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)


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