“My Feelings,” the title poem of Nick Flynn’s new collection, is a revealing ars poetica; the poem—like the book—emphasizes directness over descriptive frills. Yet the poem begins with a metaphor:
should be locked in a cage in the center of
the village, a sign
the judge ordered me to carve hung around
to warn the children of what will happen
if they feed their animals. Go ahead,
use a stick, push the bowl toward me—
if you come close enough I’ll tell you . . .
. . . . . . . . . . .
Flynn has painful stories to tell (he has written a memoir as well). In these poems, we learn of his mother’s suicide and Flynn’s seriously troubled youth. The emotional repercussions, more than the precise stories, are what really concern the poet in this new book.
Flynn clearly wants to “tell” in ways that don’t swerve much. At the same time, his gifts for lyric poetry are big: he can write artful, striking lines, beautiful ones. This literary brilliance, combined with the desire not to sound too literary, creates a tension I kept noticing. In the closure of the poem “My Feelings,” which tells us about a former relationship, the poet reveals the vexed process of describing feelings on the page. He says of the relationship, “by the end we were simply two”
abandoned orphans who smelled each other
out. These were the years
I believed the body contained the soul, yet
even so I began to feel like
a monster—disgusting, somehow—
until the shadow inside me
became me. I want to say we
really tried but maybe it was simply
the first moment I could be with someone
& say nothing & know
the other understood, or close enough, not be
overcome by my extravagant subterranean
desperate flimsy shameful crushing guarded
inappropriate dormant .. . . .
and on for 8 and a half lines of crossed out adjectives until the poem ends with
entitled formal flickering feelings.
As is visually clear in the poem, Flynn both rejects and includes his own attempts at clarifying his feelings. I can’t say for certain what his motives are, but dramatizing this process sheds light on the overall challenge of portraying human experience in a poem. The “formal . . . feelings” in the last line invokes Emily Dickinson’s “After Great Pain a Formal Feeling Comes,” worth another look in this context, since Flynn’s crossed out words would seem to be anything but “formal.” Interestingly, the epigraph Flynn chose for the book is one by Dickinson: “You cannot fold a flood—And put it in a Drawer.” What word could be used to portray a flood of feeling? What poem could “contain” the flood? Further, if the feeling is expressed in ways that are incomplete and imprecise, what good is poetry? Doesn’t it “fold” the flood that is a human life into itself, sort of the way death does?
My Feelings is a book of genuine searching, not answers. But by allowing readers to witness his artistic and psychic efforts, Flynn shows us the hard work of creating, and surviving, at once. In “The When & The How,” we learn of two friends, both of whose mothers committed suicide, and the delicate yet brutal humanity they must always hold in balance. Here again Flynn typographically depicts the tension between writing about something and having lived it, a tension caught in the very words shoved in between the story lines:
A few days into it extravagant subterranean
mystifying as we walked from the L back to
my apartment inappropriate dormant
complicated . . . .
the moment I conjured her shadowy mystical
by uttering the word MOTHER fucked –up
painful wounded invisible unspeakable meaningless
I knew yours (like mine) had killed herself delicate
The presence of both “killed herself” and “delicate” in the same line is startling. It’s as if the poem exists on two planes at once: one of fact, and one of feeling; or one of severity, and one of elaboration; or one of brutality, and one of vulnerability–dualities true to life, as well as to these poems.
In “The When and the How,” it’s not a particular word that matters, but the flood of them that feels unstoppable. Yet, this flood can’t be stopless on the page if feelings are to be articulated, given shape. “The When and the How” is especially affecting in light of a prose poem, “My Triggers,” which also concerns suicide: “Her mother hadn’t left a note,” the narrator tells us:
mine had written I FEEL TOO MUCH in hers, over & over, as if these unnamed feelings, as indispensible as oxygen for the body, could destroy her (they did).
Flynn (the italics is Jung) implies that even attempts to name one’s feelings are important for survival, is a motion towards greater health.
I can’t imagine how hard it would be to write these poems, both for their emotional content and for the artistic challenges they present. They convey Flynn’s cynicism not only about descriptive elaboration, but also about poetic contrivance, and most obvious music in a poem (meter, rhyme, and so forth). Yet his attention to the line, to its sonic and expressive possibilities, never wavers. The line and stanza breaks are well-wrought for tension and momentum, and the poems themselves are structurally honed, though they vary in length and shape: there are short and long poems, segmented poems, borrowed forms, brief lyrics, and prose poetry.
Some poems in My Feelings are inspired by works of art; others reflect upon memories of the mother and father, adolescent relationships, addiction, death. There is a poem about the death of Lou Reed (who shared a birth date with Flynn’s father), another titled “Philip Seymour Hoffman” that reflects upon suicide’s draw for Flynn, and one called “AK-47” that meditates at length on violence. In most cases the poet works from external to internal; he might begin a poem by considering an idea, event, or situation, and then move from that toward something in his own life, trying to understand a little more in the process. He’s thinking in the poems, thinking through events, scenes, memories, and allusions. Most admirably, he pushes and pushes that thinking until he gets somewhere clearer than just giving up or throwing up hands at the hopelessness of it all.
The poem “Kafka,” begins with the poet thinking about Kafka’s death:
The cause of death seems to have been
starvation—his throat closed
& so he was no longer able to swallow. On his
deathbed he was editing The Hunger
Artist, which, perhaps ironically (perhaps
not), he’d begun working on before he was
felled. My father
will, the doctor tells me, also starve to death,
he also cannot swallow I have said no
to the feeding tube because I imagine that is
what I would want someone to say for me,
but really, how the fuck do I know?
The poem moves from considerations of Kafka to Flynn’s emotional difficulty being the final say in his father’s life, the ultimate caretaker (if there is one) of the father’s “mansion” and “masterpieces” that will never appear. “The fact that I am the one who will pull the plug on him/& that I will pull it with one simple word/is in the realm of the unbearable, but/apparently/I will bear it.” Flynn is both physically and metaphorically the “ender” of his father’s life; he will end another life with his words. This violence, even if partly abstract, is horrifying, and its implications for the act of writing are troubling.
Flynn is committed to facing hard realities and trying to explain what it is like to bear them, and he’s a good builder of metaphors that help us understand. In “Cathedral of Salt,” the speaker describes his work (a bit like the narrator of Kafka’s short story “The Burrow”) on a secret cathedral: “Beneath all this I’m carving a cathedral/of salt. I keep/the entrance hidden, no one seems to notice/the hours I’m missing . . .” A cathedral is a spiring structure, meant to be seen for miles around, to last through the ages. Flynn’s “Cathedral of Salt” on the other hand is both under everything visible and ephemeral—made of salt. It is a lonely place, meant for one. The narrator knows all this, but keeps working on it:
nor your soul is waiting for me at
the end of this, I know that now, the salt
nearly clear after I
chisel out the pews, the see-through
altar, the opaque
panes of glass that depict the stations of
our cross—Here is the day
we met, here is the day we remember we
met . . . The air down here
will kill us, some say, some wear paper
masks, some still imagine the air above the green
trees, thick with bees
building solitary nests out of petals. What’s
the name for that? Ineffable? The endless
white will blind you, some say . . .
These lines are sharply drawn, with enjambments that push us to keep reading. I can’t help but see “Cathedral of Salt” as reflecting Flynn’s ambivalence about poems: their artifice, their thin and papery beauty, how they can “kill” the particulars of real stories or at least disguise them, sometimes reverting to pastoral imaginings, creating “masks” of paper that hide the reality of “all this.” But the act of making is meaningful to the narrator; it is a way to depict “the stations of/our cross,” to make a fleeting monument to human feeling.
The poem “When I Was a Girl,” written for an anthology of poems responding to Thomas Jefferson, shows what Flynn gains from reimagining himself:
When I was a girl, climbing outside my
body, every eye I
felt, my legs no longer
mine. A circle
of boys, a circle of girls. . . Let’s
play Slave, one said—I’ll be Master, you
be Yard Boss, you can do
my whipping for me. If I
want the rest to carry me they will
carry me—I will make
a moving throne of their
bodies. . .
The poem goes on from “moving throne of their/bodies” (one of the most piercing, devastating descriptions of subjugation I have ever heard) to lament innocence lost and our cruelties to one another; at its close, however, it ends with a delicate bird in a hand:
In the beginning I was
a girl, I held out my hand & it filled with
sunlight. If a bird landed in my palm
I could either crush it
or set it free.
Another poem, “My Blindness” begins with great disillusionment, as the poet asks “Is it today/I finally stand on the lunch counter/& ask for a moment of silence for the still/sick & suffering both in & out of my/mind?” Yet the poem comes around to a place, and to an interaction, more tender, as what appear to be two lovers meet and spend time together and find their selves briefly transformed: “We could close our eyes & wake up almost/anywhere, as if a bird, or birds, had hollowed us/both out. Maybe birds.” This closure, with its feeling detailed in metaphor, captures a moment of communion that seems a reprieve.
Flynn wrote about another kind of communion in perhaps my favorite book of his: the exquisite Blind Huber, “loosely based” on an 18th century beekeeper and the bees in his hive. Blind Huber takes on some of the same topics as My Feelings, but does so in metaphor, detailing the potency of generation, matriarchy, and community in poems that aren’t confessional, that indulge in personae, extended metaphors, and an undeniable lyricism. Knowing that volume, I couldn’t help searching for the more lyrical parts in My Feelings. The first poem in the book, “Belly of the Beast,” displays his rhythmic powers:
at the edge of what was,
the river held back
by the stones it has carried,
the knife in your hand
rain. . .
The loose dimeter is compelling. Another poem, “Tantalus” begins with anaphora and anapests, and even includes internal rhyme as well as repetition:
From the piss on the bark, from the ash on
the leaf, from the scar
you pass on, from the cross you carve deep,
nothing here falls
you haven’t let fall, air snatched from the buck
mid-leap. . . .”
“Beads of Sweat” uses repetition and rhythm to begin:
Blind drunk, crank drunk,
Blind to suffering, blind to joy—
Let me begin again.
Flynn’s rhythmic, musical beginnings are dissolved on purpose. The dualities that interest him (monstrousness and delicacy, brutality and tenderness) coincide in interesting ways with these choices. But I wish he would let himself indulge a bit more.
Perhaps my favorite poem in My Feelings is “The Book of Ash,” about a book Flynn and his daughter find on the beach, “Half-burnt, half-/buried, abandoned in a dark pit/dug out of sand.” He asks her not to touch it, and of course she “touches it, her fingertips black now.” It’s a little book of experience, as well as a metaphor for his life, and his poems, disintegrating and Fallen, but darkly beautiful: “Now,/ when I open what’s left/ash falls like/tiny black feathers.”
Hold this wing up
to the light, the carbon letters
shine. Be. Fifteen. Was. This is how flames
will paraphrase us all.
This book, this ash. I try to pull it back
together, I glue each wing
into a clean white book.
I can imagine that, with a past like Flynn’s, the father in him is wary of his daughter knowing about his whole life. But she is bound to get some “ash” on her hands, she is bound to learn about it. “Book of Ash” is a vision of his own poetry, as well as an effortful, loving homage to his daughter. In fact, the poems in which Flynn shows himself interacting with his daughter give us some of the book’s most touching lines. They are stories I would like to hear more of.
In the last poem of My Feelings, “Marathon,” Flynn tells us, as he did in the first poem of the book, to come “Closer—“:
the legs, the heart, the lungs. It’s
too soon to say
we were lucky, it’s too soon to say
until the cloud is pulled back
from the sky, until the ringing is
pulled back from the bells. . .
By working hard to name feelings, to craft a poetry out of “the ringing pulled back from the bells,” Nick Flynn acknowledges that we can only attempt to fold our “flood” into language—yet, as he makes clear in this struggle of a book, the poetry, and our own survival, is made of the trying.