In an essay titled “The Absurd Quest,” published in 1967 by The Kenyon Review, William R. Mueller and Josephine Jacobsen write about the mastery of craft the Absurdists brought to the literary world: “…their artistry is equaled by their vision. From their plays we gain a perceptive composite portrait of the contemporary man for whom God is either dead or dying, of the man who sees himself in that strange twilight between life and death.”
It’s that strange twilight that best characterizes Kirk Nesset’s new collection Saint X, which not only quotes Samuel Beckett as one of the book’s epigraphs, but includes cover art by Rob Evans that also eerily captures this “composite portrait” of contemporary life. Nesset places us in the immediacy of a bizarre and changing world, and offers a sort of theater for the absurd, where modern lifestyle and what feels like at times folklore blend together to create strange scenes with peculiar personas, placing us on the outside of a definitive world looking in on the indefinite qualities of human experience.
The book comes in three parts, with a title poem for each section standing on its own on the page in italics. The voice immediately takes on a mysterious quality, a kind of sagacious visitor:
In less pretty lives I plundered and razed,
son of the tankard and scabbard, boots grinding
dry straw, my brow in blue starlight, a pout-
face child who pounds I will, I will not
Saint X, broken-ribbed, hung by the thumbs
for the sake of the bald and lame and corrupt.
(“I Will, I Will Not”)
It becomes relatively clear early in Nesset’s collection that he intends to play with voices, to offer a theater where various personae can act out their peculiar lives. Voices converge, overlap, interact, diverge, so that characters come alive on his stage. His collection depicts the eerie fleetingness of our modern lives, as we are projected, hurled at times, ironically, into a fantastical world:
On Slaughter Beach I lay me down
on the sand between surf and calliope, there
where oceania meets glitz: plastic
mosques and minarets and transvestals, sub-
verts, countersexuals —
Such was my time on the down
of plenty; such is my way when inwardness
knells. How had I let myself poison
my passion? How had I failed to feel,
knees in the dust? What’s done is done, said
my head — just do what you do.
(“Time on the Down of Plenty”)
These poems move toward a puzzling convergence: offering glimpses of a real world draped in a lens of fantasy and wonder. While some poems play out in the voices of specific characters, others take on a certain didacticism which seems to break that fourth wall on the page and grab the direct attention of the reader:
Must this be the finale? Will you not set your clock
while the wind rages? While the damage love did
resolutely undoes you? While, in the cornerless
morning, the unrelenting engines explode?
In “Hearing Voices: The Fiction of Poetic Voice” Ira Sadoff suggests, “We often think of voice as the stamp of personality, but in writing voice functions necessarily as metaphor. We don’t hear an actual voice, but rather one or several tones or stances, attitudes created and developed by sleight of hand: the arrangement of words on the page. What comes out of a mouth is a voice: what we extract from the page is a series of inscriptions analogous to a voice.” Early in Saint X a reader will notice several voices interacting with one another. We can hear the first person persona, we can hear the didactic, but Nesset also develops a rather interesting persona-esque poem, in which the speaker actually directly addresses the inner world of characters themselves:
Down the hill past the bakery you air your affairs,
kicking beer cans and branches, clad in pink satin tank
top, pink socks. You skirt the amethyst edge;
you are assailed by dactyls; there is
irony yet to be milked.
(“Your Own Master”)
In poems like these Nesset’s speaker hovers in that cerebral space, somewhere between character and reader, serving as a bridge to narrate human experience. In turn, he’s able to create a delicate intimacy within the drama of the poem. Perhaps these are moments again when the voice of Saint X interjects into people’s lives. And how interesting the various trajectories these voices take on the page as they interact with one another—at times speaking to themselves, sometimes speaking to one another, and finally talking directly to us:
At Brass Rail Cocktails at Fulton and 8th—
across from the block-long fake granite bank—
they stare out through smoke, one muscular
leg crossed on the other, black hair tumbling
behind; the eyes haunt and enchant.
(“Some of the Most Striking Women I have Known Have Been Men”)
It’s not until almost half-way through the collection that we finally hear a voice that takes on its most simple form—a voice of unassuming discourse, almost void of identity, the least common denominator of voices—and what sounds like just the speaker himself:
and the wine tipped
in its plastic cup,
and the man on the bike
we saw climbing the cloud-
shrouded mountain sails
head over wheels, unbrok-
en, unbruised; and whatever
you dabbed on my cheeks
in broad lines remains;
and in the rain’s pulse
something still sings.
Maybe five different voices act out their song and dance in this theater for the absurd. And floating through the pages—omniscient, omnipresent in spirit, all-encompassing Saint X—an old voice transcending time and place and history, hovering between the physical and the metaphysical, so that the collection itself continually captures the duality of our lives: these poems address the large, the unfathomable, the infinite, as well as the specific, the minute, and the personal. They both give vision to the ever-expanding universe while uncovering its microcosms. The characters inside these lyric narratives both resemble ourselves and surrender to the fantasy of other worlds:
Oh, Strikemaster! come the volleying cries, and the news
of Strikemaster grows, while all around in the valley
there’s thunder and torpor, and the rain monas
Don’t follow, don’t let go.
Nesset presents a number of themes, motifs, many of which deal with the ambiguity of modern life. In these poems there feels a constant interplay between that which we can control and that which is beyond us. Some lyrics capture a real sense of self-fulfillment while, at the same time, hinting at a spiritual realm much more remote. Nesset simultaneously draws our attention to the universal, while uncovering the unique complexities that exist within individuals. And the mystery of it all comes to us through the fragmentation of voice and image:
Information Minister Marwan Muasher
in his voice of raw egg white deny it,
the riot, let the price of wine and bread rise.
Draw water from cactus; make soup of these stones.
How alive, truly, are you willing to be?
The bell tolls.
(“Willing to Be”)
Saint X in some regards serves as a “how to” book, offering ways to live when hope feels an impossibility, warning us of the pitfalls of fear and doubt, reminding us that we are solo natives who travel through this life alone and who will all ultimately face the same fate. Time moves on, we think in the process we learn some things, and still, come to understand the great paradox of our lives: life changes more quickly than our perception of life changing. Perhaps this disconnect simply defines the natural evolution of things, though it calls attention to the meaning our lives take on: if the world continues to work without us, why do we matter?
It’s this theater of voices that helps Nesset capture the intricacies of the human condition, the duality of ambiguity, life cognizant and reflecting upon life. These poems are self-referential, they speak to one another, overlap, build toward new ideas, while the collection itself remains held together by the image of Saint X—someone we sense to be everywhere and nowhere at once. These poems take on a real intensity, and the tone Nesset sets rides high throughout. And these voices don’t let us go. They don’t offer much time to think or reflect. Instead, they hurl us a hundred miles an hour into the unrelenting future of our lives, allowing us to feel the unsteadiness, the uneasiness, of all this world presents to us:
a tire, wept briefly; I burned up an engine.
We witnessed the bent dried bodies,
voluptuous crucifixions, while the sun
shone red through the windows. And
here now you stand with your corduroy face
between the lamp post and one-legged pigeon,
bandaged, ignoring our straightforward
peace. Stand farther off. Move.
Of course, all these voices, and the interplay of their flight paths, can leave a reader feeling topsy-turvy among a chorus of sounds, images, ideas. Nesset’s poems are not poems for the passive. They are not wrapped and packaged for your convenience. Instead, they speak through metonymy and metaphor, irony and hyperbole; certain words don’t always do what we might expect them to. And perhaps, here, is the moment of critique for Saint X: do some poems, some poetic moments, lack verisimilitude?
In The Necessary Angel, Wallace Stevens writes about the mere being of the artistic pendulum that continually swings between reality and the mind: “The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real. When it adheres to the unreal and intensifies what is unreal, while its first effect may be extraordinary, that effect is the maximum effect that it will ever have.” At times, Nesset’s poetic mind moves so quickly into such extraordinary worlds, it may be difficult for some to ride the train of lyric thought. There are moments in Nesset’s collection when the strange and the bizarre take over, moments when Reader X might lose his or her hold on the anchor of reality. (Of course, this is the great risk a poet takes when he evokes the imagination in ways Nesset does.) But to the trained ear and to the vivid mind the poems in Saint X endure just the same. Nesset’s music, image-making, and play with language, recover those moments of lost sensibility:
The rock solid heart, storm-tossed,
at one end, and meltdown beyond,
waves of inexhaustible light.
Empty the pail of con-
fetti you guard by the bed.
Let wild violets whisper their secrets. Why
pry? Why bend to insist?
(“Affair-Proof Your Marriage: A Manual (Installment Seven)”)
Blind pineapples ripen. The moon
peeps, dawn ordains the morning. We
wait, watching. The fruit rots where it drops.
For any young poet this book is a reminder that, in its most simple form a poem remains a song, it remains part of a lyric tradition that proclaims its secrets through sound and sense, relays mysteries through image and the reimaging of what language can and cannot do.
How interesting when we finally get to the poem that relates the story of Saint X, well into the third section of the book, the point-of-view surprisingly speaks to the reader through a third-person narrative, essentially depriving us of a grand expectation: the voice of Saint X. Nesset’s poems always surprise, keep us on-tilt, present a world filled with chaos and complexity:
came Saint X, holy to all and to no one:
straitjacket, pickpocket, backbiter, bawd.
We thumbed it
to Sunrise, to Meadville and Wheeler, without
and within the machine; we slept among
tombstones in churchyards in Spain. I’ll do
and I’ll do and I’ll do, I decreed, passing dill
and wild eglantine, loving pain for the way
it clarified me, and you for making failure
look perfect, loving the air for being
more blue than yellow, the earth
for refusing to swallow.
The poet’s voice, that base speaker who pops up from time to time throughout the collection, includes himself in what is a collective moment, as if the spirit of Saint X remains always a part of us, a part of anyone. This hints at some of Nesset’s larger themes, which the poet communicates (as, perhaps, a poet should) more through form than content. Like life, there exists always dualities at work in this collection—how Nesset creates images that are both haunting and beautiful, how his diction both hurts and soothes, how his music fractures and then flows again into harmony—and they highlight the ambiguity of our lives. We must accept a world that is beyond our control while still living in it. We must accept those moments when we feel like a stranger among strangers. We must accept when our voice is not heard by anyone.
So, what then? Do we stop living? Stop reaching out to those people with whom we share this absurd condition? Do we stop singing? Perhaps, Nesset’s final poem of the collection gives our spirits the direction they need:
In summer when white grubs drill the earth
I see the end of the world—not visions,
not hills of skulls agitated by fog, not cactus
or rock; not one burning shrine honoring pain
or one man alive in his cave at high tide.
Nobody stirs. Ultimate signs. Shamans
will say, reeling, repairing the meaning,
replanting gods in the strawberry patch,
revealing Saint X in the strawberry light.