Civilization Makes Me Lonely
Winner of the 2016 Sawtooth Poetry Prize, judged by Anne Boyer
“This book is wicked. Who knew that poetry could frack the totality?” —Anne Boyer
The poems in Nelson’s Civilization Makes Me Lonely present a plethora of resistances to normalization. The resistances are anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-misogynist; they include fantasies of subverting surveillance technology and big-data algorithms; and sometimes they rely on breakdowns of communication into sonic mimicry, as in a series of poems gibbered by the “Sleeper” agent. Grief about failed escape attempts yields not to optimism about any future, but rather to a reorganization of history as permanently open to multiple meanings. Nelson, an art historian, believes in “art’s power to reform bad archives.”
Murder, She Wrote Art History as Ekphrasis
Simple talking about a plot
far from being a rigorous pursuit, she thinks
art history cabin fever
certainly since its founding you got a good recipe for crow
Transformation from a thing that signifies by volume,
that the US weather service warns
Shape, definitely on the way
Visual resonance, for heaven’s sakes don’t
texture your back out again
The art historian may take his or her own pictures, asleep in the van
in which case the “objective” hello
is a 1939–45 war. Do you like to tango?
Yet the problem is that what we adduce as formal in my class
is in fact not the men’s room
The main group shows partial overlaps on the plane; “get up here fast!”
the figure who falls into the barrel, to repeat
Allegory of Gluttony just north
of the tapering fingers, Sheriff,
the bow very long now
the quiver very terrible
perspective here and there, but I thought
the chair-back was odd, Grandpa
(if grandfather lived alone)
The maker this morning
in this final meditation was shot
The Rondanini Pietà was Michelangelo’s last statement on his sons
The process of its rise is reacting, a
fall and rise again in the European artistic tradition: you don’t remember
its limitations, spending the summer
leaping from the described image into one’s own argument more
than in judging why I don’t believe for a second
Copyright © 2017 by Jennifer Nelson
“Let us counter the equations,” proposes poet and art historian Nelson in her playful, defiant follow-up to Aim at the Centaur Stealing Your Wife. Wending through academic institutions and their politics, social interactions, “The Protest Market,” and recesses—both historical and interior—carved out by “the life lived hermeneutically,” Nelson confronts the violence of empire, which comes in myriad insidious forms, particularly for a woman of color in America. Nelson knows that the stakes are epistemological—“scholars agree, Objectivity/ arises as reflex/ when Europeans take over/ the world or kill trying”—and jest and imagination are essential elements of her poems’ subversive tactics. Dealing in the quicksilver changes and referential modes that characterize the contemporary, Nelson mines the improbable proximities that abound in lives lived digitally, but she does so with attention to the active roles that constructed pasts take on in this ever-renewing present. She writes, in reference to “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” that “the condemned cannot experience time,” and Nelson’s collection mimics the strangeness, suffering, and exuberance of Bosch’s famous triptych. If “a good art historian/ puppets a skeleton/ in front of the living/ while being a skeleton/ a little while,” as a poet Nelson leads that skeleton in an entirely new dance. —Publishers Weekly
My first job in high school was as a fund accounting intern at State Street Bank in Quincy and Boston, MA, in a different part of the company from where my mother, a Filipino immigrant, then worked as an IT executive. My parents (my first-generation-college-educated father was a mutual funds executive at the time) were determined that I would appreciate how the world worked, i.e., why we no longer shopped for everything at K-Mart. So there I was, a sixteen-year-old poet checking amortization discrepancies on Russian bonds at the bottom of a probably digitally decaying Access database. The other fund accountants at work were nice to me, but they lived for the end of the workday. Three summers of intense self-loathing and alienation taught me a lot: I would never willingly work in finance; I was guilty of unearned privilege and of unearned, mindless facility at school-like tasks; and I nevertheless would probably deploy all privileges and meaningless achievements available to avoid a 9–5 job and find a different world.
An academic career through a bunch of privileged institutions has been the practical form of this effort. I’m now an assistant professor in the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. After studying literature in college, I chose art history to protect my mind from shaping itself around too much textual analysis, while still stirring things up next door.
But art history isn’t just some random auxiliary function. It literally makes me feel like I am flying along a river in the afternoon, imitating the river in the air. Since I secretly think art history includes all other disciplines, I can head in any direction at any moment. And I like the slippery relation between 1) using traces of human endeavor to understand the endeavor in its distinct and distant context and 2) recognizing those traces for their present value. Or, to put it less cynically, I like art history’s spatiotemporally complex way of relating interpretation and love.
Lately I’ve tried to use poetry for similar operations. The interaction among sensoria-meanings (like sounds and rhythms and how different phonemes feel in your real/imagined mouth) and semantic meanings and shared/unshared associative meanings, and the weights of traditional interactions among these meanings, as a vehicle for a spatiotemporally complex relation between interpretation and love? Total canyon, so many rivers. I like that no one can control or measure how this world affects the other.
For me, poetry has long been a refuge from the pressure to make statements. In fact, I used to think that the feeling of a good poem was the feeling of outrunning the critical kind of smarts that I associate with statement-making. I don’t think I was totally wrong.
But I can say some things about why I wrote this book. The intense normalization pressures on me from an early age—as a person of color in the US, as the child of an immigrant and a class-shifter, and as my weird self, beyond these demographics—have often had disastrous consequences. I see analogues of the same pressures everywhere. Is there any point in being a warrior against those pressures? One of my reactions is to show some of the many ways normalization works to isolate people (and makes them lonely) rather than bringing them together. Purity is another myth that isolates, as is the concept of neutrality. It may be a commonplace that everything is marked and mixed, but too many people still act as if purity and neutrality are admittedly unattainable but ideal goals. I wanted my poems instead to pursue markedness and mixedness thoroughly and see what living inside that pursuit would be like.
In other words, I want my poems to sustain values through which human difference can thrive beyond essentialist rhetoric and touristic consumption of the Other for a normed mainstream. Instead of being utopian, which never seems to work, I think my book mainly targets the past. If these poems work, they approach the past—especially through the representative outliers of a fraught art history—in such a way as to render a non-normed future tenable.