Pretty Pieces: Joan Houlihan on Nathaniel Bellows

Reviewed: Why Speak? by Nathaniel Bellows. W.W. Norton, 2007. 110 pages.

Why speak? A good question. But this debut collection provokes more specific questions: In what way are these poems not short, short, stories? What governs their line breaks? Where is the power of trope, concision, sound, rhythm, the one right image that radiates from an emotional center? What drives these poems other than the descriptive, sometimes merely competent, writing of literary fiction?[private]

Why Speak? centers on the narrator’s childhood memories and family dramas, and the collection as a whole has a memoir-ish feel, one we associate with the “I” and all its historical assemblages and dissemblings. But there are “I”s and there are “I’s”-why should we care about this one? As an editor once observed to a poet awaiting word on his submission: “No one wants to read about you, they want to read about themselves.” The “I” of the poem must perforce be a universal one in order to reach the “I” of the reader and not be merely a recitation of personal history overheard without involvement, like listening to a stranger on a bus-half-dozing, snapping awake at points where the story seems to gain momentum, then dozing off again when it turns out again to go nowhere:

From the highway I see the open, unmown fields, two silos the same

battered blue, the sign with its white letters still singing the name

ALFALFA FARM. And, next door, the house of an old friend, long gone,

now redone and different from how I knew it: raw, dug-up lawn,

cracked storm door, a van in the driveway balanced on blocks where

his sisters would play under a pile of ratty afghans. We watched them

from an appliance box with a slot cut out for spying. Now there is

a birdbath, a potting shed where their mildewed dollhouse sagged.

(“Alfalfa Farm”)

This poem, the first in the book, continues for another page or so, in the same vein: that is, couplets (why couplets?) with gracefully constructed sentences describing things seen on a deserted farm. The descriptions, mildly interesting, sometimes lovely, but also rather clichéd in their phrasing (“the sign with its white letters,” “an old friend, long gone,” “The farm is unchanged,” “where the cars fly by”) and often saddled with unnecessary and unoriginal adjectives (“battered blue,” “raw, dug-up lawn”-more interesting with simply “raw”-“under a pile of ratty afghans”-I assume these are the blankets, not the dogs, though playing under a pile of ratty dogs would heighten the stakes here-“mildewed dollhouse” and so on).

Many of these poems call to mind stories in John Updike’s Pigeon Feathers, not only for the subject matter (childhood on a farm), but also for the (sometimes) felicitous prose (“In the dark yard it beckons you back / to snow, the static of the past-your father, a boy, speaking in a tongue / you never knew, calling down from the branches”). But even to make the comparison with a fiction writer, one who is rightly admired for his craft, is to notice that Bellows’s lines, while competent and well-wrought as sentences, if not lines of poetry, do not also have the power of Updike’s writing for the simple reason that Updike has something more than description to say and often says it with flair-freshly, imagistically, and with originality, not mere competence. In fact, even as I compare the lines in Why Speak? to sentences of literary fiction, I’m also mindful of the fact that lyrical, finely written fiction falls flat when it builds toward nothing, relying solely on the sound of its own voice. There is, in fact, a superficiality to this collection, a sense of self-indulgent soliloquy, as well as the impression of a writer at the start of his creative development, someone with talent who needs a difficulty to deepen it. The few skirmishes with emotional depth are unconvincing, meandering in what’s intended to be a mimicry of the mind at work, memory associating various events and moments of interaction, and the writer clearly intends us to hook up to, or hook into, some deeper emotional terrain:

. . . . I’ve seen deer near every

house I’ve ever lived in. Once I saw a pair standing in the tide pools;

I saw one eating flowers on the meridian by the shopping center; and one

in pieces on the road-the way you must have looked, struck down just

yesterday. All the deer were dull brown. And you, my friend, are long

gone. . . .                            (“Seldom Seen”)

Bellows successfully avoids sentimentality by weaving feelings-and occasions for feelings-into a fabric of sentences both descriptive and flat, engulfing in their lack of affect any emergence of an emotionally charged statement. This strategy of “hiding” the emotional impact, so successful in the stories of say, William Trevor, where nothing much happens, but everything happens, works too well in Bellows’s world. There is no tension to speak of, no suspense or sense of inevitability, and the glancing look at some driving force behind the poem is just that, a glance only. In many ways the poems evoke the current trend in short story writing where nothing actually happens, emotionally speaking, and the ending trails away as if to indicate “real life” and its undramatic nature: no epiphanies here, no accumulation of meanings, merely a kind of reporting on the way things were and are. Some of this reporting is lovely:

An egret lifting its blue feet in the reeds, among the cut-up

sticks floating in the shallows of the lake. What caught my eye

was its color-beyond white, white, moving past itself

into something lit, as if with winter’s last light. The water was gray-

I should say that the water was black, because, against it,

the bird glowed, plumage like an over-powdered pastry.

There were flowers, too. And green buds on the trees, like flecks

of food scattered on a sleeve.             (“Elegy”)

In this, as in his other poems, Bellows seems to select his words and images, not for their deeper or wider logic in the poem (the poem is probably not an elegy to a chef, after all, or to a sloppy eater) but because they sound or look good at the moment. Too many lines are like this, decorative, not quite apt, not riveting, and not necessary-a string of pretty pieces.

There is also the jarring problem of awkward and unconvincing similes throughout the poems:

The metronome tocked like the bird that beats

its head against the trees in the yard;

(“A Certain Dirge”)

We ate our meals under startled deer twisting

from the walls . . .

(“At the House on the Lake”)

Someone left this trail to the door behind which

the doctor sits in his dimly lit room where I open my mouth and remove

memory like a pit pried from a fruit, a prize pulled from a holiday


(“In Greater Detail”)

The men came, scraped and painted the front of the house,

leaving the sides to peel. First it was the chairs

that grew tiny tags like leaves,

then others were sold. The drawers

were full of unpaid bills, tied with ribbon like cakes;

coins of wax in dotted lines up the stairs.

The radiators stood in an awkward swirl.

. . . .The piano remained in the hall, like an obelisk.

(“Some Traditions”)

It’s impossible to ignore the presence of such inexact, even ludicrous, comparisons: a bird beating its head against trees and a metronome that sounds like it, mounted deer heads twisting from the walls-perhaps to get a better look, or are they attempting to twist completely off the wall as implied by the use of “from” rather than “on”?-memory pried out of someone’s mouth like a “pit”-a memorectomy?-chairs growing price tags that look like leaves, wads of money that look like cakes tied with ribbon, radiators swirling awkwardly and, the coup de grace, a piano that looks like a tall, narrow, four-sided, tapering monument which ends in a pyramidal top. They crop up everywhere, these little howlers that someone should have advised the author to change or remove forthwith.

In fact, no poem in this book would be weakened by the removal of some word, or words, or even many lines; in fact, some may be greatly improved by doing so. This is because the entirety of the poem is evidently not considered, the poems do not add up: one line simply takes the place of another. Since many of the poems are quite long, this effect is pronounced: a lack of consciousness caused by a lack of connections exacerbated by separation. One measure of a great poem may well be that it cannot be subtracted from without harming the whole: that every word, every line, is necessary. This sense of necessity is painfully lacking in Bellows’s longer poems, and I find myself asking “why?” throughout the tedium of reading them. One of Bellows’s shorter poems, and one that the publisher has chosen as exemplary, also exemplifies this problem in a shorter space:

I envy the cellist with the sculpted barrel

between her knees.

I envy the violinist, the trainer of a mahogany bird

perched on his shoulder.

I admire them, I appreciate

each finger pulling and plucking, beckoning

silence into symphony.

The man on my left has fallen asleep,

his head bobs at my shoulder.

The old couple in front sink into their chairs,

a woman looks for someone behind her

through the eye of her compact.

I am here in my uncoiling sweater, hair wet

from the rain. From my seat the musician’s faces

are hidden, their arms flail like branches

in a storm.

During intermission, I climb stairs

to the balcony. The statues, tucked into

niches peer out from their holes,

marble birds. They look across the hall at one another

with perfect, round eyes. I envy their smooth limbs,

their tilting grace, their ears. I envy

their supreme confidence-

like the fish in my childhood tank,

who never knew I was there

as I tapped their glass walls,

straining to hear the sounds

from their singing, silent mouths.

Among other questions I have are these: why envy? Since the word and sentiment reappear in the last stanza, but in another context, I infer that the word has a resonance beyond the particulars of each object of envy, but what is that resonance? That the speaker is envious of all those who beckon “silence into symphony” (an inverted and awkward usage)? An envy of those who can make music? Being envious of the “ears” of the statues (and are those statues really “marble birds”-birds don’t have “smooth limbs” or “ears”) implies envy of the ability to listen, so perhaps the envy is directed at those who can hear well, and have “supreme confidence” because of such good hearing. But how are the birds, or the statues that seem like birds, related to the fish that seem to be singing? The birds / statues have “supreme confidence” and the fish also have that confidence, whereas, perhaps, the speaker does not have any such confidence. So it seems the envy is for all things confident. If this is so, how does the middle stanza fit? The unappreciative audience, the “hidden” faces of the musicians and their flailing arms, the narrator with hair wet from the rain and an “uncoiling” sweater (does he mean unraveling? If so, how is it in a state of unraveling without anything pulling at it? If not, what does he mean?), the old couple, the dozing man-why are they in this poem? Why can’t they be moved around, easily show up in another poem? If, as it seems, the narrator is using description of environmental elements to reflect a state of mind or being (a kind of objective correlative approach), and that state of mind is indicated as lack of confidence, there is a bigger question: who cares? Why should I care that this “I”, who envies cello and violin players and marble birds and/or statues and a tank full of fish, feels a lack of confidence while sitting in an inattentive symphony audience in an unraveling, or “uncoiling” sweater, with a wet head? Other problems include the cello (no cello I’ve seen even slightly resembles a “sculpted barrel”), the violin (the “mahogany bird” is a lovely image, but how is it like a violin? Because both are made of mahogany-are they?-and both “sing”?), and then the images in the last stanza of “marble birds” with “perfect, round eyes,” “smooth limbs,” and, of course, the birds’ “ears.”

It would be easy to dismiss the poems in Why Speak? as the cast-offs of a novelist, but that would diminish the work of a novelist. As with poetry, fiction writing must rise above the merely competent to be great-or even worth reading at all. It is not only the lack of concision, apt word choice, or use of imagery and metaphor that makes these lines feel so prosy, but something fiction must also possess in order to be compelling to a reader: a necessity of connection, a sustained, imaginative relationship of words and lines that make the piece of writing more than autobiographical notations.

The esteemed critic and poet Richard Howard hails Bellows as “an unchallengeable voice, new among us but veteran for poetry,” a statement easily challenged by anyone who takes the time, as I did, to actually read and think about these poems. Bellows’s publisher, the esteemed W.W. Norton, claims for him “tremendous lyrical and technical gifts” and asserts that “we find ourselves with one of the most impressive debuts in recent memory” which leads me to wonder how recent that memory is: hours? minutes? This is clearly a young author on the rise, his debut novel published to positive reviews, his debut collection of poems lauded by Richard Howard and published by Norton and yet the question the title raises haunts me: Why Speak?[/private]

About Joan Houlihan

Joan Houlihan is author of three collections, most recently, The Us (Tupelo Press, 2009). Her other two books are: Hand-Held Executions: Poems & Essays (2003) and The Mending Worm, winner of the 2005 Green Rose Award from New Issues Press. Her work has appeared in many journals, including Boston Review, Poetry, Harvard Review, Gettysburg Review, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Black Warrior Review, Gulf Coast and Pleiades, among others, and has been anthologized in The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries (University of Iowa Press, 2005) and The Book of Irish-American Poetry--Eighteenth Century to Present (University of Notre Dame Press, 2007). Her critical essays on contemporary poetry are archived online at and she is a contributing editor for the Contemporary Poetry Review. Houlihan is founder of the Concord Poetry Center in Concord, Massachusetts and of the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference. She teaches in Lesley University's Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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