Review by Bill Neumire
THE WONDERFULL YEARE
by Nate Pritts
Cooper Dillon Books
San Diego, CA
2010, 74 pp., $14.00
Recently, I checked out the new press, Cooper Dillon Books, and, after some perusal, I purchased Nate Pritts’ third collection, The Wonderfull Yeare. Why did I choose this title? Well, I found out that Pritts lives in Syracuse just as I do, though we’ve never met. Next, I found out that he graduated from SUNY Brockport, my alma mater. Too much of a coincidence for me to set aside. Pritts even thanks several former professors of mine in his acknowledgements: Ralph Black, Judith Kitchen, and Stan Rubin (the latter two moved to Washington state and started the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA program).
Once I received the book and cracked it open, I read the epigraph from Thomas Dekker. Dekker’s original pamphlet, The Wonderfull Yeare, was a multi-genre account of the events of the plague year 1603 in which the word “wonderful” was meant to mean astonishing, not good. Meanwhile, Pritts’ book, a calendar of sorts, is composed of four seasons, and each season is essentially one long poem. Within a poem, lines and phrases manifest and re-manifest in new positions with new punctuation lending new meanings. It’s sestina or pantoum-like in this way, but less predictable because there’s no prescribed algorithm for where or when the language will reappear. But like Januaries and Julys in the calendar of a wonderfull yeare, lines keep returning. As a matter of fact, the book opens with the lines: “Each year it’s the same damn thing / a constant red ache.” As an example of this reincarnation, take this section from “Spring Psalter”: “Darling, I leave you the forever unblooming / twig half-sunk in spring mud (…) / Darling, darling, darling: my voice is a branch that would reach.” Later in the same poem this becomes: “My voice dissipates into hush & whiffs of light, / A twig in spring mud (…) Darling, darling: my voice is a branch that would reach,” and even later in the same poem it becomes: “Darling, I leave you the forever unblooming. / (…) / Darling, I leave you.” I must admit, I’ve never read anything quite like it. Whereas the sestina is almost always (whether or not intentionally) silly, the pantoum always fraught with simple redundancy. The fact that the repetition here is not predetermined allows Pritts to make the poems more impactful.
There are gobs of white space on these pages; the poems take up no more than 14 lines, and there’s always space within and between lines. These are very airy, intangible, poems, thought-emotion machines with little concrete anchoring. Pritts has said that he’s more comfortable writing in a series or collection as a whole instead of writing each poem extempore and compiling them. As a result, this is not the musical album with poppy singles; this is the album that feels like one long song. Because of its holistic composition, it’s a very fast and pure read. Nothing feels forced into place like an errant puzzle piece. Nothing’s struggling to fit the theme; it’s tremendously organic.
As for the individual seasons, spring, here, is not the season of life, but the season of doubt. It’s as though Pritts ignores the conventional symbolism of the seasons and starts over. As a matter of fact, there’s a plenitude of language about renaming later in the book. Following spring, the poems of “Endless Summer” are each four lines long and are typed vertically, ivying up the page. Ironically, “Endless Summer” is the shortest season of the book, composed of only six four-line poems. Next, “Sonnets for the Fall” is an assemblage of 14 poems, 14 lines each. They have the same white space and airy quality as the other seasons, but this time they’re arranged as sonnets, though without the conventions of rhyme and meter. They do, however, address the classic sonnet theme of romantic love: there’s a relationship between the narrator and the “darling.” These pieces then accumulate into a 14-poem season. You’ve got to hand it to Pritts–he’s clever with his own form and moves with acuity therein. And it can be beautiful, as the sonnets don’t begin and end; they roll into each other like an avalanche of fallen leaves. Lastly, there’s winter “& then afterward.” Some of the sections of “Winter Constellations” actually read like haiku. Take “(xii)” for instance:
Snow dropped in clusters,
staggered & jagged
We don’t matter a bit.
Yet other slices of the winter section reveal some of my linguistic concerns. They seem too easy, too unmoored. Take this, for example:
& first sunlight.
I could never close my eyes to light.
But there was no light
& you looked like night.
It takes a hefty setting of groundwork to build a reader’s trust enough to accept the preceding lines. I’m not sure I completely felt that trust, though I must confess that I haven’t read Pritts’ previous two collections, Honorary Astronaut (Ghost Road Press) and Sensational Spectacular (BlazeVOX).
So, what’s at stake in these cerebral, yet emotional pieces? It seems to be an abstract struggle against meaninglessness, against “not matter[ing] a bit.” The context is a romance, a troubled romance with a “you” and a “we.” This is a tough and lofty project, and the hovering language doesn’t always feel warranted. Take this section as a second example:
Seasons of travail, happy seasons of agony, the look
of pain & anguish, that same transcience, the seasons
transient, changing, always holding on & then the fall
Certainly, this is plucked up and laid bare in front of you, but it’s representative of the risk this collection takes. On the other hand, there are certainly very poignant, thought and language-provoking sections as well. Here is a personal favorite from “Spring Psalter”:
Proclaim, with me, the dawning
of an attempt to ascertain the meaning, to figure out
where the wires plug in & what, then, might happen.
Reaching, wind-blown, imprecise lack, worry—
these are the many names of the sorry condition
I hope to define. But who can understand the complex
vestiges that limit us, the vast machinery of what
has gone trudging before. Determinant & co-determinant!
In order to be fair, we as readers and critics must have room for more than one poetics. We must meet each poet on his or her own terms. The narrator of this collection operates with a frailty of doubt in a land where negative capability is a passport. What are his terms? In an interview with Elizabeth Hildreth of Bookslut, Pritts said of his own collection, “I want you dizzy & confused right alongside me; I want you befuddled & awestruck while holding my hand. There is no medicine when one is sicke at heart, save ‘comforting speech.’ That seemed crucial to what I was doing in these poems.” Certainly, this book is worth its quick read, and I have no doubt that it will leave you befuddled and dizzy; will it leave you awestruck and holding his hand?
Bill Neumire’s reviews have appeared in the Cortland Review, Hiram Poetry Review, Pedestal Magazine, and Umbrella. Recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Rattle, Sugar House Review, The Toucan, and Cloudbank. He writes and teaches in Syracuse, New York with his wife and dog. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.