Reviewed by Marc McKee
From the initial poem in Nils Michals’ austere debut collection, Lure, the reader swiftly recognizes a decided lack of couches; one senses immediately that there is no desire on behalf of the speaker(s) to entertain or comfort the reader. Instead, the poems, one after another, open a seismic line of inquiry that ushers the reader into bracing--if discomfiting--confrontation with questions of perishability, being, and making at times so strident that one might be given to despair over whether there is any point pursuing a relationship to or appreciation of the world. Over the course of the book, however, it becomes clear that the rigorous attention given to world through the foci of Michals’ speakers emphasizes a discriminating search for what humanity is capable of grasping that, though it more often than not privileges lament over celebration, never devolves into dogma or sentimentality.
“Westerly” opens the collection with an objective separation--a sunken ship is lifted from the sea--which enacts a gesture that refines the subjects of the poems to follow: the essential separation of nature from human endeavor. The poem is one of four throughout Lure regarding a warship from the 18th century rescued nearly intact in 1960; and with its fellows, “Southerly,” “Northerly,” and “Easterly,” it laces together a number experiments with negative capability (it’s no accident that the third poem in the book, “Diodic,” invokes the dying Keats with Severn in Rome). Via Michals’ opening lines, the reader is treated to an exquisitely concrete version of being in uncertainty:
What comes off the sea recalls nothing
of loving a world and for those with eyes
wishing something other than what is seen
it says: listen.
Comes off the sea and does not care, says accept
there may or may not be a hand
in this: a taste of spray,
salt, some origin no longer
encompassing us with calm, says
you are on your own now.
The inquiries compressed here hint at the death of God not only as maker or solvent, but even as idea or semi-imaginable, ghostly ear. It almost makes sense to read the situation of the boat in this first poem to that of any person cast out of the garden of faithful reliance on an intelligent and invested Designer, though it also calls up connotations to birth and long dark nights of soul-doubting self-awareness. In the absence of the divine, the motif that arises in opposition to human endeavor is often the natural world. It’s one of the wry jokes of the book to illustrate again and again the fallibility of any design by the unintelligible forces of nature and time; the sea and wind (as well as allusive “sand”) collude in the erasure of all forms made to ease, facilitate, or (in the case of the warship) violently define being. It’s appropriate that a collection so resolute in its dedication to convey the endangered experience of the made world against the tableau of irrevocable loss and erasure begins with a man-made object that the natural world has not yet entirely voided from the scene.
The poems that follow angle through monologues by famous artisans (“Stradivari, 1763”), epistolary dialogues between sculpture and sculptor (“The Stone Letters”), the aforementioned visitation to Keats and Severn, and several hinged sequences that act as exacting refractions of Michals’ essential questions. Though the poems enter and exit these locations of meditative pause, there is more at stake than a poet puppeteering a speaker through a resumé of historical trivia. Michals is not Mr. Peabody and we are not Sherman: these inhabitations of historical points are not serial lectures, but investigations. In Lure, the trivia isn’t trivial flashiness, but distinct and challenging opportunities for the various speakers to open sympathies in the reader at the same time it begs the question of any semblance of divine presence, as in “Westerly,” or the folly of making anything, as in “Stradivari, 1763”: “So I’ve slipped in the last / thin rib. You see? And for what?”
It’s a testament to Michals’ deftness that these poems never feel like anything other than scrupulous and quickening meditations on the nature of being. A lesser poet may use the matter of history as a device to give credence and weight to lackadaisical ruminations, but the speakers in Lure unequipped with an historical pedigree fare every bit as well as the personages in the utterance of philosophic urgencies. One such urgency arises out of a moment of slightly delirious lyricism in “After Surgery”:
Evening disintegrates in frames
arrested, a red chariot that unpins
helplessly outside itself, the wheel
a windmilling O with its own mind for glory.
Someone walks light-heeled up the path,
At the point of glass, an arrangement, flawless.
Darkness drops clickless over the lake,
a light patter of fog dripping
from lake pines on the skylight--
what happens to the man
who remembers the outlines of boats
in fog, then only fog--
The poem ends here, with the irony of someone who has presumably been repaired reflecting on death. Though the path of this irony may be well-trod, Michals’ treatment deepens it, effectively conveying how what may or may not come after life (whether of objects or beings) is occluded and only vaguely approachable in the imagination, as well as how the unfathomability of not being at the same time obscures existence. The titular poem “Lure” expands on this tack and ends with a “small dark disc center[ing] itself,” closing the collection with a return of man-made object to the sea, which at once suggests an unassailable closure and a human echo which may be the only quality that succeeds death. The poem itself is a colossal intersection of terrible events, transcript scraps, and haunting meditation.
Throughout the book, the lyric “I” is often subject to the eye, in the service of rendering a world at once beautiful and doomed. That Michals often uses the hands and the eye in his poems is telling: the milieu with which he deals is the interstices between seeing and making against erasure. Often, these moments result in lovely transfigurations, as in “Aloha,” where the speaker observes the sky, “the eye taking pleasure / in whether encompassing or being encompassed” and wants to “grant what arrived unasked-for / stay, and that I having become, might / accordingly return the world its long-forged self / more exquisitely, more wanted,” which contributes to the undercurrent of longing that attends many of the poems. At other times, this longing is bereft or unfulfilled in the failures of supplication or action, as in “Prayer,” where the speaker wonders “How can I do this? How go / the hands?” or in “The Ambulance Came & We Know How That Goes,” where the speaker first says “The hand moves / & is the world / & flaming a little in the hand / the polished instrument vaguely in error . . .” before noting “(The word made as they were dying, / the wounds under a sunned hand, in it / fresh white gauze),” which underscores our helplessness. The mortality of forms echoes the inescapable fact of our own term limits.
The only drawback in such a project may entail the loss of power to rescue experience from its inherent temporariness. If metaphorical locutions are just conflations that veil the sheer subtractions of our terms on earth and our essential disconnectedness from it (as one may conclude when Michals takes another poet to task for using the phrase “the desperation of the fields”), what can offer any succor, or at the very least understand existence as anything but a capricious joke? This is not to suggest that any or all poems’ job is to console us, but negative capability’s desire to live in uncertainty demands a reflective ambivalence which can and does contain joys (or at least moments in which pain and fear are suspended) whether one believes in a god, the pleasures and consolations of making, or neither. Upon finishing Lure, one may come away with the feeling that the scale of vision is weighted far more heavily on the side of darkness, that death and disappearance hopelessly overwhelm and color every aspect of being alive. The end of the book may be read as suggesting that all that remains of us is a black box, a tattered record that enunciates moments of coming to terms (or failing to come to terms) with imminent obliteration--not exactly a poster poem for exuberance or celebration.
Read another way, however, the abundance of connections and their radiance in poems like “Lure” bespeaks a preoccupation with the improbable yet certain gift of beauty, no matter how fleeting. The power and artfulness of the book, while demanding a severe attention to some of the more difficult truths, also call for an accounting in the reader. This may be the greatest strength in a very powerful book. If Lure is a repeated question, albeit elegantly and variously posed, of whether or not there is anything to recommend the actuality of living, then it subtly creates a dialogue with any reader likely to come along that cannot help but emerge as either affirmative of being or darkly aware of its voracious subtraction. The subtle actions of these meditations, especially given Michals’ powers of stunning lyrical deployment, accrue meaning with a depth and significance that live beyond the text, the lure that leads us to a different world when we close the book and look up.