“Museum at the End of the World”: Stephen Scott Whitaker on Jennifer Nelson’s third poetry collection, HARM EDEN

Jennifer Nelson’s third book, Harm Eden, is a warning. Composed largely in short free verse containers, Harm Eden’s exigency is collapse, state violence, wrapped in a culture that has become more and more disposable and absurd, a culture that contributes to systemic inequity, and perpetuates late-stage capitalism. Nelson gives us a representation of balkanized Western culture where extreme violence destabilizes some communities and leaves others untouched. How does one live through it all, especially as anger and powerlessness litter the emotional landscape?

At times, Harm Eden is macro-ekphrasis, as collectively, and in individual poems, Nelson dialogues with art, or ideas about art. Nelson questions culture’s role in America’s current climate. She aims her sharp eye at architecture, and by association zoning laws, invisible barriers to access and opportunity. In the title poem “So Many Thanks/Harm Eden,” a long poem that advances via sections, Nelson casts architecture as “beautiful’s beautiful / only because it’s not alive … this is also the museum.” A museum of misery and struggle for some, and a museum of comfort for others. Later in the collection, in the poem “I Have a Secret,” the speaker confesses “On top of the Tower of Babel we’ve murdered / all possible kinds of building, / all possible kinds of labor / and every architectural style.” The Tower of Babel is both mythic architecture and a masterpiece by Pieter Brueghel, who appears elsewhere in the collection. Nelson’s both discussing the concept of the perfect tower, the perfect faith, and discussing inherited culture, the painting, handed down to us from colonization. Art enthusiasts will find much to admire in Harm Eden; her allusions layer the poesy with another layer of data.

As the collection continues, Nelson’s assemblage is charged by current events. Harm Eden opens with an “Invocation to the Muse,” in which Nelson writes “Have you ever found yourself / harming the forest / out of rage at your own feet,” anchoring Harm Eden conceptually in the current climate crises and late-stage capitalism’s corporate statism; this motif repeats throughout the collection. In “Letter to the Present” where the speaker writes from a wasteland: “Today I’m writing from / the Ministry of Fire / We’ve lost our throats here.” Apocalypse looms, and Nelson uses end-times both as a prop, and as a representation of the Apocalypse, the idea of the end more dreadful than the end itself, as the end keeps coming and coming and coming. In the interlude of the title poem, the sybil [sic] appears and asks, “how could our paradise / run its self-destruction and not / intermit?” By the time Nelson’s reached the end of the poem, “June arrives. July. Elsewhere / oil rigs stamp deeper and harder and more. / ransom is called on utopia.” Nelson’s anger, her powerlessness, is perhaps best expressed in “The Inaugural Presidential Lecture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago,” in which Nelson puts us in the middle of police violence:

while we were watching a video
of white cops killing
Black people over and over with a thousand
other humans
in an auditorium another
cop killed another Black
person while Black students
listening prepared to phrase
their questions about triggering 

Appearing first as a video, while concurrently on the street another person lost their life to police aggression, Nelson reminds that Americans either are numb to such aggression, triggered by such aggression, or a victim of such aggression. Anger and powerlessness are natural reactions to such trauma. At the end of “… Lecture at the School …” the speaker chooses “disruption.”

In terms of poesy, Nelson is primary a poet of disruption, often via collage or linguistic gymnastics where words are abstracted as if Nelson is warning us to pay close attention. Harm Eden features a section of lyrical contrapuntals weaving together tropes of the earth, and of late-stage capitalism’s relationship with it:

no one is reading     no one is thinking
no one is singing     the flight path is sinking
the white sky is rumbling     the side roads are crumbling
over the speed bumps         under the cars
the jetghouls mourn        the dead dinosaurs
if I’m too slow          the jetghouls mourn
and one choked bird          makes tweet on the hour 

With each tweet and each new gadget, another extinction. Bleak, yes, but Harm Eden is often elegiac, earnest, shocked, and amused. Largely, whether Nelson means to or not, reflects one of the tenants of queer ecology, in that whatever mankind does to the environment it does to mankind. Queer ecology is largely concerned with dismantling the idea that nature is separate from man, where in fact nature is an interconnected mesh of relationships. This old-new idea is largely concerned with out-of-the-box thinking to achieve sustainability, environmentally, industrially, and economically, an idea harmonizing with many of the compositions in Harm Eden, felt in the white spaces between the poems, between the sections, and between the tropes.

The impending Apocalypse waits in Harm Eden, like a wall of impossible mountains; it dominates everything. But Nelson isn’t just worried about police violence and rising seawater or hydrologic rain, but the emotional danger of wandering in a disposable valueless culture. In the final poem in the collection, “The Bird,” Nelson extols the cognitive and emotional burden of living in the now:

I mean
sometimes there’s no real
referent in the world left
for a feeling, just the sense
that this is real

When Nelson brings “The Bird,” and the collection, to a close, she offers a representation of representation, an echo, a doubling, that begins with blood, and a reflection, or a representation:

I squeezed my thick dark blood
and reflected what stood in front of me
as dead

I I said said
that projection jection of statues atyous
is the form form of learning earning
we have to have to curate careful heirfully
the incarnation nation of ghosts love ghosts

The doubling suggests a doppler effect, perhaps even a nod to copies, and degeneration of ideas, the capitalist-driven McMansions and buildings that clutter America. Is anyone paying attention, or are we ghosts locked into our screens and information bubbles as the earth begins its death throes?

Harm Eden warns you are what you consume and what you consume you will deliver to future generations, and considering how in our post-truth world, science and data and op-eds have been weaponized to spread disinformation, Nelson challenges us to curate culture carefully so that what we curate becomes an heirloom, even hope.

Harm Eden, by Jennifer Nelson. Brooklyn, New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, October 2021. 104 pages. $14.40, paper.

Stephen Scott Whitaker (@SScottWhitaker) is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, a teaching artist with the Virginia Commission for the Arts, and a grant writer. Whitaker’s writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Great River Review, Fourteen Hills, The Shore, Crab Creek Review, Oxford Poetry, and other journals.

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