The Forgotten World, Nick Courtright’s engrossing and multilayered third poetry collection, features the poet’s pre-pandemic, international travel as its organizational framework and ostensible subject. The book’s three section dividers list the names of countries where the poems are situated, with the last section—which functions as a sort of coda—reserved for the United States. Despite these useful signposts, it becomes increasingly clear as the book moves forward that the poet’s interior journey is more significant than his experiential one. With a few notable exceptions, the poems provide relatively few extended narratives or detailed descriptions about encountering people or places—what we get are mostly gestures toward the actual that enable the poet to reflect on a variety of concerns that trouble him. The poems, in other words, are not so much evocative of place as they are evocative of self in response to place, as well as Courtright’s precarious position as a privileged white male solo traveler.
Given the extent of the poet’s subjective preoccupations, a reader might find herself wondering, what is this poet running toward? What is he running from? As one might expect, it turns out that there is a nexus of things that mobilize this restless traveler. Among them are the scandal of whiteness, the legacies of imperialism, loss of love that leads to a family breakup, problematic masculinity and the male gaze, the value of a life devoted to art, and most especially impermanence—it bothers the poet that all things, including the earth, are destined to disappear. In which case, what is it that matters if “in the end it’s all ephemera” (“Waiting for the River”)? As he says in another poem, “I wonder how to lend meaning to my life” (“The Heights of Machu Picchu”), with the word “lend” rather than say, “give,” a judicious throwback to the word “ephemera.”
One of the many ways this book intrigues is in its management of the travelogue format, noticeable in the way the poems speed through the different countries the book names. It’s not even clear that the order of countries presented is the same as the poet’s actual real-life itinerary—the poems don’t offer us specific timelines. In fact, the only date the poet gives is 2525, in a poem called “Nostalgia for a Distant Future,” where the speaker revisits Mars:
When after many years I return to Mars
I find it foreign, like the taste of pineapple
or like myself in so many places
where the world shoots its bright sun
across a potato field.
The poem’s placement among those with real-world settings may at first make “Nostalgia” feel like an outlier, but it, along with other fictionalized poems, such as “You-Zombie” and “Dracula’s Last Day,” represent a sneaky way for the poet to comment on universal human failings, as well as elaborate on what he means when he says he feels “foreign” to himself. In fact, these and most of the other poems in the collection do double or triple duty, providing us with multiple possible ways of reading. “Nostalgia,” for instance, can be read as an odd, but effective proleptic gesture toward the earth’s future ecological devastation as well as a kind of mourning. The Zombie and Dracula poems can be read for their usual connotations of horror as well as allegorical stand-ins for the poet and his troubled state of mind. At the same time, these poems are also characteristic of the sort of poetic playfulness and comedic tongue-in-cheek distancing that runs throughout the book as a whole (especially in the titles), even when Courtright is at his most serious. The incongruities that arise from pairing the playful with the serious are one of many examples of Courtright’s poetic skillfulness. Such juxtapositions enable fresh ways of talking about the disorientating aspects of travel, as well as provide the means for complicating the critiques Courtright makes in response to social, existential, and ethical questions that worry him. Moreover, pairing the playful with the serious allows the poet to quickly change directions, often many times in a single poem, so that Courtright’s poems constantly surprise.
What is central to this book is revealed through its formal aspects. The Forgotten World is structurally strategic at the macro level as well as at the level of the line. Useful for appreciating the ingenuity of Courtright’s organizational choices are comments he made in an interview with James Morehead for the online journal Viewless Wings. Courtright says he had written approximately four hundred pages of poetry and from these selected the ones that made it into his book:
I wrote probably around four hundred pages worth of poetry for this book and edited it down to seventy-two pages. For individual poems, there’s only so much revision that goes into them. But for an entire book, it’s all about survival of the fittest.
The arrangement of poems that survived after this radical reduction/compression result in a narrative arc that tracks a spiritual and existential crisis, ironically one undergone by someone who says he is irreligious. The sense of a mind in turmoil begins in the very first poem “Facing Mecca”:
would it make if I am clipped
by a motorbike, if I cannot smile
at an old woman, her niqab
concealing what it is about her
that I wish to know?
And in poem after poem the inner pressure increasingly intensifies. “I want to atone for all / I’ve not done, and for nothing / I have,” he writes in the second poem (“I Cannot Enter the Mosque”). Ultimately, the poems in the book’s first two sections build to an emotional climax that occurs in the center of the collection, inside a poem semi-seriously named (it has a broken title) “Losing One’s Mind at Westminster Abbey and Notre Dame feat. Vincent van Gogh,” with the word “feat” a distancing device signaling retrospective self-ridicule and self-awareness. In section two of “Losing One’s Mind,” entitled “Happy New Year,” we get a wry telling of the poet beginning to lose it:
In a bar named after Napoleon I order the duck which I shouldn’t have
and struggle with language and have epiphanies
that evaporate as soon as they arrive.
I second-guess my syntax, my sequencing
of grammatically interchangeable phrases,
and with good reason. Then I’m back to wandering
through my mind—I really have to get that thing
And in section three, “Insanity,” we get a “splash of panic” at the thought of a “psychic break,” followed by a lashing out at “the objective arbiter who does not exist” that quickly shifts to a lovely meditation on Van Gogh. (Here I’m omitting most of the poem’s mediation on Van Gogh, with whom the poet seems to identify and which closes the poem):
The towels were red. This is London.
The buses are red and might run you over—
they are coming from the wrong direction. I cried
at the Venus de Milo and I cried begging
God for help at Notre Dame and I cried
for my grandparents at Westminster Abbey, where I sinned,
how awful it is what I’ve done. But none
of these things are right now, outside of my mind.
Right now is people eating mediocre British food.
Right now it’s cold air coming through the door,
and a splash of panic. What is a psychic break?
What is a nervous breakdown?
Be patient. This is the biggest lesson I’ve forgotten. So what
if I stay up all night, so what if what
all these other people think is morning
is actually night? So what if it’s cold pissing in the weeds
in a neighborhood at 6 AM and no one will remember
except the objective arbiter who does not exist.
You’ve done this to me before.
This is like the life of Van Gogh: the gradual
extinction of hope, seen in the photograph
with his back turned to the camera, seen face to face
time and time again as what becomes
more beautiful becomes more damaged.
Dramatic tension gradually decreases after “Losing One’s Mind,” with the final two poems in the second section signaling a sort of denouement, a regaining of mental and emotional stability. The next to the last poem, “The Italians Have It Right,” ends with a kind of casting out of demons. The lines could be read as addressed to God, a former lover, or even the self, perhaps all three:
I thought you’d be someone
But I guess instead you are a colosseum of despair
Let me hold you just one more time
let me feed you to the lions
And the subsequent poem, “Where You Are Going Is What You Are,” nicely leads to the book’s final section, which is about a return home to the United States and a renewed appreciation of family life. (This is despite the ominous intimations of mortality “Where You Are Going” contains, which are also present in the last section.)
For me, what’s most impressive about The Forgotten World is that its formal arrangement establishes an interconnectivity for all the poems, which really feel as if they are in conversation with one another, some by virtue of proximity—“Underneath Everyone is a Skull,” followed by “Underneath Everyone is a Wallet”—and some by virtue of recurring motifs across poems. The idea of making a difference, for example, referred to in the opening poem, and a concept Courtright wants to interrogate, is carried through in various guises right up to the end. As he says, in one of the book’s final poems, “To travel the world is one thing / and to travel the mind / is the same thing so nothing / really changed no matter / the continents crisscrossed . . . .” (“Apples”). Indeed, the idea of similarity as opposed to difference is very much on Courtright’s mind: “. . . it won’t make the sweat on your back / any different from the sweat on his” (“$8 ‘Nikes’”); “Every single person on this earth is just bumbling along” (“The Heights of Machu Picchu”). Matters of safety, hope, impermanence, mortality are just some of the motifs one can trace, and I found it especially satisfying to follow these motifs and their variations across the entire book. While the poems are successful as stand-alones (the poet’s skill at wordplay is a pleasure not to be missed), for me the richness of the book comes from the way Courtright’s poems deeply resonate with one another. Simply put, The Forgotten World is an exceptionally fine collection of poetry.
About the Reviewer
Catherine Imbriglio is the author of two books of poetry, Parts of the Mass (Burning Deck), which received the Norma Farber First Book Award, and Intimacy (Center for Literary Publishing), which received the Colorado Prize. She is a senior editor in poetry for Tupelo Quarterly.