The Dial by Chris Nealon

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Taking all of fifteen minutes to read aloud, Chris Nealon’s chapbook-length poem is a book of visions. Nealon plays a modern-day Daniel, reading writing on a wall, or Plato, recording cave-shadows. At times the eye is internal, at times it is trained on a circle of friends and acquaintances; the speaker’s hand is constantly on the dial, receiving, translating, and interpreting voices–his own, and those of the dead and the living alike.

Although the poem (or part of it) has already been examined for its Modernist marks, I would add a layer of Romanticism, either under or over this reading, and I don’t think it much matters which, since really Nealon is “dialing time around an axis,” giving it a continuous, simultaneous quality, drawing all of history into his orbit. His things do exude ideas–a bright red book of prophecy, the dollars in his pocket–and yet there is also a deeper magic at work, one of dreams and fleeting moments, where poetry is not only object, but drama. “Like little tercets everybody staggered into place.” True to its own statement, Nealon’s poetry takes people and places as its building blocks and then animates them, noting that we are “in a landscape like a landscape painting–/we all were–an extensive one–and we could/move around–” Whether he is wandering through airports or mobile apps, checking proximities physically or digitally, walking alone or sitting around a table with friends, Nealon relates his waking dreams, with all their interruptions and digressions. He conducts his own tour of Xanadu, his own walled gardens, his caves and waterfalls. It is a poem full of symbols, but also full of visions, such as this one:

I couldn’t turn the dial–I reached for my notebook

–I hunched over and wrote,

In a complicated cross-breeze
Kept from where the tides go

Two times you appeared to me

“Once as a woodcutter with an axe about his
neck”

Later unencumbered as a boy

Perhaps to serve as current political commentary, the voices of prophecy in The Dial have been reduced to small talk, have been truncated or abandoned, with no expectation for revival. This is as Nealon wants it; his aim is to delineate new systems of value, to restructure the economy of poetry around the stolen moments of conversation with friends, the stolen moments of enlightenment during times of transition, and to show that life itself is constant transition– and transmission.

Nealon’s narrator also loves to turn the scope of a scene inside out and back-to-front, especially toward the end, when the voice begins to surface from the depths of its dream and to assess it from a distance: “With you in the square that day I saw the thimble/where the mind is/Like the briefest waterfall behind my eyes I saw the/ocean where the thimble was/And on the final page of the bright red book that/dropped into the plaza I read the words,/’true freedom will always lie in the ability/to make friends.’” The poem is peopled with friends–too numerous to name–some who also people the contemporary poetry world, such as Andrew Kenower, curator of A Voice Box, an online collection of poems read aloud by their authors. With these scenes and orations, Nealon opens an endless series of Russian nesting dolls, each one containing something bigger than itself.

It is often unclear whether Nealon’s tone is sincere or ironic, and this too seems intentional. The Dial twists back and forth wildly, both laughing us off and holding us close, reminding us of the true value of everything–and nothing. Reading Nealon, one feels as though Homer has been reincarnated in sound bites, or as though Coleridge has succeeded in reviving the song of the damsel with her dulcimer, and we realize it is both as delightful and as laughable as we could have imagined. Nealon is both god and jester, beckoning us close even as he warns us to beware.

Download The Dial for free at The Song Cave

Heather Brown received her MFA in poetry from Oregon State University. She lives and writes in Portland, Ore. and works for Powell’s Books, Inc.

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