A.L. Nielsen’s new book of poetry has recently made a brand new beggar out of me.
“Moving, moving around / I’ve been travelling from town to town…” Prilly Hamilton sings in the first verse of the song that lends the book its title. So too, Nielsen’s new work takes place en route. From the opening pages, we are suspended above vast empty spaces: “Bursts of land so flat / You want to put anything other / Than yourself down there.” Even as the poems jet-set across continents, they have a way of doubling back on themselves–retracing their steps or covering their tracks. This recursive movement is evident in the lines’ syncopated twists, the poems’ deep irony, and the slippage between location and dislocation.
Motifs of space, travel, and distance span the book, which contains poetic suites oriented around two very different places: Kansas and Ghana. The section on Ghana is restrained, even imagistic. The language is laden with tropical humidity and the weight of history:
“At Independence Square
The Black Star arches above
America’s Independence Day”
While densely layered, the section is buoyed up by poignant turns. I vividly recall the “Lizard doing his morning pushups” at Big Milly’s Backyard in Kokrobite, for instance.
Many visitors to Ghana hear at least one song that remains connected to a particular West African memory. I will forever associate Arrested Development’s “People Everyday” with the rusted-through floor of a cab barreling into the countryside one night; I can just as clearly hear “Muddy Waters pouring / From seaside speakers / Sounding / Homecoming baptism.”
The book is highly allusive; it traces an intricate constellation of references including poets George Oppen, Charles Olson, Melvin Tolson, and Gil Scott-Heron; experimental composers Sam Rivers, Frank Zappa, and Sun Ra; and even Bertol Brecht makes an oblique appearance. In another context, Nielsen links Amiri Baraka’s politically-committed, vernacular experimentalism to Brecht’s. He calls it Baraka’s “social realism of the blues” (Black Chant 197). The analogy speaks to what we have here: a vanguard poetics “Punched out of Belgian mud.”
In that spirit, the section “from Kansas” addresses America’s history of popular dissent, racial conflict, and civil war, and reminds us that–quiet as it’s kept–Kansas was an important front in the struggle to end slavery. Between the Jayhawkers’ guerrilla raids and the pro-slavery retaliation that resulted in the Lawrence Massacre, Nielsen finds “Roiling plates / Planes of / Climate change / Antebellum broiling.” Such continental drifts and divides fracture the poetic landscape.
Yet the poems’ rhythmic cadence and phrasing give them an insistent musicality: “From discrepant depths / Rhyme hidden so deep as to be beyond layered lime.” These poems are at once bitingly satirical and delicately wrought, demonstrating a deftness and lyricism that begs to be given voice through performance.
Later this month, A.L. Nielsen will read at the Poetry Project on Monday, March 18 at 8:00pm with Evie Shockley. Shockley’s own recent book, the new black, is a stunning collection of poems about which I have more good things to say. She has praised Nielsen’s book for the “wicked wit he often turns on politics and culture” and notes the book’s playfulness and intimacy.
I highly recommend acquiring a copy of both A Brand New Beggar and the new black. Right now–for a limited time–Steerage Press has made available a kindle edition of A.L. Nielsen’s book for just $0.99.