From the center out...

Review: A Paleontologist’s Notebook, (1995) poetry by Susan Smith Nash, $9.00, Left Hand Books, (ISBN: 1-880516-16-0), introduction by David Matlin.


Once upon a time. Stories still start this way. I went to my mailbox expecting dragons and dross and received diamonds. Well, not exactly, never exactly. Dragons? Bills aplenty. Dross? 90 % of anything. Diamonds almost never, but always the hope, the reason for my quick step when I hear the mailbox door open or my dog barking at the carrier. I opened a letter containing poems and immediately got interested and excited. Susan Smith Nash. Never heard of her. So much for my ignorance. I was about to be instructed about diamonds. I accepted a poem for my magazine, BullHead. Then while arranging the poems I kept re-reading this one and moved it to the front, making it the opening act in the drama that I try to make of each issue. And it kept moving me, opening me. Last week in the mail I received A Paleontologist’s Notebook, poetry by Susan Smith Nash. I anticipate month’s of pleasure-filled reading.

Last year Clayton Eshleman’s Under World Arrest was my poetry book of the year, a genuine publishing event that went under noticed. Diamonds, well you’d think they’d be easy to see. I’m still mining that book. This year, it’s Susan Smith Nash’s Notebook. Both of these books are brutally honest in a way that poetry seldom is anymore. Both of these books are fearless in a time of timidity. Jesus, how much has 16 years of Republican rule really cost us? In his introduction to this book, David Matlin compares Nash to Poe, specifically to William Carlos Williams’ remarks on Poe (in In the American Grain): “His attack was from the center out....” And as Williams continued where Matlin leaves him: “Either I exist or I do not exist and no amount of pap which I happen to be lapping can dull me to the loss.” It is with this reading of resurrection (an apt term for it!) that Williams gave to Poe that is the model for reading Nash. Hers is also an attack from the center out, but it is a contemporary attack, and the center, as Yeats reminded us at the opening of the century-of-horrors we call the twentieth, does not hold. Where does this awareness, this constant awareness, and there is a significant difference between these two poses, leave the poet? In some difficulty!

Nash brings her awareness of the condition of our world to each poem in a way that keeps this volume of short meditations, long prose poems, notations from her Peruvian notebooks, and the anti-lyrics of a seemingly simple poem like “Inside the Zip-Up Grape Ape” all connected and to be read as a piece, one long poem, a paleontologist’s notebook in the sense that Charles Olson’s collected non-Maximus poems were an archeologist’s notebook. A long prose piece called “Buying Tribolites” begins “I never expected to see street vendors selling fossils, especially not in La Paz, Bolivia.” and ends “It was much easier to keep Mary an abstraction, or simply an artesania, albeit a cultural one, to be consumed selfishly whenever one is in the mood for convenient catharsis.” If you are in this mood, which is the mood of most of our political poetry, stay away from this woman’s work. But that is like saying stay away from your own center, which maybe is what most readers do. But beware. You might end up like me, hooked into a single poem by a single reading, and left with months of nagging awareness, much, again, like Poe as read by Williams, that these poems are likely to not leave you alone, more likely to confront you in the odd moments when you let down your defenses against seeing clearly, when the force that keeps the “Mary”s as abstractions momentarily wavers, ripples, or whatever it does to allow us glimpses into the truth of our situation in this world.