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Kirk Nesset. Saint X. Stephen F. Austin State UP, 2012.

Saint X explores regret, the expressive beauty of words and things, and the circularity of existential seeking. The tri-sectioned collection begins with “I Will, I Will Not,” in which we are introduced to the powerful, strange, willful, shape-shifting, elderly child who was once Saint X. Pouting, obese, and able to quell riots “by the sheer force of voice,” he was also “broken-ribbed, hung by the thumbs / for the sake of the bald and lame and corrupt.” From this height, we tumble down into the sand and the darkly playful boardwalk glitz of “Time on the Down of Plenty.” People-watching inspires our hero to wonder, “How had I let myself poison / my passion? How had I failed to feel?” In the next poem, “Catastrophe Road,” such questions are turned toward the reader, and one phrase that keeps returning in different guises first appears: Damage undoes us. We are becoming the undone.

Recurrently, Nesset implies that the artist is sometimes a saint, as he or she embodies the best, most generous and miraculous expressions of a humbled, tormented, loving humanity. In “France in Tahiti,” he subtly nods to Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck,” while explicitly describing Van Gogh’s fervor and Gauguin’s aching for what is absent. He closes the poem with:

tidy dapper Mondrian, newly arrived
in New York, inhaling bebop and swing,
thought enough was enough and shot
every last self-portrait dead
with a gun.

Thankfully, both Nesset’s ironic sense of humor and his eye for human nature in raw and simple forms—particularly anchored to the beauty of the physical world—keep reeling us back from bathetic despair. “Seven Essentials of Millennial People” suggests that, for the generation who is growing into who-knows-what-yet, figuring out what to direct humor, reverence, or outrage toward is still a developing process.. A similarly playful poem is “Affair-Proof Your Marriage: A Manual (Installment Seven).” In it, we are warned to “Go in fear of professionals. Manuals. Professional / manuals” and to “Remain prince or princess aboard your wooden world. / Sail on.” Parts of the poem are hilariously wry, though the metaphors Nesset uses are quite disturbing. He masterfully ends on a moment more serene, in which the couple has learned lessons of love, sacrifice, and acceptance: “Let wild violets whisper their secrets. Why / pry? Why bend to insist?”

“Affair-Proof Your Marriage” is part of the book’s second section, entitled “The Collapse of the Heart is a Myth.” The eponymous poem presents an ironic opposition between “experts”—with their superconductors and “psychic debris,” who sip Gentleman Jack and declare that “what’s dead comes apart”—and timeless landmasses, volcanoes, puffins, lemurs, Lucy (Australopithecus) and her mate. One of Nesset’s many saints watches from underwater and spins “old songs in the murk.” It is in this context that we must reconcile such poems as “Island,” in which the I recognizes himself as “all shadow, no body / attached in gray daylight, just / one last opulent whisper.” In this poem a relationship, characterized by once-shared language and a kind of pseudo-spooning of “bare forked things in the dark,” ends on these haunting lines:

But no more.
I mumble my way back
to Ithaca now.

All night I rained
and the island is sinking,

sinking. Gone. Already

In another poem in the section, “Willing to Be,” a Sufi proverb gives way to an acceptance of losses of a different sort:

Do not regret the passing of the caravan and the camel.
The candle will weep its wick away anyway, pale hills

will go black, the moon will roll out on tiptoe.

Other strong poems in Saint X include “Hiatus,” which is driven by an odd, agrammatical exuberance, and “The House With No Glass and No Curtains,” whose short lines create the effect of an easygoing inevitability while addressing the healing and self-forgiveness required amid life’s “headlong / careening, this painful / human career.” These two poems appear as part of the final section, “Erasing the Shadow.” Also in this section, Nesset tells us that “angels all around the world loiter / and stare.” In a poem of self-reflexivity, the personified “Poem” moves slowly along a freeway, finding itself alone in a room, and declaring “I am less damaged than some.” Nesset asserts that a shadow’s erasure is an erasure of boundaries; it is the emptying out of oneself for another.

As a final note, one part of this book to which I keep mentally returning is Emblem, Wyoming, an unpopulated, barely significant place that appears more than once in Saint X. The town, I’ve learned, changed its name at the behest of its neighbors, perhaps in the way that X fills in for an absent name. Malt liquor, stern horizons, and inky rain help set the tone in poems which include this town. What actually happens there is less distinct than these descriptive details, but I think it has something to do with reclaiming what is dark within us.

—Julie Ann Brandt