Punchline by Nick Courtright

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use sand to make glass,
through which we see to the other side,

and to make computer chips,

So reads the third part of “The Despot”, the preface to Nick Courtright’s Punchline. Punchline, released in 2012 by Gold Wake Press, undulates around images of religion, place, modernization and science.

Courtright splits the collection into sections, prefacing each with a quote that leads into the following poem. For example, the first section, “…He does not throw the dice”, taken from a quote by Albert Einstein, is also the title of the first poem in that section. Courtright weaves repeating phrases and images (guitars, ghosts, octopi, wind) throughout the collection, as he juggles broader swaths of ideas. However, at the end of the poems, and upon revisiting, I don’t feel as if I know much about Nick Courtright; his poems do not cast strings with place names or dates. Much of the collection left me feeling as if I was staring into a zen garden, knowing the lines in the sand are beautiful and precise, not quite sure of their depth but able to acknowledge the mastery.

The poems that stayed with me were ones generous enough with details that I could see myself, or someone I might know. Like the poet, as a child I imagined a world under water I could reach if only I could hold my breath long enough. I always rose back from the Atlantic sputtering and coughing. But in “Journey to the Bottom of the Sea” Courtright takes us into the ocean, “alone for the first time, ocean on all sides of you/and it always had to be this way”. On the sea floor, where “the Lusitania and all the other great ships/mankind could not make unsinkable” wait, the poem plays cards with an octopus, swims the corridors and coral. It’s an idea that might seem better fit for a children’s book of rhyme, but Courtright turns the poem to a mediation on stillness, and the forgotten passages of history that wait within us– “the mistakes/ of the twentieth century and the nineteenth/century and this century and all the other centuries as well”– and around us, guiding us forward with their disasters and losses, in the search to answer what might be waiting in the darkness, or beyond the darkness.

At times, the poems are self aware, teasing their limits as words on a page, steps from one page to the next. “What We Know and What We Don’t” begins with a fan whirring in the ceiling but shifts suddenly to

the litany of constellations

whispering down to the hood of a car on which two teens lay–

they are not as solid as you think they are,
and neither are you.

Nick Courtright_smCourtright roots down his poems, and then throws them up, lets them lift on their own. What is the weight of a poem, even one you carry with you, whispering as you memorize it? What is the weight of the wind, he asks. What is the weight we carry with us, on us, and what does it mean? These are vast questions, left probed but unanswered, as they must be, like koans. It is as he says in “Punchline”:

it’s in the punchline that is all our being and all our seeking—

these are
the roadsigns of proof, the victory of one definition

over others, the abstract
absurdity of living, here, wherever this is and why.

To try and give those questions answers belays their weight, and distracts form the purpose of questioning: to see yourself as part of a whole, and to wonder your place in it.

Brynn Downing is a poet from New Jersey, now living in Denver. She’s part of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop, and is applying for graduate school (or would, if she’d get her act together). You can find her online sometimes, at: http://brynndowning.squarespace.com/ More from this author →