The epigraph that opens Geoffrey Nutter’s new collection, The Rose of January, (Wave Books, 2013), is from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Lettuce, apple, or melon, in season—so long as it is good….When their hour is past do not try to move the hand back on the dial & do them again but try that undone something which is in season now, celery, ice, or cucumbers.”
It’s the perfect beginning for “the undone something”captures the essence of Nutter’s poetry.
Nutter has a playful style, and his poems encourage readers to accept the creations of his imagination at face value, whether he is writing about “famous androids,” a clock tower, a “cubicle farm,” “Habitable Bridges,” or “The City of Magnificent Distances.” Like Italo Calvino meets Wallace Stevens meets William Gass with a dash of Kafka tossed in, Nutter’s writing has one foot planted firmly in reality and the other in the fantastical world of the poet’s imagination.
Nutter’s universe is both strange and familiar. Much like a Surrealist painter, he has a talent for throwing disparate items together, and the end result is both surprising and entirely original. One doesn’t expect a poem about Marvelous Marvin Hagler’s famous bout with Mustafa Hamsho to reference rainbow trout or a fleur-de-lys. Unexpected juxtapositions and non sequiturs characterize The Rose of January. Emerson’s “celery, ice, or cucumbers” could be a line from a Geoffrey Nutter poem.
Nutter has a wicked sense of humor too. In “King of the Dudes,” for example, he takes the idea of a “bad dad” and runs with it. “One Halloween we did dress my daughter up as a little man, complete with mustache and pipe,” Nutter told me via email, “and I thought, ‘Jesus, what kind of sick father would do such a thing…?’” Nutter uses the incident as inspiration and, in his own words, pushes the idea “to ridiculous extremes.”
“Some of the same parenting ambivalence comes out in ‘Invective Against Pugs,” says Nutter, “which is about pugs but also about parents and the way they (we) sort of exalt children”:
People with babies
are as strange as people
with pugs. Pugs, so small
and ugly, baby-like,
inexplicably decked out
or dolled up in their
Geoffrey Nutter has a sharp eye, as well, and uses his sense of humor to throw everyday objects and incidents into high relief.
In “Tire Manufacturers” Nutter creates poetry by listing tire-makers from around the world:
Kenda Rubber, Southeast Asia.
Michelin. Mitsuboshi Belting. Mohawk Rubber.
Panther (England), Phillips Petroleum.
Phoenix Gummiwerke. Samson, Titan Tire.
This poem and “Remember the Telephone Book” (included below), show Nutter’s skill at making even the most banal objects intriguing.
“Geoffrey Nutter[s']… poetry seems to be powered equally by sunlight, virtue, wonder, and humility,” writes Nate Pritts of Rain Taxi. I couldn’t agree more.
Here are five poems from The Rose of January to kick off your Sunday.
Remember the Telephone Book
Remember the telephone book?
It once enjoyed pride of place
in many a kitchen, in many
a breakfast nook, warped
and yellow, its spine out of joint,
thicker than the Pentateuch and Septuagint,
thicker than the Ramayana, vaguely
scrofulous and antiquated even just
unwrapped from its cellophane sleeve.
You would reach for it, retrieve it
as one would pull something fully formed
from wet loam, heave it up on your knees
and it would flop open on your knees,
just a little obscenely. In its
white pages you could always find
the number for one Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
or the street address for Clara Aufklärung;
in its yellow pages how to terminate
manhole rats or the Bridge and Tunnel
Authority, the blue pages for the offices
of governance in domed enclosures
or how to contact the sellers of tiles,
bricks, porcelain insulators,
and household crockery. And now?
Well then. It seems the telephone book has gone the way
of the top hat, the nosegay, the Automat, the rules
for auction bridge, the Hobson-Jobson
dictionary, or the plays of Richard
Brinsley Sheridan. Some printing concern,
likely in New Jersey, is printing still,
at night in a hidden maze of districts,
and some shadow courier service is bringing
them around to you; but who will have
the heavy, humble though self-serious
telephone book? You can see them stacked
like yellow cinder blocks in lobbies,
clumped in a master-block by shrink wrap
beneath the dark mail slots. A few days
later, someone just as discreetly
takes them away to an as yet undisclosed location.
Petrarch wrote sonnets.
So did Wyatt, and Henry Howard, Earl
of Surrey. Then came Shakespeare,
addressing his sullen, unprocreative friend
and his “dark lady.” His sonnets
were good, and Helen Vendler
agrees with me. Then one day,
someone called a poem a sonnet,
but it wasn’t really a sonnet.
It was just a poem with fourteen (14) lines.
Then came other irregularities,
like coats with three sleeves. Even
if this poem now has fourteen lines,
does that make it a sonnet?
Mountains, it goes without saying, have
no mothers. Neither do cities,
though they seem to need them
more than they need mayors. Cougars
stalk the borders of the vineyard
just beyond the fences. Then very
skinny poems, bones showing through,
like delicate electric fishes.
These too called sonnets. I used to
think: the word was not sonnet, but
a “sonning.” It still seems
to make more sense, as if pertaining
to songs, singing, sonar, solar flares.
But as for the state of sonnet affairs:
it doesn’t seem like a bad thing. The Shasta daisy
shines in daylight, named by its maker
(Luther Burbank, incidentally)—anyone
is free to call a thing a sonning
just as a sunset is the end to any day.
Whether it adheres or doesn’t, it goes
darkening the yellow flower, nameless
in a glacial meadow.
King of the Dudes
What kind of father would dress
his newborn baby girl as a Victorian
English gentleman and call her
Mr. Wopsle? I am aghast.
A triple-breasted vest, you say?
A frock coat and a wide cravat?
What did he hope to gain from this?
Does a vague resemblance to Benjamin
Disraeli or a railroad baron
better ensure a hasty weaning?
Will she more readily master Mandarin?
Did he name her Quentin Crisp
or Evander Berry Wall? Is she
a little plutocrat, an Oscar Wilde
amongst the puppies?
Did he walk her through
the Crystal Palace while she twirled
a silver-knobbed cane?
And was she garbed in a startling striped shirt
in red and sky blue, wide trousers
tapered at the ankle, and white spats?
It was a dirty trick akin to
mango showers, cashews in iced
coffee, root beer on the roots
of redwoods. A top hat wreathed
in wintergreen, sea bream, shaving
cream. With a fob watch (what?!),
yes, a fob watch that told the
time twice in Jakarta, and the cricket
scores in Lahore and Rawalpindi.
You have over-starched her collar,
yes, you’ve over-starched the Egyptian
Single-stitching of her collar.
I will see you in court—and not
a court of squash or Basque pelota—
if you will, a court of law,
a royal or imperial court
where they will place this lovely
child, this erstwhile little gentleman,
atop the grand piano
beside a Ming vase overflowing
The world’s largest seated bronze Buddha
is green, like a rooftop in an old city
where rain is falling with its ancient sound,
where men in topcoats hurry past the ministries
with the craggy shapes of bustards staring down,
and its face with its half-dosed, heavy-lidded
eyes is stamped on red tablets—is he sleeping?
Is he growing angry with us in the cities,
judging from his throne in pink haze, watching
men gnaw the touchstone, watching men nibble
the scraps of governmental largesse?
For we have been given, and have been given
pepper spray and electricity, tigresses
and near invisibility; the eight-day clock,
red-tape protocols, the rotatory calabash;
and a seven-foot tall lath and plaster hat
mounted on wheels and dragged along
the boulevards—and he is giant, stone,
and tranquil and angry as a flower, as a flame,
a statue of liberty in full lotus. What would it take
to make him stand? Once upon a time
the world’s largest standing Buddhas
were standing at timeless attention
in their niches in the Afghanistan cliffs.
Who thought vigilance could look so like peace?
Let us say an angry Shanti as they pass.
Are you going to see the circle?
Some say it is a ring, some a circle, some a chain of rings, some a chain.
It will be rising over the park at nightfall.
It will rise, burning, and form a burning circle in the sky.
It will be a very precious hour.
The whole city will turn out, in the grass, in trees, on rooftops.
The very rich will watch from dragon boats along the waterfront.
Oh yes, it’s winter, the rail tops are frozen, blue, and the sun is nothing.
Tremendous flakes are drifting down from the mountains.
The sun is nothing. The sky is nothing.
The sun is going down behind the dark, motionless peaks.
People are coming out of the buildings like lovers.
Now we are watching ourselves from above.
We are watching ourselves from the buildings, then from the mountaintops,
and from the sky.
Look: we’re watching ourselves from the sun.
We’re beautiful walking on the earth, under stars, under clouds, under buildings,
under trees, hand in hand.
We can be what we were meant to be, and have known we always were, thrilled
and redesigned like by our lovers.
We are everywhere, instantly: the electric stations crackle on full power, running
on the ghost impulses of the waterfalls.
The million city lights flicker for an instant like sunlight passing over canebrake,
they crash off and plunge us into night’s sweet grape leaves.
The night is cavernous and gorgeous, endless, carnivorous.
Great pads of snow are forming in silence, ice forms in radiant darkness.
Owls and boulders and gargoyles count down slowly from one thousand
in a whisper.
And the circle is rising, as promised.
It is a ring, a chain, a V, a sphere, a burning sign.
It’s burning off the snow and firing the rails.
It’s rising over the buildings, over trees.
If it happened once in every thousand years, we would all converge
upon the tallest prospects to behold it.
It’s the sunset, it’s the night, it’s the stars, and then
it’s the beginning of another day.
About Geoffrey Nutter
Originally from California, Geoffrey Nutter has lived in New York City for many years. He is the author of four collections of poetry, including A Summer Evening (winner of the 2001 Colorado Prize), Water’s Leaves and Other Poems (winner of the 2004 Verse Press Prize), Christopher Sunset (Wave Books, April 2010), and most recently, The Rose of January (Wave Books, June 2013). He earned degrees from both San Francisco State University and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. His poems have been widely anthologized, including in The Best American Poetry, The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries and Isn’t It Romantic: 100 Poems by Younger American Poets. Nutter has taught at The New School, Columbia University, New York University, and the University of Iowa.
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All poems © Geoffrey Nutter. All Rights Reserved. These poems appear in The Rose of January (Wave Books, 2013) and were reprinted with permission from the author and Wave Books.