EP&M Online Review

Glyn Maxwell
The Nerve

Houghton Mifflin, 2002. 58pp. $22.

Review by Robert Darling

In his essay "Strictures" (from Strong Words, Bloodaxe, Eds. Herbert and Hollins), Glyn Maxwell wrote that "Poetry is decoration of the breath with stirrings of the mind."  This commitment to the spoken voice has been apparent in Maxwell's work from the beginning.  But with maturity (the poet turned 40 in 2002) and family, his work has shown greater attention to the "stirrings of the mind" than before.  The result is that a good body of poetry has become even better in its richness and depth. The poet's ample talents are on ready display in his latest collection, The Nerve.

Maxwell is increasingly concerned with perception, how the self views and re-views the world, how language helps or hinders one's dealing with reality.  Of course, Jorie Graham, among contemporaries, has explored similar turf, but Maxwell remains intelligible.  And his ear improves all the time.  The first poem in the book begins "The sea comes in like nothing but the sea, / but still a mind, knowing how seldom words // augment, reorders them before the breaker / and plays them as it comes."  The ending phrase of this quote shows how Maxwell mixes various speech idioms and tones to striking effect.  The poet knows "All that should sound // is water reaching into the rough space /  the mind has cleared."  He acknowledges that this is a one-way relationship:  "The clearing of that mind // is nothing to the sea" just as "The means whereby / the goats were chosen nothing to the god."  This introduces an other out there beyond the indifference of the sea and, in a reversal of the usual course of agnosticism, it is the god "who asked only a breathing life of us, / to prove we were still there when it was doubted."  This poem not only exhibits some of Maxwell's range but also his speed--the entire poem consists of ten lines of iambic pentameter.

Another poem concerned with the approach of language to the natural world is "One of the Splendours."  The poet, having taken up residence in America, finds the plant and wildlife new, is moved when confronted by "one of the splendours made to make us think / it's time to learn some names."  He quickly adds "We won't, though. I know us. We like to see // stuff strain at us from nothing."  In "The Leonids" he notes how naming seems to claim something for us, to put it under our control, which was actually a widespread primitive belief: "Leonids. A word, / as if they had some source or destiny" or "As if this date / were something that they keep, / appointment reached / neither too soon or late."  The self claims power: "Leonids. Our word, our speed, our date, / bawls the affronted mind."

Maxwell writes of the girl called "Genie" in "Stopit and Nomore," the two "words" that constituted the entire vocabulary of a thirteen-year-old child who had been kept a prisoner by her father, "Her Cerberus / of a parent."  Rescued and "Given everything, she thrived," but she "was told the names for this and that, it seems / too late for them to hold."  And the poem ends:

            I found her
    cited in a book I read, Genome,

    proving what she proves, or at least supports,
    though some say it's too muddied by the life
    to pass for science. I say words arrive
            too late
    for love, or love is gone too soon for words.

"The Strictures of What Was" is a difficult poem, but one in which Maxwell's speed is especially in evidence; he also plays with the ambiguous use of pronouns such as one finds in Ashbery, but Maxwell is always meaning something.  He comments on the mind creating its own reality: "What happens / has been expected and improved in dreams, / it makes its home in seconds; // Plot is what's recalled, though there was none."  A review does not do justice to this complex a poem that covers a great range in a short space.  Witness the closing:

            Nothing's to come
        in that place--the word heaven

    we used for something else, but the word gone
    has what it meant in spades: an open space
    the many made in us and only one
        from there could ever close.

In "The Surnames" the speaker juxtaposes the England of his youth with Amherst where he then lived at the poem's telling; he walked to school: "The streets were lanes again, the houses cottages, / my life so far a daydream of a life ahead, / my life ahead at home in what had gone before, / my hands in pockets for a mile of afternoon." And memory recalls the past through names:

    Each cottage brought a face and a recalled event
    that made it catch my eye, hang like a coat of arms

    a moment. At the pace I walked, the pace at which
    they slip the mind, the surnames might instead have been

    white crosses in a formal line, where proper nouns
    and silence meet and all that comes of it are flowers.

Not many contemporary poets can handle the hexameter line with such apparent ease.

The Nerve is Maxwell's most American book, and he has filled it with native characters.  There is "The Man Who Held His Funeral": "All his pals had been invited, / had come from far and wide and there he lay, // face-up in a hired coffin, taking breaks / for Pepsi while he listened to their speeches."  There is the tragedy of "A Hunting Man" who "set out from his own truck and his sleeping son, // who followed him, found no one, and was found / five days later frozen to the ground."  The man's sister remarked, with almost-Larkian understatement, "'Not the best...the thing he did.'"  The poem's ending is particularly strong:

    A judge considered thirty days in jail

    appropriate for manslaughter. The man
    dissented, and some yards from where his son

    was found he shot himself. Nothing but snow
    about, nothing but trees, nowhere to go.

    Peace is as poor a word for what he has
    as silence is for what it signifies.

    Justice softens to sweet nothings here.
    Love holds its own, admit it, as before.

Unfortunately, the abysmal performance of local TV newscasts certainly makes an impression on a foreigner.  In "The Weather Guy," the meteorologist, Tom, is hoping for bigger disasters to report: "Hurricane This is burning out / off Providence; Hurricane That / is disappointing Tom, who'd dreamt / of half Virginia pounded flat."  So, as "Canada pats Tom's shoulder...he hands us back to Jenni-Ann, // who asks about his weekend plans." (Oh, the lovely unrehearsed banter between our nightly friends on TV!)  It turns out that Tom's plans "are much the same as ours, / so maybe we'll see him nosing out / of a local brawl of cars."  Thinking maybe Tom might wave to him, the speaker decides probably not: "Most likely he'll just speed away. / And I'd be shy of the love / of those who have to live by what / I have to warn them of."

Then there are the poor in "The Flood-Towns," people who did not flee the rising water because they "knew / none in heaven or earth with any stake / in stopping it."  There are a couple poems dealing with capital punishment, that atrocity unique to America in the western world; the class of 1950 revisiting their alma mater in "The Alumni"; and in "The Game Alone" the poet attends an American college football game and is mystified by the whole experience.  And now a confession: the liner notes speak of school shootings being covered in this collection.  Well, liner notes are often written by people who haven't read the book.  But then in an interview Maxwell mentions the Columbine shootings prompting one of the poems.  For the life of me, I can't find it, and I've read the book at least five times.  Perhaps this website will run a contest to name that poem and remove me from my perplexity.

Back on course. There are also poems with unnamed sources of danger, a sudden fear, such as "Haunted Hayride" and "The Stop at Amherst": "I'd be there / if everything were changed / and I mean everything, / so, if you see me there, / absorbed, I would suggest you get out quickly."  There also remains the meaningful whimsy Maxwell has exhibited from the first; in "Playground Song" the speaker notes, "When over the playground once they came / to tag me It, then dance away, / I danced away and to my shame / they're waiting for me to his day."  He goes on to remark "When I was called to answer why / I wasn't there, I wasn't there. / All afternoon you hear them cry / explain this at an empty chair."  And the poem opens up in a way Maxwell has mastered:

    And tiny things too late to do
        have gone so far they can't be seen
    except at dusk by me and you,
        and though I hide till Halloween

    you never come, not even now
        each hand has reached the other sleeve,
    not even now the light is low
        and green as you would not believe.

And this is just a sample.  Maxwell makes use of various stanzaic patterns and rhyme schemes, as was typical of his work from the beginning.  There is no poem longer than four pages in the collection, but after the exertions of Time's Fool, a 400 page poem in terza rima (reviewed with Maxwell's other collections in the archives on this site), a lyric breather must have seemed in order.

Other poems which have particular merit are the title poem, an elegy for Aga Shahid Ali, a sonnet spoken by the sonnet about the poet, and several poems where his young daughter plays a role.  And there are many others--there are no throw-away poems in this book. That Maxwell is also a lushly romantic poet when he wants to be is displayed in "A Child's Love Song," written for a wedding:

    Thumb and finger make a ring
        to see the future through.

    I can see the world through it,
        only the world and you,

    only the world and you alone.
        If I should break this ring,

    where will I find you in the world
        though I find everything?

Gee, where's the irony?  The nerve!  The Nerve is perhaps the best collection yet by an exceptional poet.  Maxwell is still young and he has been enormously prolific thus far. His presence makes predictions of the demise of poetry seem a bit premature.

                                                                            Robert Darling

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