In Anima: Urgency by Amber Nelson

71xzSTsjz3L._SL1017_Picture a scene where language is a whetstone and thought is a knife and you’ll get a basic sense what Amber Nelson’s poetics inside In Anima: Urgency are like. The title more or less indicates what’s to be expected: sharp, pun-laden, sonically driven compressed and meticulous lyric jewels faceted by both wit and philosophical compression.

Words here hide behind sounds, sound behind words, meaning behind sound, and sound behind meaning. Truth, in these poems, is derived from the human psyche’s capability of holding multiplicities of ever-moving meaning static—if for only a moment. Thought here is slippery, multidimensional, and exists only as part of a larger system that continually slips out of our full comprehension. Here’s one of the first poems of the book—and one of my favorites:

the line, mantic,
not straight but maps
of Delphi—white island ruins
a memory—sounds like
sky—coin incident

These poems are small but deceptively complex and wonderfully and richly layered. Each one is its own little microcosm of a world. Words separate and collide, forcing different meaning simultaneously on the same line; rhymes justify and falsify, lead you and lose you; and the imagery maps and demaps. Nelson, in these spaces, locates an “emergency,” where chance and human agency coincide, where the psychology and physiology behind language are constantly butting heads, where mind and body grapple with mutual co-dependence:

Inana in hand—my mind
mines will from descending
deus ex machina, ascends
to give life, the words breathe
manus anima—the dust

Something in these poems reminds me of Ronald Johnson’s late “Shrubberies.” Each word is so carefully chosen, each line so tightly wrought to drive the tandem musicality and intellectual fervor each piece must deliver in the compressed space they allow themselves. But whereas Johnson was hoping the concrete world would speak intellectually of itself to the human faculty, Nelson seems to hold out hope that intellectual faculties are able to carve a concrete path through the outside world:

arc aids or colon nods:
movement of utopia
your torpor internalizes
coins through slots

No doubt, these are all little portraits of chaos, but Nelson is not without restraint. Nearly all the poems in this book are limited to 5 lines each and the book itself divided into 5 sections: “Heaven,” “Earth,” “Language,” and “Time” being those in which the little poems appear, and “Recur-sieve” being the finale, in which a longer poem, composed partly of reconstituted fragments of the former poems, appears. This last poem is a welcome punctuation to the collection, a sort of climactic pièce de résistance wherein chance encounter goes head-to-head with human agency in a poem where meaning depends half on what has been and half on what is yet to be:

Think a body serves vice
in deed—eats to sire changing states—
To bear bears fallow: embodiment is
invasion as envision—

This is where Nelson’s poetry not only has to talk the talk but walk the walk. This is a poetry unafraid to make bold claims and test the limits, strengths, and weaknesses of those claims before its very readers’ eyes. It is a living and very human poetry that pushes past its fear of fallibility in order to grasp the very nature of living in the human skin.

In Anima: Urgency is available from Coconut Books

Jake Syersak is an MFA Candidate in Poetry at the University of Arizona. His poems have most recently appeared or are forthcoming in CutbankPhoebe, and Ninth Letter. He is the author of the chapbook Notes to Wed No Toward from Plan B Press. He edits Sonora Review and Cloud Rodeo.

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