Jul/Aug 2011  •   Reviews & Interviews

Kisses Are a Better Fate than Wisdom

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

See Me Improving.
Travis Nichols.
Copper Canyon Press. 2010. 74 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55659-312-3.

Travis Nichols is an associate editor at the Poetry Foundation and a poetry columnist for The Huffington Post. As these credits might imply, he is adept at the networking aspect of the poetry business. He also finds quality time to attend to the poetry aspect as evidenced by his second volume See Me Improving.

As might be expected—from even so brief a profile as this—Nichols's poetry makes no attempt to blaze new paths or challenge his reader's expectations. He writes in the most popular current style (what Tony Hoagland has called the style of "disarrangement"), or, better said, begins with it as a point of departure:

Let's spend some lives together.

We can make a nest in palimpspastic branches and puffs,
over there by the old house, the hair smell, and the music.

His poems, however, tend to be less discontinuous and much less disaffected than is generally the case for poets in that line. The savage critique of society implied in so much of the poetry of disarrangement is all but entirely lacking. Instead, the reasons for angst, in our present cultural dilemma, have a hapless beauty that he'd rather depict than deconstruct.

In fact, Nichols's departures from all that is uncongenial in disarrangement leave him writing a hybrid. The most striking quality of the better poems in See Me Improving is that they tend to be fun. They may remind the reader of the whimsical side of e. e. cummings, innocent with sex and spring:

Soon it will be spring!
There—half a garbage can lid
has risen out of the snow
like a shallow corpse after
a flood! Soon I will find
the pen I lost in the driveway...

More often still, they read like traditional surrealism. And then again, they are poems by a slightly roguish poet who just finds life pretty darned livable:

My heart, snug and dry in her underwear...

He begins with the current style not because of an attachment to the style, per se, with its theoretical demands, but rather an attachment to what is current. He doesn't have a misunderstood-genius bone in his body. He just likes the neat stuff that happens when people think he's cool.

On rare occasion, however, the poems can engage with the world-at-large with surprising effectiveness nevertheless. In the poem "Thanks, Kids," for example, the angst-ridden adult world of teenage pregnancy, desire and bioterrorism can be found counterpoised against a snowball fight:

I'm putting an alert icon
at the end of this poem that
will remain there until the threat
has diminished. Look!
Some kids are having a snowball fight!
One winds up and hurls a well-packed
beaner right into the chest of another.
This other kid stumbles a little.
Seems to be stunned. No, she's waiting
for the hurler to turn around—clever kid!
Now the hurler has turned around
and the clever girl is lobbing a bit of snow
underhand. It splashes lightly across
the hurler's snow-panted fanny! What fun!
Now the clever girl is on the move,
running and laughing hysterically!

The irony is not searing because the threats described in the first half of the poem are not graphically portrayed or even fully in focus. It is the persistent, vague angst itself which is the point.

The closing lines, quoted here, are artfully almost as artless as the snowball fight. The scene they describe is tremendously attractive. For a moment, everything seems beautifully simple, a surge of protective feelings in the reader gives clarity. Yet, the moment it is past, the "cuteness" of the innocent play argues against itself powerfully. Suddenly it possesses all the redemptive power of a snow globe in a Kafka novel.

As the rule, however, Nichols has little truck with big pictures and the breakdown of traditional models of personal and cultural cohesion. The poems of See Me Improving stay within his own more or less normally cohesive (be it illusion or not) ambit. There, at their best, they just plain have fun.


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