Something Bright, Then Holes by Maggie Nelson
(Soft Skull Press, Brooklyn, 2007)
[Growling Softly], Edited by Juliet Cook and "drilled" by David Foster
(Blood Pudding Press, 2007)
Something Bright, Then Holes. This is the title of a book of poetry by Maggie Nelson, but it also is a description of the world Nelson creates. Something bright. Then holes. Nelson’s book expertly weaves the brightness of life and desire with the holes that come with loss and salvage. It is the feeling of seeing but not being able to see or not seeing and being able to see.
The book divides into three main sections. The first part of the book, “The Canal Diaries,” compares the life and decay around the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, New York with a decaying relationship. The middle section of the book is called “The Hospital for Special Care”; It was written at the bedside of a hospitalized friend. The last section of the book is made up of shorter poems that return to what happens at the end of a relationship and afterwards.
The most compelling things about Something Bright, Then Holes are the holes in the stories. The actual details of the relationship become less important than the imprint of loss. A reader never really knows the details of her friend’s accident. We are left with the remains, the imprint of loss. This unrevealing makes the story more powerful.
Throughout the book, readers catch glimpses of the story being created in front of them with lines such as “Insert lyricism later” and “when did/ this become a narrative of captivity.” Nelson wants a reader to be aware she is creating a story. Nelson writes, “This story may end/ much sooner than I thought/ It may end today.” There is the feeling of being in the moment with Nelson even though she is writing about something from the past.
Two ideas that run through this book are landscape and water. Nelson writes, “I’m not going to write/ about anyone. Only the canal”(34). Of course, in only writing about the canal, others things come into the story in waves. The canal also becomes a metaphor for what is happening in her own life. Nelson looks at the canal and writes:
I don’t see
why they don’t just fix it
instead of leaving the water
to rot. Yet I know
it’s so much work
to dredge it, to face a century
of muck. (p21)
This image can stand in for the relationship also. The book obsesses about those tiny moments in relationships and in life. Nelson notices those little bits of society that most people might overlook or might have intentionally tossed away: a desk in the weeds, “marigolds glowing in the white, industrial light,” and the barbed wire.
This book draws a reader in not only because of the details Nelson captures but also because it weaves desire and despair reminding a reader these two things re never far apart. This is seen in the salt in the book. Sometimes the salt is from tears. Sometimes it is from cum. In this world, these two things exist together. On one page, Nelson places a towel on her paralyzed friend’s face.
You can’t wipe away your tears because your hands
don’t move, and I can’t wipe them away either
because it’s too abrupt a motion, everything now
needs to happen very slowly. So we place
a wet towel across your eyes and the tears
must soak upwards. (p44)
On the next page, she is reminiscing of seeing “photos of you and your lover/ naked in your kitchen, you both looked/ happy and free" (p45).
Desire and despair are shipmates in life and Nelson’s book. Everything exists in flux. To have light, there must be dark. Nelson writers, “You close your eyes and say waves/ Yes, everything happens now in waves.” (p75) The lapping waves return a reader to the water which has a constant presence in the book, but the waves also mirror the flux of life. The book ebbs and flows between ideas. The waves and lines such as “37 days of feeling lost and found” help show this. (p22)
Fell asleep in the East Broadway subway station last night
until the Mobile Washing Unit spilled water mixed with bleach
on my feet, as if I were just some sludge (p11)
On page 33, Nelson writes, “But I/ should have/ remembered, the rain// always brings in the sewage.” Rain is usually thought of as cleaning, cathartic. Rain equals a good cry. For Nelson, this doesn’t happen without the complications of “sewage.” Nelson is the gold miner dredging through stories, pulling out the shiny bits and the muddy sludge and dumping it all onto the page. Her words are all shining even when she is talking about the dirty water.
This is a book to which readers will want to return. Each reading reveals something new, something bright. Even the cover art (“Heartattack City” by Tara Jane O’Neil) pulls a reader in and makes a reader think of something each time he or she holds the book. A pieced together shell of a partial body with a stitched up heart and emanating lines making a person think of loss, desire, hope, robots, and flux. On page 43, Nelson addresses her hospitalized friend’s reconstructed face, “Now your skull is literally shining.” Something bright. Then holes. Maggie Nelson’s Something Bright, Then Holes shines with each encounter.
Reading the zine [Growling Soflty] from Blood Pudding Press simultaneously with Something Bright, Then Holes enriches both texts. These texts share the same sand box of desire, loss, flux, and salvage. Many of the pieces in [Growling Softly] use color, landscape, and body in the same ways Nelson does.
The most seductive thing about [Growling Softly] is how it is packaged. Mine came with a lavender cover, a metallic inner page peaking out, a long soft ribbon binding, and a textured patterned rectangle on the back cover, but each one is unique. Opening the front cover reveals an admission ticket pasted inside that says, “Rendezvous Admission.” This ticket invites a reader into this zine. The table of contents is called, “*the sticky innards” that hints at what’s to come. The title deceives a reader. Most of these poems growl, but most of them are not soft. These poems confront and kick at a reader; the poems are not shy, slicing into their bellies, pulling out intestines and throwing them down in front of a reader.
Reading the pieces in [Growling Softly] alongside Something Bright, Then Holes makes certain things stand out like these lines from Amber Nelson’s piece “April 28”:
It’s the imprint of a human body
on your body. All skin and kidneys.
Or the lines “The horrible spill of my heart cherries jubilee/all over his dirty white linoleum and him” from “Unrequited Breakfast in Bed” by Misti Rainwater. Lines like, “I must write about sea things:/ dry docks and sludge barges” from John Rocco’s “The Maritime Industry” mean more when put with Nelson’s book. Most of the poems become more special when a reader keeps Nelson’s poems in mind. Almost all of them have at least one image to hold onto like this one from “The Angel of Death” by Juliet Cook
My aborted baby has been salted away
inside an old cigar box
with a handful of blue crayons—
One of the most interesting pieces is “Fleur and the Phantom Limb” by Melissa Culbertson. This poem expertly captures what it means to miss a limb. The ideas of desire, loss, and salvage float through this piece in lines like these below:
Today a man will try to trace his way up my skirt,
but all he’ll find is a smile of skin, more grimace than
scar, tinbent teeth grinning over all that is
I am the artifact of cartwheel, double-dutch.
The poem captures that feeling of loss, but does not want a reader’s pity. Later in the poem, Culbertson writes, “I’ll make you forget symmetry.” This line is the only line that doesn’t start at the left side of the page. It disrupts the page and makes a reader pay attention to the space where a leg used to be.
Two pieces near the end of the zine “symmetrophobia fear of symmetry” and “ornithophobia fear of birds” both by Kristy Bowen are also gorgeous. The reference to symmetry might hurtle a reader back to “Fleur and the Phantom Limb,” but this poem will take a reader in other places also.
It begins with auguries. Three starlings. Three forks. The faucet
running milk in the mornings and my handwriting hinting at some
independent disaster. I’ll speak in third person when we come to the
part in the pay where the house is on fire. The part in the car where
my ribcage blooms like poppies. Where we die, are revived, then die
again. When the terror is exquisite. A slow, beautiful throttle.
In “ornithophobia,” the speaker actually turns into a bird. For someone who fears birds, that must be the worst thing in the world.
In [Growling Softly], a reader has more of an idea of what happened in most of the pieces. Some of the poems tell a little too much of the story. More gaps and imprints would have been welcomed. Some of the pieces aren’t as successful as others, but the energy and love of the creators come shining through all of them. They are honest and raw. This zine introduced me to Blood Pudding Press, the murmurists, and some writers I want to get to know more about. All in all, this was a rollercoaster of a zine that improved by being read in the shadow of Maggie Nelson’s Something Bright, Then Holes.
Kristi Castro is an archivist, English 101 instructor, and occasional barista. Current projects include a re-mixed deconstruction of The White Album and the small press Fret Punch. Her work can be found in silent actor, not enough night, and Why We Write.