(Intuit House, 2019)
Robert Nazarene is a poet on a mission. He established MARGIE, a well-respected journal, years ago to address his concern that poets are often relegated to the back seat in literary reviews. In an interview with “Winning Writers,” Nazarene explains: “Many respected reviews may only print 12-15 poems per issue and charge up to $15 for the issue. If I found one or two poems I thought were truly interesting, stimulating – I felt lucky. Correction: not so lucky.” MARGIE’s mission is to print poetry that is “fearless and uncensored” and that “eschews the homogeneous sound of so much of what passes for contemporary poetry.”
Providing a forum for poetry that is raw and unapologetic is absolutely an important mission. But I can’t help but wince at Nazarene’s assessment of the dire state of contemporary poetry and American culture which, in the same “Winning Writers” interview, he declares “beyond hope.” Nazarene’s stance has shaken my confidence in reviewing Empire de la Mort, his latest poetry collection published by his own Intuit House. I fear that, to some degree, our differences of opinion may muddy my objectiveness.
But, I am a persistent reader and I try hard to be a fair reviewer – especially when the poet or the poetry poses a unique challenge. I tried, at first, to put what little I know about Nazarene’s personal opinions about poetry out of mind as I read Empire de la Mort. The poems that comprise the collection are scornful, often rabidly angry. The speakers shift in each piece but, across the board, these poems roil. “Aubade” is, I think, a particularly successful example:
The soundless opalescence of distant knolls
the neck & collar
& chain of the dog wound
to a stake, the ever-so-delicate cooing
of a starving…
the moon out cold
in the gutter, JFK’s head spilled
& cradled in pink so common
is beauty in this world
The minimal punctuation and staccato line breaks accomplish a lot in this brief poem. Each “&” accelerates the tempo, achieving a jarring, frenetic effect. The pause represented by the ellipsis momentarily slows the poem down, lingering on a terrible image of a starved dog strangling on its chain. But “Aubade” is not satisfied: it first lingers briefly on “the moon out cold / flopped / in the gutter” (perhaps the most gorgeous line in the book) before landing on its final, horrible image.
Most of the poems are not as nuanced as “Aubade” and (sometimes intentionally) revert to goofiness instead of doing the harder work of image and pacing. For example, here’s “Netherland”:
I pledge a lesion
To the flag
Of The United States of America.
And to the repugnance
For which it stands.
One nation, over God, irrepressible,
I don’t love Nazarene’s approach; the puns are too easy and, as he demonstrates later in the collection, he’s very capable of a more nuanced voice. I’m not sure, though, that Nazarene would agree with me or consider the irreverence of “Netherland” a shortcoming. Consider the pull quotes on the jacket: Dick Allen, former Connecticut State Poet Laureate, describes Nazarene’s poems as “characteristically jabs and lashes and anger, hurt, and scorn.” Peg Boyers, Executive Editor of Salmagundi Magazine, describes the speaker in Nazarene’s poems as a “bad-boy” who “thumbs his nose at Church and Country (and just about everything else that comes his way).” Empire de la Mort – perhaps a bit like Nazarene’s public persona – is meant to piss us off.
Nazarene is absolutely successful in this area. He opens poems with quotes of himself (see “Street Corner Society” and “Gratitude”). He’s down with racial and ethnic slurs (see “On “The Midway”, For a Mere 25 Cents &”). He even dips his toes in cultural appropriation (see “Book Ends”). These poems are infuriating and their speakers are downright unlikeable.
Honestly, Empire de la Mort is not to my personal taste. But I do think it’s important to make space to discuss writing that just doesn’t “do it” for us. Nazarene’s book is incredibly successful when we take into consideration his goals as a writer and editor: He’s interested in disruption, discomfort, giving voice to the decayed and decaying elements of American culture (and poetics). But I like Nazarene best when his approach is more delicate, as in “More News About Kindness:”
How it glided so effortfully
about our house, our eyes & mouths
welling up with smiles.
Chloroform is a mature defense
against life. I recall the butterflies,
how they fairly leaped to be pinned
against their boards.
For the good of the children
you took away two children &
my spleen. Poetry is the blood jet
of kindness. There is no stopping it.
Count backwards from then.
Anaesthetized by gratitude – yes,
watch me rupture – with joy.
Many of the poems in Empire de la Mort are high-octane, surging off the scale in terms of emotional volatility. The collection sometimes runs the risk of feeling one-note. But, in “More News About Kindness,” Nazarene takes his time: the increased syllables and longer lines slow our eye so we can linger on the image of butterflies “fairly leaping” to their demise. The pacing cleverly mirrors chloroform’s “mature defense against life” so when we hit that awful image – the “blood jet” in the second stanza – we’re startled at the realization we’ve let our defenses down. We’ve been covertly hurt – and that type of hurt lasts longer, penetrates deeper, than the cumulative whacks of the other poems.
Empire de la Mort is an interesting exercise in the many ways we can express or incite anger and pain. While it is an uneven collection, Nazarene has certainly accomplished his goal of working outside the box, of attempting work that’s audacious, and never boring. It’s a book to revisit especially at times when we’ve spent too much time within our comfort zones and need something over-stimulating – a true blood-boiler.
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Lisa Grgas is the Supervising Editor and Associate Poetry Editor at The Literary Review. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Adroit Journal, Luna Luna, Fractal, and elsewhere. She lives in Hoboken, NJ.