Review of Saint X by Kirk Nesset
Stephen F. Austin University Press
Reviewed by Christina M. Rau
About Christina M. Rau
Christina M. Rau is the founder of Poets In Nassau, a reading circuit on Long Island, NY and teaches English at Nassau Community College where she also serves as Editor for The Nassau Review and Coordinator for the Creative Writing Project. Her poetry has appeared most recently in the journals Temenos and Redheaded Stepchild, and her chapbook For The Girls, I will be published in 2014 by Dancing Girl Press. In her non-writing life, she practices yoga on occasion and line dances on other occasions.
Loss, sickness, searching, yearning, reaching for something to make sense of the world—these notions make up the common foundation of what it is to be human. Kirk Nesset’s Saint X follows a speaker through poems in three sections: I Will, I Will Not; The Collapse of the Heart is a Myth; Erasing the Shadow. Each section begins with an italicized poem, starting out calling to the literary muses, but then turning towards religious tones and scientific proselytizing. In the first, he confesses in past lives, “I plundered and razed,” “I was obese Lady Nelson,” “I was Saint X, broken-ribbed.” In the second, he restarts at a different, somewhat Biblical, beginning: “Landmasses form, sun warms the wet earth. . .Mine is the voice of form and no matter.” In the last, he gives in: “I empty myself out for you. / / And scratch my name in damp sand / . . . erasing the shadow.” The progression is simultaneously uplifting and hopeless—giving up once he finds understanding.
While the few snippets of urban landscape shine edgy and true, the natural world emerges throughout many poems strikingly. The speaker notes “one brittle sunflower” in “The Boar and Salt Water,” “Thrumcap, bulrush, blue heron / and spruce; a single recalcitrant cow” in “Sensitive Cargo,” and “one-legged pigeon” in “Contingency.” These natural images combine with sometimes Biblical references like “the plagues of locusts” in “Thaw” and “God swings / from eaves in tall buildings, / unbent by heartache, by / irresistible terrestrial love” in “Madame Salvation.” This terrestrial love becomes unrequited throughout each piece.
The poems in the first section involve either “You” or “I.” In “Oh, Strikemaster!” these two come together: “You appear / and say Up, I say Up where, you say Wherever / but move, and we move.” This culmination of singular pronouns to plural changes the tone to become more uplifting in finding a sense of self. However, the outlook quickly changes when the speaker shows trouble in identifying with anything as in “Island” when he says, “I’m more memory / than meat, all shadow, no body.” He also begins to follow a “she,” and flips back and forth with “I” and “We.” In the final section, the landscape become personal and intimate indicating one specific room and one specific house, and he comes back to confessing to be Saint X who shows a sense of nostalgia but does not show a sign of hope as saints should do. This tone continues in “Delirium” when he says, “Tomorrow’d sink / like the past and what sank / would stay buried,” and then in “Integrity,” “nothing survives.”
Within the science of the religion lies the despair of sickness. In “Thaw,” the speaker points out, “touching yourself / meant layers of gloves;” and in “Skull,” “Those who died didn’t / die just to hurt you;” and later in “The No-Theory Theory,” “We didn’t / ask to be sick.” Those two lines sum up the overall case the speaker pleads—humans did not ask for the turmoil, the confusion. Nesset allows us to confront this all-too-familiar fact of our lives and allows us to be angry.
The quick, blunt observations mirrored in many of his one-word titles create a cold, raw atmosphere supported by intricate sound patterns. Nesset uses alliteration without sounding like Peter Piper and has a knack for internal rhymes that create a hollowness that parallels the hollow feeling from his realizations.
Within the poems of observation and search sit a spattering of manual-like poems that appear seemingly at random. They could have been put to perhaps better use by grouping them together. “Seven Essentials of Millennial People,” “Affair-Proof Your Marriage: A Manual (Installment Seven),” and “Willing To Be” act as tenets of wisdom. Perhaps the scattered placement should show order within chaos, but they instead proved distracting.
Also distracting, and the major drawback throughout, is the trope of questioning. Through juxtaposed images and hollow sound, the idea of being lost already appears. The resounding questions that appear in the middle of, or at the end of, many of the poems seem gimmicky or maybe stem from a writer’s tic, and they take away from the longing by posing the question in rhetorical fashion instead of allowing the images to produce the question indirectly. “Catastrophe Road” contains all questions, and alone it could have worked, but the questioning continues, and they pull away from the striking world around them.
The lost persona discovers the world and the self through observation and allusions to literature, science, and religion. The hopeful become hopeless only to become hopeful, possibly, again. With many poems of awe and many instances of gasps, we realize that Nesset has found the language of the lost and helps in the exploration of finding whatever it is we might need to sate our longing.