A Metaphysical Inquiry: Nick Laird’s Feel Free

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Feel Free, the 2017 collection of poems by Nick Laird, is haunted by an uneasy attitude toward selfhood. The jacket copy which wraps the thin Faber & Faber volume tempts would-be readers with vagaries, promising poems that explore “the sundry patterns of freedom and constraint… and how we might transcend them.” In Laird’s poetic imagination, such rhythmic patterns are elevated to a level of metaphysical inquiry. The work maintains a wondering backward, as it were, tracing the varied details of lived experience. This impetus is an attempt to locate a center, a locus wherein the experiencing itself actually occurs.

For the “I” of these utterances, preoccupation with lived experience revolves around an ebb and flow of ego, the fitful hide-and-seek of personal self-identification. From the first appearance of this “I” in the opening poem “Glitch,” the reader is met with this wary unease:

More than ample, a deadfall of one metre eighty
to split my temple apart on the herringbone parquet
and crash the OS, tripping an automated shutdown

in this specific case and halting all external workings
of the heated, moist robot I currently inhabit.

Within this recalcitrance, the tug of the narrating, reflecting “I” can be felt attempting to separate out from another “I” — the one it seeks to examine at arm’s length. A shaking loose of the conventional conscious ego — rational, consistent, directing, what has been referred to as the Voltairean “I” — is a recognized hallmark of literary modernism. At least since Walt Whitman wondered in Leaves of Grass at the illusory nature of “the real I myself,” selfhood has abided as a riddle for modern poetic investigators. Of course, conceiving of the ego’s duality — simultaneously essential to human experience and also illusory — has a much wider history beyond Western veins of thought. One of the Modernist movement’s most celebrated landmarks, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, recalls the fact in its ominous references to the Hindu Upanishads (uncertainly dated around the 6th century BCE).

A student of Eliot’s writing, Northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney took up the modernist discomfort with the conventional understanding of a supposedly single self. Foregoing Eliot’s trappings of traditional erudition and pastiche, Heaney’s shorn poetic voice seems to ring, like water, with such honesty. He wrote: “I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.” Nick Laird, a fellow Northern Irishman and avowed Heaney-admirer, appears now as inheritor of this particular strand in modernist writing. Feel Free reaffirms the link. The lines quoted above demonstrate the fact, insistently “making new” by use of obstinately twenty-first century vernacular.

As Heaney’s poetry did half a century ago, the voice of Feel Free sets the darkness echoing — pondering “the facilities of selves who go about / their day in you,” as described in the poem “Grenfell.” This process is perhaps most evident in the volume’s eponymous “Feel Free,” which begins:

To deal with all the sensational loss I like to interface
with Earth. I like to do this in a number of ways.
I like to feel the work I am exerting being changed,

The weight of my person refigured, and I like to hang
Above the ground, thus; snorkeling, hammocks, alcohol.

The acute attention within these lines to the physicality of being-in-the-world continues as the poem evokes sensitivities to light, sound, and buoyancy. Flatly listing such peculiar-yet-mundane sensual pleasures, “Feel Free” (along with other poems in the collection) is occupied in a mental process of self-figuring: a voice spontaneously locating itself in the present by recalling memories of experiences past. As if starting from the perennial question “What can be said of me?” thoughts trace back through memory. Heaney’s notion of self-echo-location is vivified through all the color and nuance of a lived life.

The ode to sensuous experience is offset in “Feel Free” by unfamiliarity, by abstract evocations of “numerous and minute quanta moving very fast in unison.” Hypermodern conundrums jolt the poem from its lulling tone, experiences of everyday reality meet the light of twenty-first century science. Though humanity’s understanding of its place in the universe has fundamentally changed in the past hundred odd years, the language we have for being in the world comes with so much historical baggage. Since Socrates took up the motto “know thyself” (first inscribed on the Oracle at Delphi) as the source of all virtue, a prevailing view in Western thought has insisted that a single self must be there, discoverable and knowable. Philosopher Amia Srinivasan formulated it in just these terms on a BBC Radio 3 panel discussion. Elaborating on this persistence, author and psychotherapist Adam Phillips noted the way in which the very language we use subtly reinforces such conventions. He called it the “very weird fact” that we all know but don’t dwell on: “that psycho-biologically, we’re changing every millisecond of our lives, and yet, our representations in language are remarkably firm.”

It is precisely this tendency in language that Laird’s poetry resists. Feel Free attempts to gaze unflinchingly at the complexities of this reality, wondering what it means to live a life when a single, knowable self simply won’t hold still.

Skeptical of the very notion of a coherent self, Laird’s poetry seems to disabuse itself and its reader from facile comforts. This sense of unease is compounded by self-critical irony (another modernist hallmark), as in the segments of “Feel Free” where the narrative voice owns up to its own feebleness:

I can be persuaded fairly easily to initiate immune responses
by the fake safety signals of national anthems, cleavage, family
photographs, country lanes, large-eyed mammals, fireworks

With each fresh admission, the recurrent self-pity of Feel Free engenders a wry candor (another poem adds to this list an aversion to the hum-drum busyness of “the peopled life”). Some of the most severe self-admonition occurs in “Cinna the Poet,“ a longer poem wherein the narrative voice of a disillusioned poet, the eponymous classical Roman persona, doubles with the collection’s familiar, modern “I.“ This split-persona Cinna sardonically laments poetry’s futility, asking “what is it anyway to say that one thing is like another?“ Such allusions to the past within the poem compound the sense of irony toward present circumstance, especially the political. When the poem tells of red-capped “partisans,“ for example:

How they massed in the streets for their Caesar,
that rapist, that racist, that fat
who found the crowd responded best to flattery
and three-word phrases
framed as an imperative.

This poet-Cinna could just as easily inhabit the twenty-first century as the first, embellishing the irony’s present-day sting. The knowingness of such historical rhyming affects a sheer exhaustion as relatable as it is poignantly personal to Laird himself, as in:

I could not remember the last time the political
had come to bear on the personal
to such an extent, and I grew up
in the civil war

By the poem’s end, its narrator reveals himself to be in dire straits; his self-deprecation then comes to an abrupt end. The ambiguous use of a dramatis persona having built intensity, the poem’s final note is struck with a chill. The ambiguity of the “I” — just as easily observing the first century as the twenty-first — asks readers to consider the plausibility of past ages’ cruelties in our political present.

As opposed to musings on the futility of poetry in “Cinna the Poet,” it seems vital that poetry continue to inquire into twenty-first century selfhood, even in the absence of satisfying conclusions. With humility, Laird’s “I” does not assert a fixed identity, but instead revolves around a perennial pattern. His art concerns the dissolution and re-cohering of selfhood which, like the opening and closing of the lotus’s petals, is continually unfolding.

That Laird’s poetry does this modestly, even in self-deprecation, does not diminish the courage of the act. If Feel Free does not disabuse too thoroughly readers’ own comforting notions, there is momentary refuge to be found in its wry lucidities — that rare and particular solace of camaraderie borne by good, honest mental company.

In the unflinching look at modern selfhood, honest vulnerability gives poignancy to the poems’ tiniest moments, as when the narrating “I” tenderly invokes the names Harvey and Katherine, those of Laird’s own children. If something like “transcendence” is folded within these pages, it is in these moments where, fraught with doubt as the human experience is, something shines through.

Jared Spears is an essayist currently based in London. His writing navigates intersections of history, culture, and public discourse, and has recently appeared on Lit Hub, Jacobin, Aysmptote, and in Philosophy Now. More from this author →