There’s a book people write by pretending
to be another author. It’s called life.
Conceptual art’s about goaltending
more boring arcs of self toward meaning. Life,
how far north am I of New York City?
A brief snow held by buzzed grass means pity.
The wall of want and should grows soft and fat.
I’m tired of lacunae. When my cat
licks itself in front of old jewelry
it performs confessional poetry,
which, like one’s historical cruelty,
no one escapes. I say potpourri
for two thousand and bury my parents.
I repeat the parable of the talents.
Winner of the 2016 Sawtooth Poetry Prize, as judged by Anne Boyer, is Chicago poet and art historian Jennifer Nelson’s second collection of poetry, CIVILIZATION MAKES ME LONELY (Boise ID: Ahsahta Press, 2017), following her Aim at the Centaur Stealing Your Wife (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2015). Even from her book titles alone, one can see the overlap in her interests between art history and poetry, and CIVILIZATION MAKES ME LONELY is thick with influence from and engagement with history, art and everything in-between, something she discussed in an interview with Jessica Tolbert, following the publication of her first collection:
I saw you are a professor of art history. Which came first, your interest in art or your interest in poetry?
This is a really great question, which I think (because of the verb tense of “came”) ends up being about class. Like many people, I’ve participated in a lot of different classes in my life. But when I was little, the sort of “culture” things in my house were the piano, watercolors of golf courses, Egyptian hieroglyphs on papyrus, and those leatherbound books with the gold letters on them and the gold page-edges. The piano, a Chickering upright, was probably the most “authentic” of the objects. It was kept in tune and I took it pretty seriously, as a small kid.
My parents were in full-blown aspiration mode. Our class, as a unit, was shifting, and our culture things reflected that. I’m not ashamed of that, but it’s a real factor.
But the hieroglyphs were in my parents’ bedroom, so in any contest between poetry and art, the leatherbound books were going to beat the golf course watercolors every time. Keats, HUGE in my early life, then weirdly secularized for me when I took Helen Vendler’s Keats seminar as a first-year in college. (Was so saddened by her race-blindness in recent years, and I mean that term in both sad senses.) Who else. I never read Tristram Shandy but I opened it a lot. Anyway, that’s not poetry. Donne was there, too, I think? Definitely Shakespeare, Pope, a rhymed version of some Homer. In any case, poetry, definitely, was first.
Thank you for not asking which comes first now!
By taking on “civilization,” Nelson’s poems, in their own way, take on fragments and elements from throughout the whole of human history, and the poems in this collection engage with references ad threads including Roman protests, the City of God, Coleridge, Icelandic names, ekphrasis and Renaissance paintings. In certain ways, her poems can be seen as sketches or research notes from her day-job, but just as easily playfully expand and further explore ideas in ways that being an ‘art historian’ might simply not have space for. Her poems are sharp and witty, and exploratory in a way that seeks out knowledge from unlikely connections. The title of the collection, incidentally, comes from the first couplet of her poem “LET ME BE LONELY,” that reads: “The first noble savages were German / Civilization makes me lonely [.]”
Leonardo’s studies of fluid motion are an exception. Mostly it’s people bad at math taking calculators to whirlwinds. Sometimes murder is beautiful. We have to drink blood. I admire the people who never get caught. But I keep trying not to kill