Songs from a Mountain, by Amanda Nadelberg. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Coffee House Press, May 2016. 112 pages. $16.00, paper.
“Self portrait near / morning had time / to figure the intricate / rules of the sea, why / we’re here, a negation / of stars, idea without / weather or knowing / the train will stop, send / the world.”
—Amanda Nadelberg, “Big Data”
I was sitting on a train to Chicago, slightly hungover, and rather anxious about my three-day journey from Indiana to the West Coast, when I cracked open Songs from a Mountain, by Amanda Nadelberg, and was confronted with a quote from the indelible Ron Burgundy: “I’m expressing my inner anguish through the majesty of song.” I laughed out loud on this sleepy morning train, causing a few glares from my fellow travelers. I couldn’t tell if this was due to the volume of my laughter, my haggardly hungover appearance, or an unspoken social contract that makes displaying any emotion in pubic a grievous obscenity. Regardless, I continued to chuckle in spite of being sardined with glaring strangers in a steel tube.
This latest book from Nadelberg, published by Coffee House Press, is a unique take on the ideas of narrative, confessional, lyric, and scenic poetry. With language that resembles the voice of someone speaking just above a whisper and a tone that expresses a preternatural confidence in its own uncertainty, the speakers in these poems give us a series of places and happenings that are ever so slightly askew. The places these poems find themselves often relocate between mountain passes, trains, sea and ocean, and neighborhoods, all without ever getting the sense of being lost.
There also may or may not have been a Twin Peaks reference, which, for me, grounded poems into a less vulgar Lyncheian absurdity. These places and references are then interrupted by incomplete narratives. The speaker inevitably talks about some thing happening, although it remains unclear exactly what is happening. These deliberate obfuscations are often playful, sometimes frightening, and yet somehow comforting. It is as if the speakers in these poems are taking us by the hand and leading us through a montage of memory. Like when Nadelberg writes “American / I am an animal, saw the sea and five seals surfacing / because it was today, cloud dementum, daylight / caulking from no place audible” we are told that the speaker’s identity is not the kind we were originally made to believe, set in a present time that had already passed, random demented cloud and/or cloud of dementia, and silent light. Trying to make sense is impossible, and we are left to search for our own interlingual connections in order to redefine the speaker, the place, and time in which this mini narrative takes place.
It becomes apparent that this confusion is done through what Nadelberg herself called “imaginary confessions.” She is able to take the “I,” with its implications of experience, and warp it with the sorcery of Merlin, creating a new logic, all self-contained within the poem. This ultimately leaves the reader with a wonderfully vague feeling that what has been said has, indeed, been understood—even if the logic of a more normative syntax would tell us otherwise.
These imaginary confessions are a clear voice, if anything can be said to be clear, that finds its place perfectly throughout this collection. Nadelberg is able to accomplish this continuity of voice with a thought-provoking playfulness of syntax, line break, stanza and sentence. Her sentences make odd connections at each new beginning of the line, and complete the stanza, more often than not, open-ended. They are drawn out and meander their way around their own made-up neighborhood, eventually ending up nowhere. These sentences wind around themselves, the line, and the stanzas with a combination of linguistic play, lighthearted imagination, and philosophical undertones. Which is totally fine, and more than pleasurable to lose oneself in. They are a seduction, for both the reader and the poem itself—“convincing time to undress regardless of shame.” There is something unique to be said about a book of poetry that seduces itself.
There is a massive, semi-epic, mostly lyric, assemblage of sentences near the beginning of this book titled “Matson.“ The weightiness of this poem cannot be overlooked, and it is carried by both its size and its early appearance. Yet, a reader should not feel too intimidated by the gravity “Matson” holds, because they are in for a treat. The speaker winds up each moment of time with a certain anticipation that is gently unfulfilled:
… I don’t care toward time, which
is only a barbarian beach of honor and
decency before Mazzini & the poppy seeds
or a woman named Merlin calls and I answer
and before I know to write a poem called
“After Okn for Ben Estes” and before this
moment of the fridge again.
There are other massive monuments to the artfulness and play of narrative form Nadelberg is able to accomplish. And there are also instances of brevity that provide the reader with an instance, an image, an attempt at a story that can be dwelled upon. Nadelberg allows the reader to enter her creative space in these moments of brevity and choose their own meaning, or nonmeaning, behind the turns of phrase. And, as always throughout this book, these reimaginings of meaning never feel clunky, forced, or out of place. The second stanza of “The Third Principle” is Instagram-worthy, if you’ll forgive the hipsterness of such a remark. Yet its internal logic, present when Nadelberg writes “Maybe no music / says day to the lavender doom,” would set such a post apart from the pithy platitudes on social media.
All in all, Songs from a Mountain is not only a collection of one poet’s expression and search for newness in the world, it is a reminder that writing, and poetry in particular, is not stagnant. It is not dead. Nadelberg is able to renew this sense of vigor by taking the old adage of “write what you know” from behind, and instead writes what is not known. The subversiveness of this book is a subtle inversion of meaning, truth, emotion, and life.
Chris Muravez is a poet lost in Indiana. He is a ten year veteran of the U.S. Army and the Army National Guard. Currently, he is an MFA candidate in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Notre Dame. His poetry focuses on exploring the damaging effects of war on both the society and the individual. His poems have been featured in The Mochila Review, Santa Clara Review, and South 85 Journal. He also work as an editorial assistant for Action Books. Apart from reading and writing, Chris also enjoys cheeseburgers and heavy metal.