Book Review

What the lyric is is a measure. What the lyric is is an index. An index or a measure of the person, the subject. Who is who? This is what is there to be told; the lyric tells like an augury. “I’m telling you this, reader, / Because I like you / and I want to help you,” a subject sings in What the Lyric Is, Sarah Nicholson’s new book, a subject trying to help their readers by doing the work of “overthinking the relation / of seagulls to the morning sky…./ Birds eating colors in a nautical landscape, / The kinds we can’t seem to stop ourselves / From writing over and over / And over again.”

Written over and over and over again, what is the lyric? Recent book-prize winners like Fred Moten’s The Feel Trio (2014) and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (2014) are also taking as one of their foremost concerns the nature of the lyric poem, especially as it exists in contemporary contexts. A book like Citizen even wears as its subtitle “An American Lyric”—a mantle identical to Rankine’s 2004 book Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. Under other circumstances, these high-profile experiments in a lyric mode might not be particularly noteworthy; what could be more basic than saying in a poem “I,” that most basic lyric utterance? However, an active discourse surrounding the rise of a “conceptual” poetics—an approach to writing poetry that tries to trouble normative “I”-centered statements of self — keeps resurrecting questions regarding what it means to write “authentically” in the context of postmodern subjectivities and inheritances. I use the word “authentic” here with eyebrow resolutely arched, but I point also to Marjorie Perloff’s 2011 essay in Jacket2, titled “Towards a Conceptual Lyric,” which characterizes the quest for “authenticity,” as a fundamental quality of the mainstream contemporary lyric poem. Perloff suggests that “voice-driven” poems, whose primary aim is to illuminate the state of the “I” in the aftermath of some trauma or “‘unique’ experience,” contain a rhetoric “often praised for its authenticity,” where language “is regarded as a kind of afterthought or additive: first come the feelings to be embodied in words and only then does word choice kick in, designed to make the resulting discourse appear ‘poetic.’” This is, to put it reductively, an emotion-oriented, affective style of writing. Working against this kind of “sensitivity” which the so-called “Creative Writer” exhibits in a lyric “cult of expressivity,” Perloff fans out a number of contemporary texts that challenge the lyric mode by swapping subjective sensitivity for linguistic sensitivity. For Perloff and others, this better kind of vulnerability—where vulnerability has so long been a quality of the lyric, confessional poem—turns expressive in compositional and conceptual contexts, wherein the “poet’s role has become, in the literal sense, that of a word processor, finding how best to absorb, recharge, and redistribute the language that is already there.”

To be sure, Perloff points to a number of interesting source examples for this type of poetic practice, but while her sample texts primarily explore the fabric of language as a texture/textile that can be folded, pierced, and shorn in ways that then open up to critical evaluation after the fact, none of them seem able—at least in my mind—to register the radical consequences suffered by the contemporary subject when they are actually made to write in this way, made to actually occupy this new role as a “word processor,” whose primary (ontological) habit—and habitat—is the fabric of language (birthday suit fabric). Perloff’s examples may perform the conceptual lyric, but they don’t live it; they don’t offer witness to its effects on the lyricist, the singer, the poet, the subject. The great achievement of a book like Sarah Nicholson’s most recent (whose very title—What the Lyric Is—seems to situate its contents squarely and, with a wink, almost naively, in the midst of this tectonic slippage and sinkage always developing in and around the lyric) is to intimately link the vulnerabilities and sensitivities of a writing subject whose access to milieus beyond language are barred by the nature of language itself. If the task of the contemporary lyric, the conceptual lyric, is to rediscover authenticity in fields of language, Nicholson’s book provocatively pushes the project one step further and fuses a lyric, “authentic” self with a conceptual self, showing that the postmodern poet is always created, and always de-created, by their language, that whatever crises or experiences to which the I might like to witness, must be first processed by language, whose own crisis is that it constantly defers, constantly deflects. “I don’t know why I bother writing / About writing, or why I pull my skirt up // To reveal nothing to you, since my body’s / invisible and this poem, too obscure,” Nicholson writes: a subject confessing, but confessing the utter tenuousness of that same uttering subject, obviated as soon as they enter the opaque lake of the word, where it is drowned and self-canceled.

The crucible of What the Lyric Is, then, is access—where a subjective experience is world-access and the experience in language is all we have of subject-access. Nicholson’s deft line breaks throughout the collection—“There is much I haven’t told you about / Me. / I am here…”—simultaneously grant and revoke confessional access to the speaking-writing subject, while also acknowledging the slipperiness of written elements—“There is poetry / In the word poverty, a flower / That is in fact a symbol / That is ancient and difficult…”—which are in turn rendered “utterly inaccessible” as soon as they are written through the “I,” through the “mine” of the poem.

“I’ll tell you / One thing the internet / Won’t tell you,” these poems promise, acknowledging that they exist in an age where information access is endlessly prostituted, attempting to broker in language new selves, new secrets, new privacies, new chances for access in such an atmosphere. But it would be too simple for Nicholson to stop there. Endlessly challenging her own claims, Nicholson also shows that no self, nor secret, nor privacy can be created ex nihilio. She witnesses to the fact that to utter “I” (and thereby make what you have to say personal, private, and inaccessible) there must first be a “You”: an Other that profoundly disrupts the insularity of the self with their strangeness, and makes a self exigent in the first place: “My ass can barely fit / Without assistance / Through the door of this stanza / Which is why I invented the pronoun ‘You’.” Note how the terrain of this agon is the ground of the poem, of language itself. In the coyly titled “Often I am permitted to return to ‘Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow’,” Nicholson posits language and source-texts like Duncan’s as landscape: “My sources lead me back to a meadow,” also later claiming that “Nothing exists in nature but the sign / Of nature’s significance.” The significance of significance—this is our inheritance, in a world where the poet’s role is now to find how best “to absorb, recharge, and redistribute the language that is already there.” It is a tautological inheritance, where the speaker of these poems—so much a speaker, all voice—sings, keens: “I need to believe in things like words / Like leaves, like snow.” Wanting actual snow, actual leaves (because these are given us by language in the first place, which also in the first place strips their access from us by bracketing them up in that nefarious cycle of sign and signifier) these poems settled for the concreteness, in poetry, of words like “leaves” and “snow.” “Autumn takes the place,” Nicholson writes, and all the world becomes substitutional.

What we are permitted: Our inheritance, our fate—a fate given us automatically by others, but which we perpetuate. If this isn’t a state of irony, I don’t know what is. And while here I mean irony in a classical sense, where a subject is trapped within an “ironized position”—trapped, for instance, inside a tautological world where the subject says “I feel that iron / Should take the place of snow / In literature”—Nicholson’s writing, which is by turns clever, jokey, and devestatingly ironic, seems to be so because there is no other way. There is no other permission granted us other than irony: the irony of irony. Nicholson’s is a “voice-driven” book, and her poems explore a state of irony and ironics as a fundamental condition of language—as a condition of the “seminal adventure of the trace,” which Derrida has bestowed upon us. Yes, the I is ironic (deflective, deferring), but it is so because it is ironized. Almost as if in response to those critical of the lyric, Nicholson operates seriously within this arch, ironic mode in order to demonstrate the deep, real, disturbing, authentic crisis of a subject always already conceptual, always already mediated, barred from intuition, barred from leaves and snow, barred from authenticity. Or in Nicholson’s words:

I used to think of the sun as just
A discourse on the surface
Of the sea. Then I began to translate
Music into capital, flowers
Into tools of surveillance, lyrics
Into epilogues for night.

About the Reviewer

Kylan Rice has poetry published or forthcoming in The Seattle Review, Gauss-PDF, Inter|rupture, [Out of Nothing], and elsewhere. He is an MFA candidate at Colorado State University, where he produces the Colorado Review podcast. Contact info: