reviewed by Harry Giles
Stephen Nelson's minimalist and visual poems spread prolifically across blogs and social media: on the internet, they're regular sparks of humour and delight in a busy feed. Amid adverts, plugs, rages and distractions, a pwoermd (one word poem), trinitreat (three word poem) or monostitch (one line poem) is a wee moment of concentrated language. In these contexts minimalist poems are respites, getaways and surprises: bitesized poems for distracted times. In Thorn Corners, however, Nelson extends poetic minimalism over 96 pages, and each tiny poem is surrounded not by interference but by white space. Within this context, the minimalist poem takes on a wholly different character, transformed from momentary surprise to extended contemplation.
Minimalism is the art of making minute changes to reality
There's not much in length between the shortest poem (five characters) and the longest (six words over three lines), but somehow there's a huge variety of tone and style within that limited scope. Poems like “fleap” still have me giggling when I think about them – that's the whole poem, as are all the quotations here – while others have the capacity to chill and horrify, as in:
scare d raped
Many of the poems discover a strong or delicate connection in sounds, and then juxtapose words together to discover what the consonance might mean, whether that's absurd, beautiful or moving: “bronze eal zealot”, “macroon caribou ruins”, “heaven vein open”. While some pwoermds depend on a daft pun that opens up unexpected possibilities of meaning – “punishmint” being a daft favourite – others succeed in naming things I didn't realise, until then, were desperately in want of a name, such as the sadly glorious “yearache”.
With so much packed into the shorter poems, the longer poems seem luxurious in how much text they offer. Paradoxically, though, these are often the strangest and most elusive poems. I had some of the strongest reactions to the multi-line pieces, many of which worked on me like magic spells:
greyv greyp greyl greyc
At first the closing consonants appeared to multiply the greyness of grey, providing repeated cutting end sounds to grey's monotony. Then, as I read them aloud, I discovered that the lines hid a series of revelatory words that uplifted me with their surprise and richness. And then, just as unexpectedly, I felt sad that Nelson had revealed to me the depressing greyness that abides not only in “grave” but also in “grace”. A poem like this is magical: it transforms reality through its careful exposure of the layers of meaning in the ordinary objects of our language. For me, now, a grape will always be a little grey.
It is possible that readers of this review might completely miss or refuse to find what I get from these tiny poems, and I was conflicted about providing any quotations at all in such a hostile aesthetic context. For any quotation of the text of Thorn Corners inevitably fails to quote its equally important balance: the white space. Each tiny poem is presented by itself, in large type, on a spacious A5 page: a vital and smart formatting decision for the success of the collection (which does otherwise suffer a little from low production values). The space means that the poems demand contemplation as distinct objects, rather than as a flow of words, while the dramatic large type also mitigates against skimming or missing a poem. Each poem-object thus impresses itself upon eyes and memory. In a Twitter feed a poem like “sun anus” might raise a smile for a moment before being passed by; in a book, multiple layers of meaning are allowed to echo across the white space. It is funny, and then a little sexy, and then pleasingly palindromic, and then cultural revulsion is allowed a little shudder, and then there is heat, and then...
The combination of Nelson's incisive linguistic observation and this open presentation allows each word or phrase to be repeatedly unmade and remade in the reader's mind and ears. Minimalism is the art of making minute changes to reality: it is modest in its methods and aims, but frequently astonishing in its ramifications. Minimalist poetry has to be approached with an open heart to match its open ground: you can't pull these poems apart to find out how they work, or pick them up and shake them until meaning falls out; rather you have to quietly ask these poems what they have to tell you, or listen to what you're already telling yourself about them.
Minimalism requires careful and friendly forms of presentation such as this book provides: along with Nelson's congenial humour and carefully welcoming introduction, a potentially alienating form has been made highly approachable. The result is an accessible compendium of the possibilities of minimalist poetry held together by a striking voice and outlook.Harry Giles grew up in Orkney and now lives in Edinburgh. In 2010 he founded Inky Fingers, a spoken word events series which he continues to help run. He has given feature performances at nights, including Chill Pill, Jibba Jabba and Last Monday at Rio, won multiple slams including the UK Student Slam (2008), the BBC Scotland Slam (2009), the Glasgow Slam (2010), and been published in journals including Magma, PANK and Clinic. He makes theatre as well as poetry; recent projects include What We Owe (The Arches, October 2012), This is not a riot (Crisis Art Festival, July 2012) and Class Act (Ovalhouse, May 2012). His pamphlet, Visa Wedding, was published in November 2012 by Stewed Rhubarb Press.