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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."