REVIEW: Neighbors by Jay Nebel

by Heather Brown

Jay Nebel’s Neighbors turns everyday moments into epic adventures, and every backyard haunt is holy.

In a poem called “Altruism,” Molly Peacock asks what would happen if we “got outside ourselves,” to understand the existences of others, beyond a vague awareness like we might have of our neighbors’ yards, through the waves of heat emanating from our own patio grills. Jay Nebel’s debut collection of poems, out now from Saturnalia and chosen by Gerald Stern for the 2015 Saturnalia Prize, turns its lens on just those other existences, the ones that surround us daily, unnoticed and fragile, yet indispensible to our understanding of ourselves. His poems are peopled with mothers, sons, lovers, and neighbors, those who—because they live closest to us—we often see only in the periphery. Jay’s poems also grapple with the past from the vantage point of an ongoing survivor; of adolescence, of addiction, of love, of marriage, and of parenthood. His poetic sensibilities are steeped in the contemporary American literary traditions of Denis Johnson, Richard Hugo, Joseph Millar, and Frank Stanford. When I read Jay’s poems, I sense their danger, and I sense myself staring it boldly in the face with the courage it takes to look outward, to look beyond. I sense the poet’s voice casting itself backward, through the decades of his own life and the centuries of human existence, turning mundane moments into epic adventures and stumbling, daily encounters– both with others and with other, alien selves–into holy pilgrimages toward redemption.

In “Queen Anne’s Revenge” Jay addresses both the epic courage and the epic vulnerability it takes to be a parent, specifically a father:

I’m dying with eighteen holes in my chest.
I’m watching, one open eye to the ground,
as my son rips free
from my arms, teeth bared, the breeze lifting
his thin black hair, the ghost mast
wavering above, the Queen Anne gone,
only this ship now, a rusty steering wheel
with snot and apple juice stuck to it,
and packs of four and five-year-old pirates
pouring over us, their gangly arms tangled in the chain rigging,
exploding from the red play structure
with fists full of bark dust.

For further perusal, I recommend “Monk’s Prayer”:

let me ask/what has conjured this book
of shadows, or this city covered
and uncovered daily
this dream of ashes I wake to
each day, ho
lding a life
under my knuckles?

or “Science Fiction and Fantasy”: 

Then I stripped down to my boxers on acid
and snuck into the Grant High School pool
and became another creature entirely
after I entered the water, horned and pearly,
throat gilled like multiple stab wounds
. Stories of seeing Jack Gilbert read, who looked exhausted
in his oversized wool sweater, cheap
blue raincoat and thin white beard
standing before his audience
like a crumbling
from the Renaissance

or poetic explorations of Robert Frank’s photo-essay The Americans:

The road bends through the land, worn and frayed
as a pant cuff torn by
a dog,
stretches between the luncheonette and backyard,
between the end of the rodeo
and the funeral for New York,
between the public park and the bar.

It’s not coincidental that Jay’s burgeoning Instagram feed (@innerweather) turns the same lens upon the natural and built worlds of his day-to-day life. Jay works on the road, delivering juice from a refrigerated truck, and in recent weeks and months of documenting his daily routes has expressed a visual sensibility that juxtaposes the sublime and the horrific, the brilliant and the base, in unforgettable contrast and heartbreaking relief. His photos, like his poems, often bring the impression of collage, alongside the stunning realization that they are in fact cohesive and naturally-occurring scenes. Whatever the medium, Jay records what he sees, in frames and from angles that we wouldn’t see unless he showed us. Often his poems begin by feeling jumbled or directionless, only to fall into fearless focus at just the right moment. Gerald Stern says of the book that he loves “both the clarity and the abandonment to mystery that occurs. . . it moves from the literal to the figurative to God knows where easily and seamlessly.” Often as a poem begins, I’m not at first sure what I am looking at, but once recognition sets in, it leaves its indelible mark. Not coincidentally, the last sentence of the poem “An Inner Weather” by Denis Johnson in the book of the same name (Graywolf, 1976) holds more clues to the indelible marks left on Jay by poetry:

The snow descends in a sparkling light but many are blind,
walking out without jackets as if into the sun,
and they would not say anything of the snow,
but would say only this
of the weather, that s
omething falling burns on them.

In the spirit of Peacock’s “Altruism,” these are poems that have endured an endless walk through the self, in the end, not giving, but coming to know/someone is there through the wavy vision/of the self’s heat, love become a decision. Neighbors brings a wondering poet’s eye to all these fires. The backyard grills, the something falling that burns; pixels, as we see them now, or light burned onto slices of silver halide, like in the old days. We are the ones the poet is seeking on the other side, in the “outside out there,” and in all—including himself—that he has found to love.

Available from Saturnalia: $15

Heather Brown lives in Portland, OR where she moved after graduating from Oregon State University’s MFA program in Creative Writing. She’s been a high school English teacher, and now she writes poems, reviews manuscripts, works part-time at Powell’s, and helps to develop instructional and promotional materials for the Portland-based press, YesYes Books. She also manages social media for the Vinyl Poetry Journal (periodical arm of YesYes Books) and for Tavern Books, a nonprofit poetry press specializing in revivals and reprints of works in translation.

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