The pratfall of Rome

Paul Constant

October 30, 2018

For some bizarre reason, The Lachrymose Report is Seattle poet Sierra Nelson's first full-length book of poetry, and not her seventh. Nelson has been writing and performing around town for over two decades — in the Typing Explosion, in the Vis-á-Vis Society, in her Cephalopod Appreciation Society. She's seemingly always available to take part in group readings to celebrate the debut collections of other Seattle poets. And she teaches writing to students old and young across the region.

But the only book published under Nelson's name to date is I Take Back the Sponge Cake, a choose-your-own adventure chapbook published in collaboration with illustrator Loren Erdrich. Sponge Cake was a worthy endeavor, a collection that I said at the time was "all about pairings — visual art with words, the reader and the poet, the poet and the subject, the poem before and the poem after, the poem you chose and the poem you didn't choose." It was so good that it made you wonder, well, why Nelson didn't write more books of poetry.

But no matter its reason, the drought is over. The Lachrymose Report is Nelson's first collection, and it's quite an auspicious publication: the book is a beautiful hardcover volume with a fancy (and very readable) index, and it is the first title to be published by the brand-new Poetry Northwest Editions, an offshoot of the Poetry Northwest magazine. (When I asked Poetry Northwest Editions executive editor Kevin Craft why he was publishing Nelson's first, and not seventh, collection, he could only offer a damned-if-I-know shrug in response.)

The Lachrymose Report, then, carries plenty of expectations with it. It's the first book from a new Seattle-area publisher, and the long-awaited first collection from one of our best and most civic-minded poets. There's a lot for it to live up to.

All of Nelson's interests and themes and fascinations are here. She incorporates science and mathematics into her poems. Nautical imagery and references to aquatic life appear with some regularity. Her poems are deeply funny. And humming in the background of many of these poems is a deep well of sadness — one usually only hinted at, often in conjunction with mentions of alcohol.

"A rogue wave of old grief capsized me at the bar," the poem "Rogue Wave" begins. It's a poem about the kind of massive sadness that makes you feel like you're drowning.

I report my old love in longhand,

I report old grief in perfect sobbing penmanship.

I report my flight from the bar as a series of not-falling

bat-wing-like movements

The poem concludes, "I have staggered free of the wreck of one year,/I can surely come clear of another."

This of course is heavy stuff — a deep vein of raw emotion — but Nelson keeps it leavened with comedy. Those bat-wing-like movements are a pratfall that keeps the reader from overdosing on heartbreak. It's a classic ploy, to win your audience over with humor before you punch 'em in the gut and take their wallets.

In "The First Photograph," Nelson asks, "Hasn't there ever been a moment you never wanted to leave?" She is describing the nascent art of photography, how "The pewter plate revealed buildings turning into salt," and how "Through the pinprick it all came to us,/how close we were, upside down." But she's also describing her own poetry, which is composed of moments.

Here are moments of epiphany and moments of shame and moments of glory that unfold just moments before a foot slips on a banana peel dropped in the gutter. Nelson freezes time and places the reader right there in the center of the shot.

One of the most startling uses of this moment-frozen-in-time technique of Nelson's is the poem "Pickup Truck Pantoum," which catches on Nelson's observation of a dead deer "slung/sideways, wrapped and roped in tarp" across the back fender of a pickup truck. At first, Nelson sees "girlish curves" and imagines "a girl's curved body laying there," a different kind of trophy meat on display. It's a split-second of misunderstanding, of misinterpretation, but it unfolds in a gorgeous poem that approaches something like myth.

Perhaps Nelson's greatest gift is her ability to imbue the mundane with the weight of history. A fight between a woman and a man named Timothy in a parking lot ends with someone falling from the sky and an earthquake and a high-speed flight from a cursed land. She wonders over a wishing fountain in Pompeii before the eruption. In Nelson's eyes, every bar fight is an Iliad, every walk of shame an Odyssey.

The one real problem with The Lachrymose Report is that it feels a bit too unfocused, which is a word that has never been applied to Nelson's poetry. The fact that it's the first book of a poet who has been writing for two decades creates a need to include everything, and that leaves the book feeling overstuffed — especially unfortunate, considering the fact that Nelson is one of our most precise poets.

But better too much than none at all. The Lachrymose Report is an exuberant and clever debut collection from an underpraised hero of Seattle poetry. It's a relief that this first book is finally here, so we're now a step closer to Nelson's second book. (And her third and fourth and fifth and sixth and...)

Books in this review:
  • The Lachrymose Report
    by Sierra Nelson
    Poetry Northwest Editions
    October 30, 2018
    90 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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