The Volta: Friday Feature

Bright Brave Phenomena by Amanda Nadelberg. Coffee House Press, 2012.

cover of Bright Brave Phenomena

Reviewed November 30, 2012 by Adrienne Raphel.

About halfway through reading Bright Brave Phenomena, I started trying to work out a word ladder to get from “bright” to “brave” in as few steps as possible. It’s impossible. “Bright” has six letters, “brave,” five. In the game of word ladders — a Lewis Carrollian invention — you start with two words and you find the words that link the two — each adjacent word changes by one letter. For example, “hate” becomes “love”: hate—have—lave—love.

Nadelberg turns the word ladder aesthetic into a multi-dimensional, many-splendored jungle gym: each rung takes us to the next, and the next, and the next. “As” becomes “was,” which is— or will be — “am,” which becomes “as” in a quick slip of the tongue. Nadelberg’s universe turns recto-verso, turns versus itself, reverses. Here, a watering can can-cans into a helping verb; a ladder we assumed to be vertical swings over a chasm, turning into monkey bars, or spirals into a chiral strand of DNA, while one of its rungs become a fireman’s pole.

Consider the end of “One of those If-Wishes-Were-Unicorns Situations”:

I really just wanted to talk to you.

Like a repetition of a time,

California. We went walking—is

this boring? We went walking for

sandwiches—is this? And it

was California and my sweater,

electric, seen so far away, I was also

electric and we were electric we were

wet electric because it was raining.

What’s the purpose of these slippages? When are we surprised? We understand that talking can turn into walking — chiming rhymes easily confer transference. We talk the walk from want to went — the desire to talk turns in two letters into a past action. The dash that breaks the fourth wall, when Nadelberg appears to ask us directly, “Is this boring?” is also a move that we’ve seen before. Here, the double meaning of “boring” saves the line from taking a nosedive into that gap between the stanzas: that ambiguously specific “this” is, indeed, boring its way like a woodpecker through the poem. In the repetition — “is this?” — the boring has been bored away and we’re left with “this,” whatever “this” is.

We’ve also just been told that “Roses are / boring,” which is on the more sullen side of Nadelberg’s love/hate relationship with love, and this prepares us for the more interesting “as anything yellow / is bored by being put next to / the sun.” Yellow things are bored by the sun’s insistent repetition of yellowness, but yellow things themselves are bored through by the sun as the über-hue. Yellow things too close to the sun will, like Phaeton, explode from the intensity of comparison. The Valley Girl “boring” hits the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

The sweater sweats into a wet electricity. We’re wet because it’s raining — the consequence comes before the action. In his seminal essay “What is an Emotion?” William James argues that our bodily responses happen before the cognitive feeling. When we meet a bear, we don’t run away because we feel afraid and then logically conclude that we must run. We run and then we feel afraid because of the very fact that we’re running and our hearts are palpitating. We don’t cry because we’re sad — we’re sad because we’re crying. Nadelberg neatly sidesteps the dilemma of what comes first, the physical or the rational response, because they both happen simultaneously: “And it / was California and my sweater”; “we were electric we were.”

Links and loop-the-loops coalesce into a vague narrative in “A Long Time Ago in the U.S.A.” The poem is a loose — very loose — sonnet corona, or perhaps a dandelion crown; we begin with a fourteen-liner, but over the course of the poem’s twelve pages the form quickly loosens. Many of the final lines link to the first line of the next section (“mouth” becomes “mother”; “meets a bear,” “finds a bear”; “you” to “canoe”), but it’s often a stretch that only feels effortless because at this point, toward the end of the collection, we’re at ease with Nadelberg-ese (“the river rooms” turns into “bunk bed feeling,” this bed being both the river bed and the bedroom).

Here is the first page of the poem, the first of the sonnet-like sequence:

This is going to start with clouds, darlings, because that’s

where it does. The humility! The bravery! The fact that we’re here

doing this. Screw anyone who doesn’t feel something

up here, I cannot tell you what it looks like

because some things you just have to see.

Henry going to Anchorage. I felt for his mother when

she said good-bye, had trouble looking at him, I thought

to hug her, I mean I wanted to.

Henry, your face, what you said to yourself ruddy,

I couldn’t hear but happy it made me, what you’ll

do in Alaska.What will you do in Alaska. The wind

and the stars, what of them. Alaska, the roads, Alaska.

Henry goes, Henry Brown, a possible teenager.

I ride a bus and Henry is Alaska, that’s why

he has two ears and one mouth.

This Henry in the dreamlike sequence of semi-sonnets winks at Berryman’s Henry. “Impossible Henry sulked” in Dream Song 1; Nadelberg’s Henry is a “possible teenager.” Henry is petulant and Henry dwells in possibility. Berryman lengthens the sonnet to eighteen lines in his Dream Songs, and this form becomes a fairly fixed governing structure; plastic, but not particularly elastic. Nadelberg loosely flirts with the sonnet form, but it’s less of a structure and more of a specter, a running motif that provides a backbone but not a blueprint, like root chords that anchor jazz improvisations. I’m mixing too many senses and similes here, in tribute to the exuberant intellect of Nadelberg’s verse. She weaves these conversations and references into her linked world deftly and fluently. This is an extremely bright world, and self-consciously so.

The second stanza of the poem opens with the sentence “Henry going to Anchorage.” The elision of “is” makes the phrase read as though it’s the title to a painting or caption to a photograph. Henry’s in perpetual motion, like Washington crossing the Delaware. Or he’s a John Singer Sargent or Diane Arbus portrait, staring at us, all of his affects surrounding him, in readiness for Anchorage. Henry’s a “possible teenager,” going to the age of being anchored, still in a state of flux. Or, in Nadelberg’s geography, he is the state of flux — “Henry is Alaska” and Henry is in Alaska and going to Alaska. It’s easy — almost too easy — to swing through Nadelberg line by link. The repetitions accrue in form and content. Many are anchored in a steady trimeter or tetrameter, which means they can be said in one breath, held in the head in one thought, but no one line is typically so short or so long that the eye has to jerk across the page. They’re right in that mnemonic sweet spot: lines stay in your brain long enough to link smoothly with each other, but you don’t have to hold every single aspect together at once to experience the full picture. Such smoothness often hides phenomenal depth. Nadelberg’s poems link so linearly that it’s easy to get lulled and slightly dulled into their lovely, easy, comfortable cadences without realizing how Nadelberg’s operating on several levels simultaneously.

“O face,” writes Nadelberg,” “seriously, I / miss you like horses.” Does the speaker miss her own face? The face of the “you”? The word “like” derives from lich, ‘body’ or ‘form’; one’s face is one’s likeness. The poem’s last line elides “I miss you”: “Seriously, like horses.” It makes a certain inexplicable but Nadelbergian sense. It sounds like truth without being attached to any particular sense. It’s funny, but not so much funny-ha-ha as funny-huh. “Like” in the first iteration marks a comparison, but in the repetition, it could be an imperative: Seriously, [you must] like horses. Or maybe “like” is just a filler word, giving the poem the cadence of, like, speech, but only having meaning insofar as a rest in music has meaning.

This joke-not-a-joke of these horses resonates more fully when Nadelberg writes in “Imaginary Poem,” “I / make horses whenever / I want to.” Invented horses are Nadelberg’s “like horses”: she makes the word “horse” and it makes, for us, something like an actual horse without, of course, actually being a horse.

Bright Brave Phenomena is clever and complex, convoluted and clear. However, I wonder if it’s smooth to a fault. The collection ends by claiming, “I Can’t Be Responsible for All That’s Behind Me.” Nadelberg likes stylish titles, and most have enough of a wink to keep them sly and witty rather than ruffly and cutesy. Potentially overstuffed titles like “The Dinosaur Dreams Its Colors Into View” are counterbalanced nicely by the dry, minimalist aesthetic of “What Else.” “I Can’t Be Responsible for All That’s Behind Me” is a clever title for a clever poem. But it’s also an apology and a safety net. If we shadows have offended, don’t blame us: No one is responsible for these phenomena. If there’s something in them that causes offense, or that casts a shadow upon the rest — well, Nadelberg has written herself off, and she’s off the hook. The poems respond to each other, but are they responsible for each other? And if Nadelberg isn’t responsible for these poems, can we feel compelled to be? The poems all work, and they work together beautifully. Nadelberg’s slippages and intricate links often dazzle us, but she keeps the brightness controlled; we’re never blinded, never burned.

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Adrienne Raphel is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and is currently studying at Harvard. Her poems can be found in places such as LVNG and petri press.