Reviews Sara Nicholson's The Living Method
Sara Nicholson, The Living Method, Brooklyn, NY: The Song Cave, 2014. 92pp.
"Yes, it is my duty / to copy the mannerisms of winter" Sara Nicholson writes in her debut collection, The Living Method (Song Cave, 2014). On the surface these are syntactically alluring poems; on closer inspection they are intelligent and nimble—delightfully resistant to any kind of reductive reading. Throughout the collection, beginning with the first poem "winter garden" and including "Mes Devoirs" (78) quoted above, Nicholson tips us off that this collection operates largely—though not solely—under the aegis of Wallace Stevens. As in Stevens there is disaffection and abstraction of the speaker, a sensuousness of syllable and attraction to syntax. Here too, are the cosmopolitanism and breezy frenchisms ("No matter, l'air is difficult" (4), "Mes Devoirs" (78)). And of course the lines:
Of what is not there is nothingwhich are not so much a reformulation of Stevens' "Snow Man", so much as they are a rough, loosely tossed-off recitation of a familiar poem known to the speaker by heart.
and of what is there is nothing but
the contours of trees (4)
Beyond Stevens, a tinge of the metaphysical informs and resides in this collection. A Marvellian preoccupation with gardens abounds. If this collection had a concordance, "garden" would be the most frequently found noun. But if this is metaphysical poetry it is only so in temperament, which is to say it is metaphysical without the extended conceit. It is worth noting that Nicholson establishes a metaphysical attraction to a multi-disciplinary poetics: geometry, art history, cartography, religion, literary theory and linguistics all collide in poems that accordion outward with possibility. Take the word play in "Contra Nostalgia" (14) for instance:
Memory of the fire and its statisticsHere Nicholson showcases the multiplicity of meaning. "Figures" are models for representational art, but can also be strung out into their latent meaning as literary figures and numerical values. Cymbals double homonymically as literary symbols. "Recount" is both counting again and recalling from memory. Nicholson tap dances over a wide terrain of disciplines and lexicons, carrying over logical constructions into syntactically seductive lines: "think of the sky as P and not Q: / where P is false, Q stands for romance. / Rain could never be subjunctive." (61) In a phrase such as "let paintings / be the crucibles of thought and poverty / be different from vivid portraits of the sea" (26), the reader hears biblical injunction and mathematical premise overlapping. Geometry, cartography, memoir, logic, linguistics, grammar, philosophy, literary theory, art history, computer programming, romance languages, the classics, mythology, biology—all are subjects activated throughout.
Belongs here, though numberless
Are the figures I've been drawing in air.
The tulips look like cymbals
because they are red, brown, and white.
The nightingales count. I recount them.
But what is it that these studious poems are studying to do? And what about the title? The Stevensian / modernist proclivity for the seasons may very well account for the balanced cordoning off of the book into four parts. But the trope underlying it isn't a simple one of cyclical return, or a summation of any vegetation myth. Perhaps we can see in the four sections a corollary to Francis Bacon's scientific method, which itself breaks down (roughly) into four sections (hypothesis / experiment / data collection / conclusions). Understanding The Living Method as Nicholson's response to the scientific method lends her reference to metaphysical poetics a kind of graceful heft. Nicholson's Living Method is similar to the scientific method insofar as it is interested in investigating the nature of things, but differs insofar as it doesn't give a fig about empirical knowledge. Nicholson's method is a linguistic inquiry of the world; the speaker doesn't set out to prove anything, but to reinvigorate contemporary poetry with a metaphysical inclination to pull from a wider, more heterogeneous range of disciplines, a throwback to natural philosophy's aim to know a priori, without being tied to empirical proof. This method is living and breathing, a wild and organic method.
Mid-collection Nicholson bemoans "Nothing will have the wherewithal / to sound me out. Not the wind, / complex among the poplars this season. / Not the occasional email, / reminding us of what's missing: // a field of poppies and a book review, / a really good one" (47-48). And having brought all the wherewithal we have to bear on this beguiling and remarkable first collection, there still there remain questions. In spite of looking to Stevens and Marvel, there still remain questions regarding ideas of lyric theory, or the place of Lorine Niedecker's afterthought of an epigraph. But that's the beauty of The Living Method: you bring your research questions and it gives you lines like "the prophet / has one hundred daughters and a modicum / of rose, like I do, though unlike him // I have no instrument with which / to remain hidden, no monologues // to recall his gardens to me." (5). I am taken by this collection, with its studied sophistication, and its wily curiousness.
It may be true that The Living Method remains yet to be sounded out. But if art Marina Tsvetaeva says, "the sole givenness of the answer" and "all our art is in managing[…] to put, to each answer before it evaporates, our question. This being outgalloped by answers is what inspiration is" then this is just that—art outgalloping our questions.
Tsvetaeva, Marina. Art in the Light of Conscience: Eight Essays on Poetry. Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2010. Print.