A Reflection on Amanda Nadelberg’s Bright Brave Phenomena

Bright Brave Phenomena

by Amanda Nadelberg (Coffee House Press, 2012)

A Reflection by Casey McAlduff


Amanda Nadelberg’s second book, Bright Brave Phenomena, is the triple threat that its title posits—Nadelberg’s verse is an honest call—a kind of collaged feeling-object- pile that speaks for its insides and its outsides at once. Each poem surprises the reader with its popping (and “poppy”) thoughts, exposing the phenomena inherent in comprehension, and surprise. Though those that still use terms like ‘low-brow culture’ may refer to the poems’ materials as ‘regular’, Nadelberg’s crafting of ‘daily’ objects like AC/DC, wrapping paper, and cassette tapes is anything but usual. An easy way to discuss the work would be to call it idiomatic, but that term seems to make Nadelberg’s poetry less than what it is.

Chris Martin, who selected Nadelberg as one of the Poetry Society of America’s New American Poets in 2011, more precisely captures the author’s spirit when he describes her work as, “an aphoristic generosity that makes living more tolerable, or at least, more explainable.” Nadelberg’s verse in Bright Brave Phenomena is indeed generous, and moreover, its inclusive—it has no ulterior plan and does not exclude any kind of listener.  The world of this book is one that pays attention to randomness, and the way that cultures’ interests peak, decline, and trend.

In the interviews she’s published about the book, Nadelberg states that she was influenced by the work of French filmmaker Eric Rohmer, and more generally, by film’s unique ability to provide a viewer with a visual component to accompany their thoughts. Though text is rarely able to provide a comparative vision for a reader, Nadelberg’s work contains a depth of color and scene that serves to engage the reader in the same way that a movie engages its observer, while still remaining open to the imagination in the way only abstracted image can:

“…I could show you

something but I don’t want to, I have to

keep my coat on, I have to

take us home. The pin light at

the end of my mind flashes off

like it just had to. Color as your new

best friend, I asked you what you’re

still doing here, you said you wanted fire.”

(“I’ll Say It Again,” p. 96)

These poems don’t belong to any one person, but to a coat of words that evoke a culture of looking; of expression, of entertainment. Though I can imagine members of academia towing their noses up at Nadelberg saying, “There’s a whole word-universe that these poems belong to. Record players. Sneakers. Telephones,” Nadelberg’s work carries in its core the perplexed affect of current-day America, and moreover, displays an interest in it. The tone of Nadelberg’s poems is one that is not ironic, but that actually believes in popular culture and its effects; one that is both observer of human behavior and a human trying to behave.

Not to mention the way that the language of Bright Brave Phenomena eerily plays with lingo and advertisement, flirting with the delightful capacities of language as well its potential danger to stick and take over.  As a reader/consumer, I leave Nadelberg’s poems with echoes of jingle, not wanting it put another away. Take the entire poem “Summary,” (p. 84) for example, which includes such bright turns of speech as:

“Let me tell you, her skin is beautiful. There are other

kinds of money and we could be better for the masses.

Empty the house and keep going. If I hold the pillow and

you listen,  you are the ocean. Oh, Sweet Flag, lying

in the field like anything living lying down, come here!”

As you can tell from this sample, what’s also refreshing about Nadelberg is how funny she is, an element of her work that also contributes to its honesty and inclusion. Her wit is not used to degrade, but rather to recap for the reader the dual existence of comedy and tragedy (“You looking here/at you,”) and to remind us of the ways that chance can breed horrifying situations just as much as it can hilarious ones. Or, as she puts it in her Coffee House Press interview with Geoffrey Hilsabeck: “there are also terrible parties that people go to.” What impresses me about Bright Brave Phenomena is this combination of impersonality and personality; how Nadelberg is able to make honesty, which is so often thought of as ‘real’;

“How a certain

dress and a certain

shoe can make a girl.”

(“Another Interpretation,” p. 23)

Rather than sit in the realm of reality, or the presentation of matter as complete—Nadelberg instead explores that which has notbeen totally realized, and is “fascinated by what imaginary things we can make as honest as possible.”  Nadelberg’s reckoning with the ‘not’, or the power of absence, is talked about in all of the interviews and reviews I’ve read about her and her work. Absence, like chance, can reward us and punish us; it can make the heart grow fonder, or it can make it forget:

“Clouds fiery, like a

problematic bear, we

color these afterthoughts

random, like appetite. As

happens with any absence,

some things will no longer be

that monster, a person greets

nightmare when they become

nightmare. So…”

Aside from the brilliance of small phrases like “problematic bear”, and the image of coloring afterthoughts, here, Nadelberg also wittily compares appetite and absence, drawing the connection for the reader that absence, like appetite, subsides once its desire is filled. Absence, thus, must be preserved or else it will disappear. For me, this focus on the effect of absence is another aspect of the verse’s openness, where every line presents new possibility, and never allows ‘the real’, or unsurpring, prosey langauge to take over.  For example, rather than stick to realist detail, Nadelberg is more impressionistic, displaying men and women who are both ‘nobodys’ and ‘everybodys’—the “hideous people”, the “little friend”, the “pretty boy.” In other words, she captures the phenomenal way that one person’s tiny experiences can inhabit the realm of universality:

“angry. I named you Field,

you brought me flowers,

we broke our necks on

small time.”

(“How Did This Happen,” p. 30)

The detail of who is not there, but the entire feeling is, allowing the subject to remain open to anybody who wishes to fill the scene. Thus, the absence of distinct subject preserves imaginative capacity, and also creates a sense of empathy, of the text’s ability to be more than just one personality. That Nadelberg began writing poetry in elementary school after being identified as one of the ‘sensitive’ students comes as no surprise. This story, told by Amanda to Daniel Nester during an interview for the Best American Poetry series, seems especially relevant to the author’s work some 25 years down the line:

“I have always been sensitive. In 3rd grade I was pulled out of class for a special poetry workshop for a few kids. That’s when this all started. I wrote a poem about saying hello and goodbye in many languages.”

Whether this is true or not doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s a situation that resonates in a true way. Nadelberg’s poems speak many languages, from human to beast, and therefore allow us as readers to communicate with an array of vantage points through a single mind. In Bright Brave Phenomena, Nadelberg doesn’t give ‘voice to the voiceless’ in the standard way—rather, she inhabits the Spoken and reinvents it, or better yet, reinvests in it. By using a cast of everyday characters and symbolic tropes, Nadelberg allows language to reach its height of intention, and then abandons it wildly. In this way, she seems to me an author that is dedicated to language that avoids conclusion, and one that is committed to curbing the tragedy (i.e. the exclusion) of statement:

“Nature abhors a vacuum, and I say things

because I’m going to lead you to a place and

when we get there it will be so sad…”

(“Our Situation,” p. 8)


Review of Powell’s Useless Landscape or A Guide for Boys

Useless Landscape or A Guide for Boys by D.A. Powell (Graywolf Press, 2012)

Reviewed by Casey McAlduff

In his most recent volume of poetry, Useless Landscape or A Guide for Boys, D.A. Powell masterfully cultivates the paradox of growth as both a positive and negative transformative force. Here, growth is decay is achievement; is both pride and dismay. Riffing off of common parental advice, Powell uses the agricultural landscape of California’s Central Valley (Useless Landscape) as well as the oath of the Boy Scouts (A Guide for Boys) to remind the reader that growth, in all of its forms, comes more often from trial and error than it does from success.

Because Useless Landscape or A Guide for Boys seems to be the poet’s most personal book to date, perhaps the most poignant commentary about growth manifests in the work’s encounter with illness, where the term “growth” is most commonly associated with tumors and cancers.  The verse, like the landscapes it’s addressing, is thus littered, creating a discussion between the natural and the chemical, between the body and the antibody. Take the poem “Dying in Development” for example, whose title alone sheds light on the poet’s ability to capture the irony of progress through tiny packets of language. In this poem, a “Taco Bell and KFC/merge as one fantastical beast with crispy wings,” so that the playful horror of human innovation can collide with it’s daunting consequence: “We shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed” (Useless Landscape, page 21).

As he has demonstrated in his previous books (Tea, Lunch, Cocktails, and Chronic) D.A. Powell has a talent for expanding the lyric form into the experimental and metaphysical realm while simultaneously writing with an accessible, “everyman” tone—maintaining what John Freeman for the LA Times called a “double vision—or an ability to communicate the interior and exterior worlds of experience. In keeping with this mode, Useless Landscape or A Guide for Boys tackles both the seeming objectivity of the visual (the Landscape) as well as the seeming subjectivity of the textual (the Guide).

In this way, Powell also sows an intriguing relationship between Beauty and Morality, and between Art and Law. Whereas the first half of the book takes the ekphrastic technique and uses it as a means to create an ethical commentary, as a didactic text and not a painting would usually do; the second half of the book uses the instructional manual form to paint startling images of boyhood that rather than preach, reflect (as a piece of art would, impossibly free of frame) on the experience of experience. This intelligent blend of form and content turns the world inside out, like a pocket giving up its treasure. In Powell’s dexterous mind, the visual—or the public— becomes inflected with personal significance, while the ethical, the interpretative—the private— becomes ground for all to question, bulldoze, and build upon.

In “Seven Sketches for a Landscape, Unfinished,” for instance, Powell journalistically describes six scenes of political upheaval and state punishment in order to reach the seventh stanza, the only piece of the poem that utilizes traditional poetic technique, and the part in which the reader is asked to think about the poem’s ethical terms: “The rains still bring the rivers to a crest.// [Here’s where you imagine the rest]”  (Useless Landscape, page 17).  Meanwhile, in “Narcissus”, the poet uses image and metaphor to achieve guidance rather than the direct speech of the book’s first half:

“Not every boy who desires fame gets it the way he wants.

Not every flower, leaning vainly toward his own face

reflected in a murky puddle, gets to meditate upon himself

more than a few transitory days, before he, too, molders.”

(A Guide for Boys, page 66)

In the penultimate poem of the book, called “Missionary Man”, Powell includes a quote from Oscar Wilde’s Salome that states, “We must bear away the body to another place,” and this is precisely the transformation that Powell’s poems cause. The “useless” landscapes of the Central Valley, so banal in their planting, their existence as plots of human use, are also reflections of value. These landscapes and lessons don’t teach us how to operate the land, as a Boy Scout Guide might usually do, but rather how to un-use it, how to let it do its work upon us. As the poet-speaker faces the development of disease, of the hazards of the unnatural, he simultaneously reaches a poetic apex, a spiritual progress that extends beyond the body. In D.A. Powell’s beautiful and flawed universe, it is the spirit’s ability to “stay ripe/ to one another’s lips, and welcoming to hands” that makes the landscape perform its ultimate worth; it is “not only the hope of nature” but “the nature of hope” (“Boonies, page 70).

D.A. Powell