Nick Laird was born in Northern Ireland, read Heaney at fifteen, and like Heaney, pays attention to boundaries and history. Like A. R. Ammons and Jorie Graham, whose influences he also credits, he has a talent for making the mundane expand. He’s the author of the novel Utterly Monkey and has said — I welcome this—that some poems can be treated as fiction, meaning not fully literal truth, which gives him the imaginative freedom he needs.
A poem in On Purpose, called “Pug,” declares that “Emperors bored you, ” followed by a selection of the breed’s characteristics, and quirks of the pug in question that suit the composition but may or may not be true. Then the past kicks in with the fact-based observation that the roof of this pug’s open mouth is ‘’perfect for the mascot/ of the house of Orange,’’ a nod to royal doings that have affected Ireland and the world for generations, and to the barking of Pompey, a pug whose alertness saved William the Silent in the sixteenth century. Ammons, old enough to be Laird’s grandfather, is a master at this sort of thing, but Laird never rings the associative chimes too loudly.
This, his second volume of poetry, was published last year to enthusiastic praise in the United Kingdom and to rave blurbs in the States, including a front cover push from Dave Eggers. The enthusiasm in this case is refreshingly well warranted , with work that displays careful, fiery honing and emotional power that breaches skin, reaching the far interior. “The Present Writer,” delivers prismatic gold :
A kitchen moon. The ocean night.
By the sink the purest thing
that I can think is sitting :
like the ghost of a lighthouse
in Atlantic mist,
a full glass of skimmed milk.
The wind outside is tugging
at the rigging of clematis
and filled the mast of the apple tree.
We are in bed, two by two,
and side by side as animals.
Love, I’d turn to you for clean living,
relinquish drinking, fighting, singing.
The ghost can only long in man.
You were asleep but talking.
Which way to the good?
At the next wet, we sail forth.
It’s sexy and seductive and utterly sound , the image of a full glass of skimmed milk containing the question of what is skimmed, pared and confined, yet blessedly full, while providing the wide illumination a lighthouse gives. A poem this divine deserves to be memorized, or as Dana Gioia reminded listeners in a talk a few years ago, ‘’learned by heart,” italics his, hand in the right place.
Much has been made of “Lipstick,” Laird’s searing piece about women, many near death, at the liberation of Bergen-Belsen in 1945. Based on the journal of a British soldier, it’s a masterpiece, as affecting as Elie Weisel’s early fiction. The diarist saw sparks of raw female hunger for a food as essential as nutrients taken at table. The women craved lipstick and cried out for it, proof to their own ears and anyone who could hear, that they could be capable of returning to their former, desirable, still human selves. In little more than two pages, not a word is wasted.
Inspired by thirteen chapter titles of Sun Tsu’s The Art of War, the last eleven poems in On Purpose leave the reader marveling at the way Laird selects his tools. “I am a warrior and nothing will stop me,” is the state of mind of the speaker in “Use of Spies,” about a person on a plane, en route to a lover. “although in the event both passport control / and a stoned cabbie from Haiti will give it a go/ but I meant to mention something else.’’
The “ something else” is the act of opening a shutter to see the sun rise. “Light swung over the clouds like a boom./ The way it broke continually from blue/ to white was beautiful, like some fabled/giant wave that people travel years to catch.” “Beautiful” is a hackneyed frill, jarringly unnecessary until one is brought up short with the understanding that Laird’s traveler is every passionate, focused, anonymous flier, weary, dazzled, and longing to share the moment with the object of their love.
“The Hall of Medium Harmony, ” the final poem, quoted in part, is another bravura example of Laird’s reach :
In lieu of a Gideon Bible
the bedside table
has a Lonely Planet Guide to China
and a year-old Autotrader.
You skim through the soft-tops, the imports,
the salvage & breakers,
then pick up the book. Over there
they are eight hours ahead
so it must be approximately dawn
in the Forbidden City,
where something might evade the guides
already at the entrance,
might glide right past the lion-dogs
on guard, asleep in bronze,
might fire the dew on the golden tiles,
ignite each phoenix on its ridge.
Light. Nine-thousand nine hundred
and ninety-nine rooms
begin to warm under its palm.
He continues, adding that “nothing can outlast its loss,” until the poem concludes in “ the now, of here, where you are/ in the sunlight, blinking, abroad.” His steps are sure, his undermusic and undercurrents consistently strong. On Purpose is a slim volume that contains multitudes.