In See Me Improving, a shadowy new volume of poems from Copper Canyon, Travis Nichols explores the bargains, the “quiet deal” a poet makes in order to live. He transcends the old binary that to suffer is to make art and to find contentment is to make nothing; but it’s a precarious balance. Overthinking and overfeeling, “the dark space” of intuition where creativity breathes, often make being alive very painful. Go too deep and you might not want to stick around. Conveniently, modern life offers an arsenal of distractions and palliatives for the oversensitive among us. But at what cost to the artist?
In the opening poem, “Florida,” a young speaker’s father explains that the sounds of nighttime crickets come from “brilliant / points of light in the sky.” As readers, we don’t know if this father is real or imagined and context continues to shift. The man, next described as “dad,” tells the speaker that stars are actually “distant silent suns so far away they may already have died…” It’s a beautifully melancholy moment, depicting the hinge in childhood where imagination is eclipsed by reality. But the speaker’s perception evolves again and dad’s “giant bald head” rises outside the window. While the image is haunting, its surreality is not what frightens the speaker. Rather, “one green eye,” a “beard-fuzzed mouth” and “clear human voice”—the corporeality of the human body—scare him. And it is this sensitivity to the concrete world, which compels the poet to transform the tangible into art.
Such a surreal experience of the human body pervades See Me Improving. There is as much mystery in sneezing as there is in orgasm. Mouths are made of “aluminum moths” and the ear bulges with “a golden ode.” The outside world oscillates between the surreal and the hyper-real, and simple tasks like cooking leeks are engaged, zen-like, to ground the poet on the planet. Occasionally, Nichols employs the totem animals of contemporary twee poetry, the ever-popular deer and bird. But these are not faint poems. Nichols’ words arrive from the back of a shaken brain: simultaneously hallucinatory and real. Each line bursts with such tension that even the most narrative verses appear paratactic.
In “Aim High,” he writes:
home leaves you
for an hour at least,
A pill could make it,
Not you, turn black
And die. Right? Take it.
Kiss me on the mouth.
Shut me up.
Nichols presents a drug and a kiss as two potential escape routes from the smothering closeness of memory. His use of the rhetorical “Right?” connotes the potential for self-annihilation in an attempt to quell memory. It’s no doubt that the poet does crave oblivion. He huffs dust remover and there are lonely drunken moments. He describes a mixed-up mind, the result of repeated punches to the head as “so pretty” and the desertion of the body into pure subconscious as the “succulent charms of the sick.” He writes: “I believe God is healing my soul right now / by killing my body.” Yet he continues writing, destructive urge after destructive urge, and there is a sense that complete erasure is something to be tempted but not actualized. The poet is no good as a ghost. Without a brain, fingers, hands, he cannot create.
Likewise, Nichols’ poems grapple with a middle path, a place between “tedious survival” and the bliss of blackout, where genuine compassion and concern between humans is a redemptive force. Love lets “the air in” and creates a link between the physical world and transcendence. “Let’s float free / in the new air. You and me dummy” he writes. Additionally, god makes more than a cameo in the book—a god that manifests right here on earth in everyday places like Bruegger’s Bagels. “Move me to see my one holy life through two eyes” Nichols writes, expressing a willingness to try to live on the planet. Like god, the poet is a creator. “Blue ink flows from the veins of the hand” and we see god hunting us human beings “with a pencil.” The act of writing, then, becomes both a prayer as well a vehicle for sustaining one’s own life.
See Me Improving questions the nature of what it means to get well, to improve. It is not enough for the poet merely to function, to take the world at face value—even if he becomes capable of it. Creativity is messy; or as Nichols writes: “The divine is always still and undone / so be still and undo.” Some humans seem to be equipped to face the world straight up. Others, the poets, are screaming at the divine that we can’t handle what we’ve been given. It hurts; but without the experience of discomfort, there might only be poetry of praise. In reading Nichols’ luminous collection, it seems the divine takes its poetry with an edge.