BooksWeekend

Reader’s Diary: The Importance of Being a Simile

Although the poetry in Geoffrey Nutter’s Cities at Dawn is almost always calmly descriptive, whatever it describes is somehow something else and not itself.

Full disclosure: My daughter took a creative writing course from the author of this book. She told me he disapproved of any poem with a simile in it. I can now inform her that he practices what he preaches — or almost. The work “like” appears hardly more than a handful of times in its entire hundred-plus pages. In one instance, there’s a coatrack “that stands like what might be / a serious man who watches you.” There are also a few suspect occurrences of “as”; however, that may not matter, since the simile itself may be precisely what it says, “as insignificant / as bluish flowerets or tea.” A passage near the beginning of the book’s long title poem (unfortunately the volume’s weak point, it reads like a gathering of all the random passages the poet couldn’t quite resolve) gives a good example of why Geoffrey Nutter probably should have been even more stringent in avoiding simile: “Purple apples snapping / under hailstones / are as logical / and cavernous as summer.” The force of a simile depends on the faith that at least one of its terms can count as “literally” whatever it is — that is, if “my love is like a red, red rose,” then a rose is just a rose, and no thanks to Gertrude Stein. In this poetry, on the other hand, similes may be of negligible value because the sense of the literal is so attenuated. Though its tone is almost always calmly descriptive, whatever it describes is always somehow something else and not itself, even when it comes to things like, oh, say, “the fine / loose earth, and the powdered gypsum, / the powdered lime and the unsized stone” — materials that for some other kind of poet might be avatars of irreducible is-ness. But between William Carlos Williams’s “No ideas but in things” and Nutter’s “All trees war against ideas” and “There are no ideals, save / in marl under ant-farms,” lies an abyss. In Nutterland, things invariably seem to be “double-sided / panels that turn toward one another, then away / at intervals, depending on the speed and direction of the wind,” as he wrote in the poem that might serve as his ars poetica, “The Radiant Manifest” (perhaps there is an invisible “o” at the end of that last word). Thus, as the poem continues, “we were attempting to ‘think it through’ in the way that we knew how. / But it’s not something you can think your way through— / You think your way in and stay there.” If things have names, it’s only for the nonce, simply “because they needed to be called something, if only for a moment.” There’s a peculiar, willfully unstable mix of emotive lyricism and deadpan irony that seems to fascinate a lot of poets of the generation who are now, like Nutter, in what’s called mid-career; I can’t help but think they want to somehow preserve the lyrical vulnerability of James Wright, W.S. Merwin, et al., without pretending to ignore how Language poetry and its offshoots subverted the lyrical subject “not by saying anything about ourselves, but only saying the words themselves.” The tone in which the words are said is not unfamiliar. But that tone, and the feeling that animates it, comes through more clearly and purely in Nutter’s poems than in those of most of his contemporaries, because his ear is more scrupulous. It’s a tone that is best captured by one of his rare similes, appropriately enough a negative one: “like love, it is easy to say what it is not, / nearly impossible to say what it is.”

Geoffrey Nutter’s Cities at Dawn (2016) is published by Waves Books and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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