by DANNY JACOBS
Praying to Articulate:
The Controlled Play of John Nyman’s Players
POETRY by John Nyman
[Palimpsest Press, 2016]
The last thing in John Nyman’s debut collection Players is an artifact (dare I call it a poem?) called “Desk Index”: a 10 page list, double-columned, of seemingly random items. In it, you’ll find letters, words, abbreviations, acronyms, and any other typographical unit you can think of, all arranged in alphabetical order. Like a proper index, it comes after the notes and acknowledgements. It was the first thing I noticed when I fanned out my copy of Players. I didn’t know what the hell it was until I turned back to the notes section—that ubiquitous road map in every contemporary poetry collection. The reader is told that “Desk Index” is “an alphabetized list of every occurrence of every textual phrase printed or inscribed on an item on or in my bedroom desk on the date of collection, August 6, 2013.” It’s a remarkable and strange document of hyper-obsessiveness, of dogged arrangement. All 18 occurrences of “2” are listed. We find, on only the second page of the piece(!), both “60930-1” and “60950-1.” There are hundreds of entries. Now, I still can’t decide if these ten pages are a waste of the publisher’s nicely textured Zephyr Laid paper, a barbaric yawp from the Google mind, or something in between. Nyman is surely goofing a bit, poking fun at the earnestness of the avant-garde stunt.
Who knows. The reader of Players is often unsure of the rules. The poems are purposely shifty, but they’re also technically sound and sonically brilliant. Nyman’s forebears are varied—there’s late Ashbery here mixed with a vowel-rich Bökian twostep. His poetic also features the complex rhythms and polysyllabic internal rhymes of contemporary hip-hop. In “For MF DOOM”, Nyman skillfully mimics this master’s complex flow. An admirable feat: MF DOOM’s considered one of the most technically proficient MCs ever. Check out this stanza (the whole poem is in caps, meant for forceful recitation):
UNSUNG MASK, FINGERS CLACK-TAPPING, DIE-CAST,
THE MAN HATH WALKED THE BLAST-PATH OF GOD
WITH HERO’S BEADY EYES SEWN IN BEHIND
Nyman is good at sound, even if some of his poems veer too far into conceptual scat-singing. Here is the third part from “Safety Card Translation, Emergency Exit A”:
slick metal twist
crimped cut club circle,
direction to back-
The notes tell the reader that each part of the six-part poem “translate” one of the six panels on an exit procedure safety manual for a Boeing jet. Like “Desk Index”, “Safety Card Translation” shows Nyman as linguistic packrat, a collector of sorts. We’d be hard pressed to wring much emotion from such a passage, but this is taut stuff; it asks to be read aloud.
It’s important to point out that Nyman builds his poems with sound and concept, while switching things up with jumpy rhythms. The poems are obsessive but also have a millennial’s attention span. As the speaker says in “Bibliophile”: “every end stop i slide a bit;/ Every line i survive to drop out/ Again.” Things change quickly, blink and you’ll miss it; that’s how Nyman entertains. A poem’s impact, more often than not, comes from sonic effects, not moments of pathos.
Curiosities abound in Players, and half the fun is guessing what comes next. The text even includes a kind of anti-Nyman poem, an insipid set piece called “Connections” that reads as a dull undergraduate effort of unrequited love. It’s what most of the poems in the book aren’t—prosy, narrative-based, syntactically predictable:
We took turns sneaking glances
at each other. We braced
ourselves and you gave me a smile,
paused, continued talking.
I’ve seen you a handful of times since
June, always downtown.
Compare that low-wattage diction and syntax with more representative Nyman lines: “It hits me like a wide triangle’s vertex:/ early days gain the statistics I nightmare” (“Distracted”). Why is it here? The notes tell us that all of “Connections” are from craigslist posts. Again, we have Nyman as found poet, trash collector and arranger of deadened language. In a book full of tricksterism and little jokes, it’s unsurprising that Nyman would include “Connections”. Players tries to include everything; even, supposedly, failed poems: the first section of the book is titled Two False Starts.
Nyman is too wild and wily to mastermind a book-length project. So despite some of its flaws, the book dodges dullness through the sheer range of style and reference. Nyman doesn’t stay long in one mode. And yet, paradoxically, the poems rarely seem unplanned or dashed-off. There’s a constructedness to his chaotic best efforts. In “Drunken Master’s Apology,” the speaker wishes they were “sober/ forever, stuck in stiff/ harmony, simple/ as a pea-pod separator,/ abacus calculator/ or hard wooden chair.” Although the drunken master may claim to want this, there’s a suggestion here that “stiff/ harmony” is stylistic suicide. A sober poem, Players suggests, is a boring poem. The best Nyman lines bob and weave like his drunken master, swaying unpredictably but hitting the mark all the same.
Nyman’s clearly a theory kid, interested in poststructuralist play and bred with a healthy distrust of the signifier (the last poem quotes from Derrida’s Of Grammatology). His concerns are often epistemological. Indeed, one multi-part piece is actually titled “Epistemologies.” The three poems in “Epistemologies” go wide in their attempts to embody their objects; here’s the first bit from “Ice Cube”: “Line-draw fishes from the sea/ & drown the breeze;/ surrender this particular wave/ to straightening—the colour water/ is not & not.” Given language’s inability to truly describe, Nyman doesn’t even really try, and gives us something else entirely.
“Words for Rain”, one of the best poems in the book, continues to explore the inefficacy of language; it struggles throughout to describe rain on asphalt, a phenomenon that continually evades description in the universe of the poem. Here it is in its entirety:
To put it bluntly, the rain ricocheted
so hard off the 7-eleven sign
that it burned, and the pinprick blankets swayed
like drain water, roving strike-through lines
on straight streets’ soaked concrete. In elegant
terms: We were inside, it thunderstormed. Or:
The black clouds loomed, ballooned, till we were ants.
There might be millions more
descriptors; still, the rain remains some billions of drops
across and high.
Mutatis mutandis, it will not stop
resounding, even when I pry
against the ingrown thought with this ripe plum
that coats the wet road purple as the rain hums.
From its outset, we get characteristic Nyman misdirection: his first description of the rain is not blunt at all, but rather a beautifully complex image. It is the poem’s “elegant” description that’s actually the blunt way of putting it. By mixing up the descriptors’ respective clauses, Nyman cleverly sets up the seemingly arbitrary nature of language. Upon a first reading of the poem, you’d think Nyman would be skeptical of Coleridge’s adage that poetry is “the best words in their best order.” After all, the poem throws up its hands in futility, admitting that “There might be millions more// descriptors.” Yet this carefully made poem—in fact an irregularly-lined sonnet—argues its own premises. There are infinite ways to describe the rain, sure; and the signifier is always deferred, perhaps. Yet poetry, Nyman suggests, has to try to get it right.
Danny Jacobs is the author of Songs That Remind Us of Factories (Nightwood Editions, 2013). His poems have been published in a variety of journals across Canada. Danny lives with his wife in Riverview, NB and works as the librarian in the village of Petitcodiac.