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Review by Elizabeth Maria Falcón
Christopher Nelson is a master's candidate and Jacob Javits Fellow at the University of Arizona. In 2009 his chapbook Blue House, selected by Mary Jo Bang for the New American Poets Series, was published by the Poetry Society of America. You can purchase a copy of Blue House at http://nelsonpoetry.blogspot.com. He is also a teacher of composition, creative writing, and literature. Click here to read Chris Nelson's recent interview with WordPlay on teaching.
Familial "troubles" are tricky to render. If the poems are too personal, they run the risk of being sentimental, melodramatic, and could easily alienate the reader. If they are too aloof or impersonal, they risk of being insensitive, not genuine, and leaving the reader wondering why s/he should care. However, Blue House is neither confessional nor distant. Nelson has crafted a meditative speaker who, even while employing the third person as a distancing tactic, manages to sustain an intense closeness to the subject--familial devastation--and a direct connection with the reader, and manages to leave the reader devastated.
Nelson invites the reader into a family life, a family life that at first feels safely specific to someone else's life: a drunken father, a mother with a sugar bowl, chopped wood. But as the reader continues, feeling like a third person peeping in on family life, suddenly the poem is literally putting an eye (our eye!) to the keyhole, and viola, the reader has become the speaker.
It is now that, if the reader stops to look around, s/he might start to realize that this family is not just someone else's life. We are surrounded by "Mother," "Father," "God"--all capitalized nouns without preceding articles. The simple nouns that felt like details of someone else's life are not simply details any longer. The sugar bowl is not a sugar bowl, it is Mother's hopes and dreams that she has to keep out of reach or else run the risk of collapsing "God's closed system." This isn't the speaker's mother, this is my mother, my grandmother, and yours, and everyone's.
As we realize the world Nelson has painted us is not his but a universal one, we are led further into humanity's darkness, past addiction and sexism; we are shown incest, rape, and the cycles of sons becoming fathers, daughters becoming mothers. Indeed, it feels as though humanity's entire lineage might be encapsulated in this tiny book:
sons of beauty
sons of lie
sons of sons
However, though these poems depict humanity's darkness, the language is so delicate, so sparse, that as the reader I am torn apart not simply by the subject matter but how Nelson uses lyric and beautiful language to render the horrific:
her body clean as ritual
heart's psaltery unstrung
her mouth, thirteen summers of white alyssum
Though the book deals with painful subjects, Blue House does ultimately end hopefully--or at least, gently, with a chance for a break in the cycle--
if a child
then a song
and if a child
so let us sing
Blue House is an incredible example of how voice, tone, and sound can shape content to successfully access the universal through the personal. I recommend this book to anyone trying to teach poetic craft, and to anyone who is looking for incredible (if heart-rending) poetry.