate branding, the way Ajax became a toilet cleaner and United Airlines trapped George Gershwin’s rhapsody forever in a jingle. Straw’s subject, then, is consciousness itself—the politics of consciousness, and the assault on its freedom as dictated by the reactionaries and their henchmen. So this is the work of witness, and yet there is an air of magic to the sobriety of Straw’s telling. These poems are an elegy, but also a question. They write:

A fact will baptize a brain for a while
but what makes the baptism stay.

These poems stay in the mind, and in doing so change it.

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JESSE NATHAN: The book feels to me like a clear-eyed but sensual—which is to say aesthetic, oblique, but unmistakable—response to right-wing American politics. A critique not so much of this moment, but of the moment that spawned this moment. I have the sense that you’ve found a way to include what I haven’t seen poetry include before—the political legacy emanating from the presidency of Ronald Reagan, for instance. Do you have any insights into how you arrived at this work?

TIMMY STRAW: Your questions return me, a little strangely, to one of the first dreams I ever had, which was about Reagan. It was the mid-’80s; I was probably three years old; and because I’d never actually seen Reagan, only heard my parents and brothers talk about him—with that exacting magnetic interest one has in one’s enemies—in the dream he was, in contradiction to material fact, very blonde, glistening, and young. He was also, somehow, the Pharoah from the Book of Genesis; and in this role, he was whipping his four-horse chariot through the children’s room of the local public library—a stand-in, presumably, for the Nile Delta. I watched from helpless dream-vantage as books were trampled, beanbag chairs ripped open, little pebbles of styrofoam tossed into the air or spilled across the carpeting, mingling with horseshit and straw and the pages of Bedtime for Frances. I didn’t understand at the time, of course, how almost comedically literal the dream was—all that gutting of the commons, the “slashing of public spending,” played out viscerally.

As to arriving at a poetics: Music is certainly there (I was a musician before I started writing poems). Music will say something as simple and unyielding as: it’s a poem if it can sing. Translation, too—in the last few years I’ve begun translating poems from Russian, which handily denatures my English for me; that’s part of a poetics, too. But I also think that poetry wants an adversary, formal or actual, it doesn’t really matter: a constraint, a limit, an enemy (or a friend—the best friends we can have are adversaries, kind adversaries). Reagan was probably my first adversary, both on a psychic and a structural level, and because of this, I learned a great deal from him: in a sense, I came to recognize what I loved of the world through him, because he, in turn, opposed everything I loved: everything that was free, everything that was wild, everything that could be stolen, that could be cared for, that could be lost. Reagan would take the gnarled hands of the old man on the bus; he would take the blackberries in the weeded lot behind the Kmart; he would take our house, our food, and he would replace it with ketchup, blue Chrysler minivans, and the parts of the Bible concerned monomaniacally with salvation.

It’s probably clear that Reagan (or “Reagan”—the mascot and causality he’s become) is still my adversary; certainly he is the adversary in The Thomas Salto. This is most obvious in a series of paired poems in the book. On the left-hand side of the page, there is “my” poem, and on the facing page is a poem constructed of text taken from one of Reagan’s speeches. I like to think of each poem in these pairings as at once an original and a translation of the other. It’s important to me that these Reagan “translations” are not erasures, they’re arrangements—of phrases, even whole sentences; in this I tried to preserve his syntax and rhetoric, and to maintain enough of the content to make each individual speech recognizable as itself. I did this not only because Reagan’s style is famously nuts, and the content of his arguments terrifying in a way that erasure would only parodize or efface, but also because I find a weird occasional beauty in his garbled language. As a kid, for instance, I used to think that the phrase “trickle-down” had a kind of loveliness, like clean bedding, or a gully in spring.

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Jesse Nathan’s first book of poems is Eggtooth.