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Some Ether

Some Ether

4.8 4
by Nick Flynn

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Winner of a "Discovery"/The Nation Award
Winner of the 1999 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry

Some Ether is one of the more remarkable debut collections of poetry to appear in America in recent memory. As Mark Doty has noted, "these poems are more than testimony; in lyrics of ringing clarity and strange precision, Flynn conjures


Winner of a "Discovery"/The Nation Award
Winner of the 1999 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry

Some Ether is one of the more remarkable debut collections of poetry to appear in America in recent memory. As Mark Doty has noted, "these poems are more than testimony; in lyrics of ringing clarity and strange precision, Flynn conjures a will to survive, the buoyant motion toward love which is sometimes all that saves us. Some Ether resonates in the imagination long after the final poem; this is a startling, moving debut."

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“[An] astonishing debut collection. In their roaming uneasiness, these poems enact the hypodermic activity of grief. We are guided by a stunning and solitary voice into lives that have spiritually and physically imploded. No one survives and still there is so much to be felt. Here is sorrow and madness reconciled to humanity.” —Claudia Rankine

“Nick Flynn's subject--a mother's suicide, a son's peripatetic childhood--could not be more difficult to approach. If the poems stand 'close to tragedy,' as Flynn puts it, they also embody the act of survival: syntax and line conspire to pull us past the event, beyond the struggle. And yet the ghost of trauma lingers, ramifying beond the exquisitely understated endings of Flynn's poems. Even more powerful than the final line of 'My Mother Contemplating Her Gun'--'Tomorrow it will still be there'--is the silence that follows it, the knowledge that nothing lasts. These poems establish their emotional authority through their very movement--their wayward, whispering music. At once reckless and demure, outrageous and delicate, Some Ether promises nothing: it is a harrowing, beautiful book.” —Judges' statement for the 1999 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry


Some Ether is Nick Flynn's first book of poetry, and it is a knockout. He has published widely in magazines, has been included in anthologies of new poets, and was the recipient of last year's coveted "Discovery"/The Nation prize. For the most part, the poems in this collection derive their subjects from Flynn's troubled family history: his mother's suicide and his father's alcoholic homelessness. Yet the treatment of these themes never sounds repetitive or plangently self-pitying; in each poem, in each line, Flynn finds a fresh, further truth, another deeply insightful way of understanding his reality. His motion is exuberant yet carefully paced, like the sort of marathon runner you'd enjoy watching on television. Flynn eschews formal rhyme and meter schemes in favor of internal rhymes, syllabic patterning, and expert lineation that create a lean, loping beauty.

Perhaps the most immediately astonishing aspect of Flynn's talent is his profound perceptiveness. After just a few pages, I began to ask myself, Have you been paying attention to the world? How could I have missed so much? Flynn is a master at listening, distinguishing, recalling, and connecting seemingly disparate details -- and so compellingly that his observations acquire an air of inevitability. Well, of course (now that Flynn has opened my eyes) I can see that "[t]he blue heart on the stove wavers," or that when "a woman on the [subway] platform opens and closes/an umbrella" it is "an enormous lung": The appropriateness of these associations feels so obvious that "blue heart" and "enormous lung" become simply those other names for "stove fire" and "umbrella." Conversely, the poem "Other Meaning" recounts the discovery of a word's secondary denotation:

     Coming home from the drive-in, asleep under
     blankets in the vast backseat,

     my mother full of attention to the road
     & we're all wrapped in darkness & steel. Somewhere

     lost in the heart of the engine

     small fires burn, pushing us away
     from where we've been --

     the 100-foot-high movie screen
     & the airplane that passed through

     Steve McQueen's head. My feet stab

     at my brother's, wandering his own walled city
     of sleep, suspended in an endless present,

     endless protection & the slow hum of static.
     I remember a chair, a maroon & velvet throne,

     I fell asleep in it once
     as a party raged around me. Only later did I learn

     the other meaning of maroon--

     of sailors, whole families put out to sea
     in inadequate lifeboats, left to drink their own piss

     & pull gulls from the sky. I open one eye
     but cannot identify the tops of passing trees.

     How far to home? Once

     she left me on the side of the road & drove off
     into the rare green earth, her taillights

     fading sparks. Once she cast me out
     onto the porch, naked in the snow, merely because

     I said she wouldn't dare.

Flynn's acute supersensitivity is apparent even in his use of quotation: The line "The ocean is always looking for a way into your boat" develops much more ominous connotations in his subtle excerpt than the U.S. Coast Guard's lifesaving manual may have intended, and the pictures and remarks of young students, advertisements, and homeless people in New York City included in these poems magnify in expressiveness. In these diverse cullings, Flynn has a marked predilection for mixing science into his poetic punch bowl: whether as a straight quotation from someone else ("Erupting is simply what volcanoes do" -- Heinz Pagels) or as a personally inflected account of a scientific phenomenon, such as radio waves, astronomy, or meterology. In the title poem of the book, Flynn addresses his deceased mother, noting, "For years physicists were searching outer space/for some ether electromagnetic waves/could travel through. It was Einstein who said/you can't find it because it isn't there..../Your hair would be grey now." As the poem delicately hints, this missing ether is an instance of loss, the irredeemably vacant space that fails to serve as a transmitter between the present and the distant, the living and the dead.

Yet as this notion of a widening gulf in the vacuum of no ether suggests, as much as these poems concern themselves with the absent and past, they are also about the mutable present. Sprinkled throughout these pages are poems of exquisite tenderness in which Flynn addresses his beloved. Rather than wallowing in his tragic history, the poet faces and moves through it, like the bicyclist facing the flow of oncoming traffic from "The Cellar" -- or the young man in "Soft Radio" whose restlessness "walks [him]/through moving subway cars, toward/or away from someone he might love." The direction, in Flynn's case, seems to be both: both the mother he lost and the lover he is pushing toward, walking through his imagined ether away from the "something happened" toward the vital, jubilant, indescribably precious "something is happening."

—Monica Ferrell

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A troubled mother with a drug problem who ultimately commits suicide, her menacing boyfriends, and a wayward father populate--and come to dominate--Flynn's debut. In these 48 free verse narratives and lyrics framing a plain American vernacular, memory can seem almost a compulsion: "I don't want// to remember her/ reaching up for a kiss, or the television// pouring its blue bodies into her bedroom." Though many of the poems' recollections are considerably starker than these, Flynn never becomes overly graphic or macabre with this potentially overwhelming material, skirting unbridled confessionalism or mawkish sentimentality through quick successions of imagery. The drawback in Flynn's approach, however, is that it limits the poems to dramatization and description, and provides little room for more complex characterizations or insights about the small-scale tragedies depicted. Charged figurative language does make its way in, however, sometimes touched with surrealism. Such dazzling surface effects sometimes come off as mannered and opportunistic, as in a stylized dramatic monologue of the mother handling her gun, "the hard O of its mouth/ made of waiting, each bullet/ & its soft hood of lead. Braced// solid against my thigh, I'd feed it/ with my free hand, my robe open// as if nursing, practicing/ my hour of lead, my letting go." Flynn occasionally departs from such dramas, but the dark tone and themes of loss and impermanence persist through recurrent references to disasters--plane crashes, shipwrecks, floods--that can't quite expand the range of the poems. This first collection nevertheless presents an earnest sounding out of painful losses, and an honest feeling out of survival and selfhood. (June) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
This first collection is almost frightening in its honesty and reckless passion. Flynn writes tough, sad poetry that addresses a difficult childhood and a mother's suicide with unblinking faith that simply saying one's pain can tether it. There are droplets of bright, beautiful language throughout, as when "ghost stars convincingly stutter." Finally, one agrees with the author when he avows "infused with grace, by own voice/ floods the darkness." Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Graywolf Press
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
6.47(w) x 9.08(h) x 0.31(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

    Bag of Mice

I dreamt your suicide note
was scrawled in pencil on a brown paperbag,
& in the bag were six baby mice. The bag
opened into darkness,
from the top down. The mice,
huddled at the bottom, scurried the bag
across a shorn field. I stood over it
& as the burning reached each carbon letter
of what you'd written
your voice released into the night
like a song, & the mice
grew wilder.

    Fragment (found inside my mother)

I kept it hidden, it was easy
to hide, behind my lingerie, a shoebox

above my boys' reach, swaddled alongside
my painkillers

in their childproof orange cups. I knew my kids,
curious, monkeys,

but did they know me? It was easy

to hide, it waited, the hard 0 of its mouth
made of waiting, each bullet
& its soft hood of lead. Braced

solid against my thigh, I'd feed it
with my free hand, my robe open

as if nursing, practicing
my hour of lead, my letting go. The youngest

surprised me with a game,
held out his loose fists, begging

guess which hand, but both

were empty. Who taught him that?

    The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands

Everyday,something—this time
a French ship with all her passengers & crew
slides into the North Sea, the water so cold
it finishes them. Nothing saved
but a life ring stenciled GRACE,
cut loose from its body. A spokesman can only
state his surprise
that it doesn't happen more often.

Last August, as I rode the ferry
from here to the city, a freak storm
surprised everyone,
& the Captain, forced below,
asked for a show of hands
as to whether we should go on. A woman beside me
hid her entire head in her jacket
to light a cigarette.

For years I had a happy childhood,
if anyone asked I'd say, it was happy.

    You Ask How

       & I say, suicide, & you ask
how & I say, an overdose, and then
she shot herself,

& your eyes fill with what?
wonder? so I add, in the chest,
so you won't think
her face is gone, & it matters somehow
that you know this ...

                        & near the end I
eat all her percodans, to know
how far they can take me, because
they are there
. So she
won't. Cut straws
stashed in her glove compartment,
& I split them open
to taste the alkaloid residue. Bitter.
Lingering. A bottle of red wine
moves each night along
as she writes, I feel too much,
again & again. Our phone now

         unlisted, our mail
kept in a box at the post office
& my mother tells me to always leave
a light on so it seems
someone's home. She finds a cop
for her next boyfriend, his hair
greasy, pushed back with his fingers.
He lets me play with his service revolver
while they kiss on the couch.
As cars fill the windows, I aim,
making the noise with my mouth,
in case it's them,

& when his back is hunched over her I aim
between his shoulder blades,

in case it's him.


I distrust the men who come at night, sitting in their cars, their
         engines running.

The living room a dark theater behind me, I watch from the curtained

My mother is twenty-seven.

She opens the car door & bends into the overhead light but before his lips
         can graze her cheek the door closes

& the light goes out.

They sit inside & fill it with smoke.

It looks creamy in the winter night, like amber, or a newfound galaxy.

I know cigarettes can kill & wonder why she wants to die.

A picture book teaches me how to vanish. All the children are monkeys.

They plunge into the icy sea each morning to become strong.

My mother buys a Harley & I cling to her past blurry lawns.

We walk out of Bonnie & Clyde after Gene Hackman staggers up dead.

We listen for fire bells & drive to the scene of burning houses, to stand
         close to tragedy.

The Greeks teach me to shout into the waves so people will listen.


            She'd screw a store-bought toy head,
a water-wiggle, onto the end of the green hose,

that made it & me go softly berserk
                twisting across the summer lawn

as if air itself were valium.

she could whisper the word burn

& I'd turn to ash

                A blackberry patch grew wild off the road
to the electric transformers.

I'd fill my hat & carry them home
                 for her to make a lattice pie. Now she tells me

that she doesn't know how to bake, that
no blackberries ever grew around us,

that I never ate pie anyway.

not ash, really,

but the bright flecks rising from a burning
                 house, the family outside,


Meet the Author

Nick Flynn is a member of Columbia University's Writing Project and lives in Brooklyn. He is also the author of Blind Huber.

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Some Ether 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I had picked up this book about 3 years ago, and didn't buy it, and then spent the next 3 years looking for it. The poems in this book are so tragically touching, you can't read more than a few at a time, because it's like getting hit in the head and heart with a sledgehammer. You can feel Flynn's pain and see his pain through his writing. It's a truly amazing book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I picked this book up out of a 'damaged' bin and was suprised by the profoundness and militant subtlety it held. Nick Flynn captures the relationships between objects and emotions, between young and old, and between human beings immaculately and smoothly, with a raw, brutal sense of reality. His tone is desperately cool on the surface and violent and explosive underneath, his words do not blatantly point out, but rather quietly hint at and echo truth from his perspective. Brilliance.