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Cities at Dawn


Geoffrey Nutter

October 2016

Natalie Tomlin

In his recent essay at the Poetry Foundation blog, “So Much Depends: On the Particular, the Personal, and the Political,” David Trinidad makes a case for concrete imagery in poetry: “Without image I am bereft. I’m reading a poem by Contemporary Poet X and it’s nothing but abstractions, like ‘truth’ and ‘memory,’ like ‘despair’ and ‘joy.'” In audacious lushness, Geoffrey Nutter’s Cities at Dawn delivers layers upon layers of detail that are refreshing in the face of contemporary poetic trends.

Nutter’s luxuriance in description brings to mind neoclassical novels, where the exposition of the plot depends on, say, the roving depiction of a bedroom. And this is precisely why Cities of Dawn delivers more than a message or concept. If one is reading with a metacognition, or awareness of one’s own reaction, the book—with its unfolding, seemingly endless worlds of objects and people—reflects our current cultural preference for a point, as we mine texts and rush toward abstraction.

In fact, in “The Radiant Manifest,” the speaker is faced with many objects: “plenty of tiny structures built into the waterless / pond” and “The probabilities, the double-sided / panels that turn toward one another.” At the turn in the poem, Nutter acknowledges our preference for thinking rather than experiencing:

And we were trying to “think it through” in the
way we knew how.
But it’s not something you can think your way through—
You think your way in and stay there.

From the very beginning of Cities at Dawn, the reader’s expectations are delightfully toyed with. The title for the first poem, “A Small Victorian Object,” sets up the ornamental preciousness of the Victorian world, and yet the poem ends by juxtaposing disparate objects:

Buttons; bottle caps; small bits of Styrofoam
that look like shells or coral; a few dead crabs;
a cracked porcelain vessel from the Victorian era
for containing the tears of those
who have survived the death of loved ones.

This poem is an example of how Nutter brilliantly performs a complex act of meaning so simply: as if in a museum, Styrofoam is displayed next to an antique porcelain vessel, and the contemporary viewer is forced to rethink the legacy of our familiar world. Time, too, is masterfully explored throughout the book, such as in “A Lapidary Crystal,” where Nutter’s arcane diction documents strange and fanciful things such as, “caustic potash,” “smoked eel and lemongrass,” and a “subterranean food court.” In the end, he uncannily conjures an obsolete world so similar to our own:

And its citizens are sleeping
but many are awake, and those
who are awake are turning in their beds,
as others lay their heads upon the cold
night pillows stuffed with ash and jasmine
for the calming of insomniacs [ . . . ]

Just as our forefathers couldn’t sleep, the speaker in “My Name Is Dustin Hemp” castigates the bookshelf of a seemingly invented ancestor in a manner reminiscent of an all-knowing hipster. After rattling off all the important books Hemp has not read, (including, hilariously, “the New Selected Wallace Stevens,” Derrida, and six bibles, such as “The Vinegar Bible” and “The Idle Bible,”) the speaker scourges cryptically, “Mr. Hemp, Your library is panoply / of iridescent darkness [ . . . ].” Speaking of hipster, the poem becomes self-referential when an admission appears halfway through: “The anachronisms in the poem are most marvelous.”

At The Kenyon Review John Ebersole adroitly observes, “Geoffrey Nutter’s poetry recalls the charm of a Wes Anderson film: so full of sculpted artifice that it manages to achieve authenticity.” A small minority might quibble with the word “authenticity” when it comes to Anderson’s films—some might argue that obscure aesthetics and emotional restraint become stilted and ultimately predictable. And like Anderson’s work, because Nutter’s pieces favor arcane encyclopedic knowledge and fanciful travels, at times it can be difficult to ascertain what emotion brought the speaker to share. Yet in poems like “These Are Cliffs of Wonder,” it becomes clearer where his art proclaims allegiances. Beginning self-reflexively, the poem could make any poet blush at their crummy metaphors:

When we moved to the wilderness
(of our feelings), past the granite quarry
and the salt works and the winding
towers (of our feelings)

Then, after cataloging the setting in a very simple manner, as in, “The houses / stand along the town” or “the wind is blowing,” the poem declares the epic: “These are the Cliffs of Wonder. / They rise from the Sea of Astonishment.” Suddenly, his rhetoric erects a cosmology, and in effect, Everything Ordinary stands in caps and possesses a mythical back story. The concrete is holy. And like E. E. Cummings, Nutter renders us so rudimentary, we look realer than ever:

The Person of Day-To-Day
Living lived day in, day out, among
the Big Geraniums of Guesses and the Waves,
in the Shadow of the Rickety
Lighthouse of Conjecturing.

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