Will Nixon lives in the Hudson River Valley, near Woodstock, a region whose geography is very special. Everyone living there knows this. Likewise, Nixon is a poet who knows he's different, and in his wistful, comic, smart and wry way dares to acknowledge it. Anyone who doubts his originality only need read his chapbook, My Clone, to be convinced otherwise.
Of its twenty-one poems Nixon has said they are old poems that insisted on rebirth. But rebirth is not simply replication; rather, it means a new version of what was—an improved version. Given the natural evolution of a talent like Nixon's, there is little doubt these poems are just that: new and improved versions. They are not juvenilia.
What the poems in My Clone are is original, in both senses: They are literally old, and creatively new and different. But what exactly does the latter mean? How many blurbs on how many book covers have made the same claim? In Nixon's case one could talk about his vision or his voice or his subject matter, all of which are distinct. But it is the specifics that define these, too. It is the particulars a poet brings to bear on his poems that give them their distinctiveness, their aesthetic edge, and in the end their distinction.
Most central to My Clone is nature—Nixon's allegiance to and evocation of the natural world. His poetry is rooted in the flora and fauna around him, exhibiting both a trepidation and exultation, or to use Yeats's indelible phrase, a sober sense of nature's “terrible beauty.” The opening poem of My Clone makes this memorably clear:
You've settled your affairs.
You've painted yourself for your brief fall
to earth. Your glory will become parchment,
a curled shingle in the roof
used by millipedes, chiggers, ants,
the white threads that root mushrooms.
It is the way of the world; you will be litter
far longer than you held out your green palm.
Welcome, little one, to the ground I've walked on
all my life. You are not my beautiful death.
You are the tiny flag in my hand
declaring victory for what was
and what is to come.
“Autumn Leaf” both mourns and celebrates, intimately so. Directly addressing the leaf emphasizes that intimacy. “You've settled your affairs,” the speaker begins, an almost legal assertion. Death is acknowledged—the leaf's “brief fall/ to earth,” where it becomes nothing more than “parchment,/ a curled shingle” and “white threads that root mushrooms.”
All these images, each startling and evocative, are more weighty collectively: “It is the way of the world; you will be litter/ far longer than you held out your green palm.” Death, decay, rot—these outlast a leaf's brief life, as they do all life, including human. There is that trepidation, that melancholic simple fact of mortality. Nature is beautiful, but brutal, too.
Then comes a turn in the poem. The speaker welcomes the leaf to the ground on which he has walked “all <his> life.” He then declares, “You are not my beautiful death.” Rather, the leaf becomes a “tiny flag” that declares “victory for what was/ and what is to come.” The poem, that is, turns celebratory. The speaker exults in the past glory of the leaf and the glory of the beautiful leaves to come. And of course he is talking about more than just the life of leaves. In a sense, the poem becomes a kind of hymn to the full natural cycle of birth/ life/ death/ rebirth—one generation unto another, ad infinitum. This poem is Nixon's ars poetica in that it exemplifies the life of poetry, too. Like the leaf, a poem is generative.
Nixon’s focus on the natural order is invitingly ironic, given the fact that the first third of the poems in My Clone concern his urban experience, the Hoboken poems. Except for “Autumn Leaf” this group of poems covers the period when Nixon was, as he puts it, “carless in Hoboken.” But even here there are moments when nature makes its presence known, for example in “Hoboken Rising,” a sequence of eighteen discrete yet related lyrics: the nighthawk, “wings treading air, chasing its tail”; the speaker promising his fiancé “a honeymoon/ in burning red clover”; the cat that “prowled & sniffed everything”; and most extensively, and ironically, in “All We Knew About Nature” the pigeons that “avoided wires” and cockroaches that “could survive nuclear war.”
Finally, beginning with the poem “I Lingered on my Walk from the Commuter Train,” the natural world makes its appearance more front and center, continuing throughout many of the poems in the last two thirds of the book. Whether he is describing the ocean swells at Montauk or the swells of his wife’s breasts as she bathes; whether the flora and fauna at the top of the world or in a friend’s garden; whether three turtles in a toilet or a yellow butterfly at Far Rockaway Beach; whether a registered pagan or a country driver, whose car is literally and hilariously being invaded by birds, insects, mice, birch bark, fungus, turkey feathers, and so on—Nixon registers simultaneously his unbridled love and fear of nature in all its terrible beauty.
Perhaps this natural duality is presented most forcefully in “The Sky Sheds Our Violence,”
a brief lyric that captures the terrible beauty of the whole cosmos:
On the fourth of July we did our best:
rockets climbed higher & higher
until they burst into fireworks—
no, cathedral domes, vaulting
the blackness with sizzling streamers.
But those streamers fell all the way down
into monstrous smoke spider legs
landing all around us.
The stars burned,
not even knowing our names.
Significantly, the speaker asserts “we did our best.” What does he mean? On the surface he means the fireworks display he is describing—through the technology of rockets and streamers, its creation and its concomitant entertainment and beauty. But with “cathedral domes” we know instantly that metaphor is expanding this poem into something grander than just fireworks. Something more metaphysical is at play. Cathedral domes are about splendor and divinity, about faith, and here they are described as “vaulting/ the blackness”—in two senses: the architectural vault of a cathedral, and a leaping over darkness by enclosing it.
But of course the cosmos is vast and we and our creations puny: The streamers “fall all the way down” and become something less appealing, “monstrous smoke spider legs.” The image is literally accurate and symbolic: “The stars burned,/ not even knowing our names.” There it is, that terrible beauty—in this case, up against the universe, the beauty of human diminishment. Something has fallen all right, and not just streamers.
All of this isn’t to say that Nixon is original because of his appropriately ambivalent embrace of the natural world. Hardly. This is the twenty-first century, after all, and his is not a rare perspective. But his ability to express what he knows is rare enough, and original in that he is not tone-deaf. He recognizes shades of gray. Nature isn’t simply this or that, either/ or—either beauty or truth. Like Keats, Nixon says it’s both. He’s happy when “suddenly/ everything makes sense,/ but I don’t understand a word.” Maybe in the beginning was the Word, but for him it’s also the “way I carry words/ unspoken.” This ability, too, marks his originality.
About his interactions with nature, Nixon is usually specific and direct. But there are other ways to come at the natural world. One of these is obliquely, and in the title poem this is precisely what Nixon does:
would wear all the tattoos
yet still have superior cholesterol
would ride motorcycles
listening to Proust on his headphones
would speak Portuguese in his dreams
to the blue eyed Brazilian collecting shells on the beach
would not be embarrassed by porn stars
or investment bankers bragging about weight rooms
would reserve glass elevators to heaven
then not go
would drink absinthe with Thoreau
& swallow the moon
would eat whole cities baked in chocolate
& marry the daughter of a CEO
would never look back
yet wouldn’t forget me as the original man
Through a series of comedic juxtapositions that conjure what his clone, if he existed, would be like, each of the poem’s eight couplets builds humorously on the one before.
Unlike many of the others in My Clone, this title poem is not about flora and fauna, those botanical and animal worlds; it is about the nature of what it is to be human, while implicitly making a statement about both “natures.” This, too, is not all that original. It has been the strategy of many poets. What is original is Nixon’s blend of real seriousness and a kind of wacky comedic sense that keeps a reader slightly off-center. In many of his poems humor is the DNA of imagery, itself a peculiar mix of everyday and not so everyday associations, like wine that is neither red nor white. It is both.
Nixon starts decoding with the first couplet, informing us that his clone “would wear all the tattoos/ yet still have superior cholesterol.” Talk about a disjunctive sensibility! Then he follows with images that are crafty snapshots not just of him and his clone, but of our addled age: his clone riding motorcycles while “listening to Proust on his headphones”; speaking Portuguese “in his dreams/ to the blue eyed Brazilian collecting shells on the beach”; reserving “glass elevators to heaven,” then not going. And so on. “My Clone” is a catalog poem, but by not overextending the series, by practicing restraint, Nixon increases the effectiveness of both the startling juxtapositions and the humor. Add to that his eschewal of any punctuation, and one comes away from this example of his art impressed by his technical excellence, too.
Will Nixon has published two full collections of poetry and two other chapbooks. Everything said here about the poems in My Clone can be said about those other collections, too. Originality is no one-trick pony. As Nixon says at the end of “Lullaby,” his clever takeoff on a commonly known childhood prayer, and his closing poem, “in the morning/ I’ll be here again/ to drive you/ near and far.” One can only say amen to that. But let’s allow Nixon the final say. The conclusion of the final poem is wistful, comic, smart and wry, and startling in its accuracy. It also is a pointed reminder of what Nixon is in the deepest sense: original. His clone, he says, “would never look back/ yet wouldn’t forget me as the original man.”
Anyone who reads My Clone will not forget, either.
GEORGE DREW was born in Mississippi and lives in upstate New York.He is the author of five collections, most recently The View from Jackass Hill, winner of the 2010 X.J. Kennedy Poetry Prize, Texas Review Press, 2011. His sixth, Fancy’s Orphan, will be published in 2015 by Tiger Bark Press; his chapbook, Down & Dirty, in June, 2015 by Texas Review Press. Recently Drew was an Honorable Mention in the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award and his poem will appear in the Paterson Literary Review; another poem was a finalist for the Knightville Poetry Contest and will appear in The New Guard; another was the winner of the St. Petersburg Review Poetry Contest and will appear in Issue 8; one of his Southern poems was selected for inclusion in the anthology Down to the Dark River and will be published in 2015 by Louisiana Literature Press.