How We Light, by Nick Sturm


“ … I haven’t even opened my copy of Nick Sturm’s How We Light because he is one of those rare poets that terrify me. I get terrified because I know as soon as I start reading I’ll be his, I’ll be within his vocal set, and it will take weeks to get out, to become myself again. It’s always an incredible experience, but it’s fucking scary, too. Just like all good poetry should be.”

—Roberto Montes, author of I Don’t Know Do You



In Nick Sturm’s latest collection of poetry, How We Light, we awake in a field, strange with knowing. Or maybe we “climb into the machine and spend / two days thinking about lemonade”. This is not your standard conversation. We are not here to sit down feebly and speak in a quiet monotone. There is something much more vibrant at work here, something more avian and endless yes. Because of this, we are indoctrinated into Sturm’s unusual world almost immediately. The second poem in this collection, “Red Car in the Future,” is formatted sideways, which forces the reader to hold the book sideways, to exist in an actual state of being sideways, of being unfortunate and unregulated, but for reasons that are justified, even if we are not cognizant of those reasons immediately.

This state, this system of existing within and adhering to the most improbable justifications becomes a constant theme throughout the collection. Bizarre scenarios that feel real, that capture a certain genuine finesse. From the same poem: “At the last second we are invited to a house party in Chicago where we learn / It is not possible to pour an entire bottle of wine into a violin.” These are intimate, eccentric scenes bursting with verve. They exist in such small, beautiful spaces, but stretch out across the page like the tiniest world wonders. Later, in “What a Tremendous Time We’re Having!”:

I stand in the yard eating pie with my fingers
feeling uncertain about buying
another roll of wrapping paper when
everything is already such a mystery

But what is it that makes these moments feel real? What weight (or lack thereof) does Sturm write with that makes his poetry so relatable? There is a spectacular amount of unusual insight in his lines, as if he has lived in this world long before any of us and has a wealth of knowledge about lampshades and hobbyhorses that no one else could possibly possess. From “What a Tremendous Time We’re Having!”:

My mouth automatically dismantles
the remarkable geometry of a tangerine
A threshold sounds like it should be
some kind of magnificent art
but it is only another boundary
between my body & the spacious day

And again, in “What a Tremendous Time We’re Having!”:

I stand by the armoire & perform experiments
It is technical but not in a very French way
People are always trying to make things
complicated & sometimes that is not so beautiful

Though exciting and oft-surprising intuition makes up a better part of How We Light, it is not only the keen awareness of this strange and complicated life that carries weight. The tone that Sturm naturally employs leaves the reader in what might best be described as a pleasant funk. His lines (and situations) are one part tragic and fleeting, one part wildly playful, and one part ridiculous to the point of memorable. There is always something unexpected following the line break, whether it’s the speaker “taping pollen / back to the flowers” or maybe a community on the verge of liberating sexual discovery:

The town held a meeting
in the forest to discuss the issue over a PowerPoint
but there wasn’t an outlet so the people teamed up
and rubbed their genitals together to generate electricity
and afterwards everyone agreed that the forest was the best
place to rub genitals and they kept rubbing and getting high
until they fell asleep.

Even the punctuation Sturm uses often holds its own buoyant tonality: “It’s true, in Melbourne / We made terrific asses of ourselves! Sao Paulo was hot! We liked it very much!”

And again, in “I Feel Yes”:

Is that even possible? What part of the question
do you think I’m referring to and what do you think
I mean by “possible”? I generate hogwash
in my torso! The proper use of a hammer
is to wear a petticoat and be inconsistent!
A feverish joy scatters into the citizenry!

Where some poets rely solely on humor to guide their writing, Sturm recognizes this weakness and points to it willingly. He consistently pokes fun at his own craft in his characteristically backward fashion. In “The Fences,” Sturm frames the poem by repeating “I built a fence out of…” et cetera. Nearing the end of the poem, he alludes to this choice: “I / built a fence out of what was left after the war / nothing was left after the war but time to build / fences.” Later, in a bout of metacognition, he even addresses the abovementioned wealth of sensational punctuation in his poems:

It’s so great we have the capacity
to kiss each other’s faces     It’s so great
I lost everything     Even my sandwich
Even my exclamation points

In many ways, the title poem is the linchpin holding the rest of the collection together. The lines are clumsy, constantly running into one another, with endless movement being key. The tone is on point with the rest of the book, and the unusual insight comes in spades. It is in this extraordinary fusing of dissimilar ideas that we feel most at home, most comfortable with our own human discomforts:

an uneven faith peels off me Darkness like Keats basically
I’d rather be an Eagle and when he wrote Eagle
he capitalized Eagle as a way to believe

in the power of the nouns we are to save us

How We Light, by Nick Sturm. H_NGM_N BKS. 104 pages. $14.95, paper.

Dillon J. Welch is a writer from Southern New Hampshire. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Big Lucks, Gargoyle, Hobart, PANK, & others. He is the author of I Fall in Love with Every Attractive Woman I Meet (NAP, 2013) and is Poetry Co-Editor for the online quarterly, Swarm. Find him at

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