life of the US is too often described in simple language: because the
landscape is perceived as plain, and is thought to be peopled by those
who "speak plainly," the life and landscape is rarely given
the honor of syntactical complexity. In No Magic, Leah Nielsen
does occasionally make the mistake of using plain language, but it works—most
of the time.
No Magic is Nielsen's first book,
and like many first books it is organized by thematic sections; in this
case, the first section, titled "Lung," is just as engaging
as the other three. For example, the end of the first poem "The Lay
of Beginnings," is both imagistically attractive in its use of the
verb "fell" and emotionally absorbing because of the subject
you will be no less
were twenty years ago—
you came from Danes who choked
back the Depression on milk and slog—
fell from our lives
in six quick months and a few long days
and the stories spilled—
Throughout the book
(but less often as the book progresses), Nielsen attempts to work a hole
in our resistance to sentimentality by hooking into our curiosity: the
longing for the father is cut with Nordic gods and legends, such as Loki,
Odin, and Yggdrasil, the tree of the world; the images and poems evoking
this sort of subtly mythic landscape are really the most interesting poems
in the book. Many of the earlier poems are the most powerful specifically
because of this combining of subjects. In "Even then I knew the world
tree..." the Nordic legend is mixed with memories of shooting a .410
rifle, and this realization: "god how I loved it—/that silence
right before," the pulling of the trigger. "Hreasvelg, the Eagle
Called Corpse-swallower" is a beautiful lyric description of foreboding
and loss made so because of its reliance on strong images of nature. These
poems in which myth and life co-mingle end with the imagistic punch one
enjoys—direct and clear, uncluttered by the weak syntax of conditional
or prepositional phrases, or an unnecessarily light ironic statement.
The poems that do not mix-in myth are almost
as interesting as those that do, despite their use of plainer, more direct
syntax and image. In "March," a piglet is castrated and "the
sow gnaws the testicles and swallows." In "Apology, a Love Poem"
the tercets force the images to smoothly combine, so the buried statement,
"[a]pologize until I forgive you//for what you haven't done,"
has all the more resonance. In "May" the speaker's identification
with a cleaned and skinned catfish almost becomes desire when she asks
"[w]hat tools/would he use to turn me inside out?" In "With
my Mother Out" (a poem reminiscent of early Jack Gilbert), Nielsen
gives us a girl who can and cannot recognize her disease-stricken father,
startling, weakened, a girl who "hold[s]/out [her] hand to the nearly
There are many more poems that startle
in this book: in "The Lay of Songs After a Day of Hard Work,"
a daughter's nighttime longing for the missing father is conveyed in short
bucolic images of the farm and separation; and in "Because this was
not going to be an elegy..." the avoidance of pain and the inability
to rely on memory becomes, subtly, an acceptance of memory and its ability
to give us just enough solace.
However, as with most first books of poems
(hell, most books of poems, period), when one reads beyond the richer
work, problems with the book come to the fore. The first problem is structural.
The listing of four sections only—with no poem titles—in the
table of contents seems an odd decision because the sections do not consistently
define four individual themes or styles, especially not in the relationships
between the section titles. There are two much better structural threads
already running through the poems: the powerful burden of the father's
early death gradually lifts as the poems progress, implying redemption
and closure; and the poems titled with the months of the year clearly
imply a movement through a series of stations. The book could have done
away with sections entirely.
The second problem, and probably the more
disconcerting one, is at the level of prosody. Nielsen occasionally relies
less on the power of her images to get her reader to the lyrical finish
for most of the poems, and tries, instead, to end what might otherwise
be intellectually and emotionally engaging material with nearly glib statements.
"Even then I knew the world tree..." commits this error (though
only slightly), and "Attempt at a Wedding Poem for my Sister,"
has an irony in the last sentence ("It's the gesture that counts")
that rings hollow in the ear. "Spin Cycle," "Baldur,"
"Thor, My Sister's Version," and "The Afterlife" would
all be better poems if they had better endings. Some poems even forsake
darkness for lightheartedness—something that should never happen.
Still, though, it feels ungenerous to complain
in the face of goodness. And this book is, overall, good: good writing,
good thinking, good material—good poems. The pieces that best display
this poet's talents are those in which myth and life combine to form profundity;
to form a poem greater than its parts, this poet uses syntax that challenges
one's initial assumptions about subject and image. When the syntax is
more restrained the poems achieve a worthy competence. Because of these
two qualities, there is a sense that this poet has been in the world long
enough to know a few things (a sort of very early middle-aged wisdom,
such as that is), and that these things have left their imprints. May
Nielsen continue to allow these imprints to bloom into poems, so that
readers may read more of her work.