Review: Paul Nelson’s American Sentences

by Greg Bem

Once in a while a book of poetry comes along that makes me remember poetry, and Poetry, is about life: a celebration of life and an introspection of life. Paul E. Nelson’s new book, American Sentences, is the latest iteration of this acknowledgment and remembrance of “verse” as beyond bland conception, beyond academic coldness, beyond 21st century disembodied robotism. And, as with similar titles I have encountered over the years, I too welcomingly hold Nelson’s work by my side while upholding a wide grin.

5.19.13 – 10 weeks after the surgery, she says I have a “genital mullet.” (p. 97)

6.20.10 – Seattle solstice: Chihuahua shivers in cold rain outside starbucks. (p. 73)

3.15.04 – They move slow around the old candy stuck to downtown sidewalk these ants. (p. 27)

American Sentences (Apprentice House, 2015) sits at just over 100 pages and is entirely composed of Paul E. Nelson’s American sentences. These sentences are a form of 17 syllables, in one line (call it a poetic line or a string of prose—whatever you want—it doesn’t matter), and they as a form came about before Paul. Allen Ginsberg developed the form in response to certain bastardizations and misuses of the haiku form. For Ginsberg, this new poetic sentence suited the elongated, hustling American paradigm, and didn’t have to give a damn about seasons.

Paul E. Nelson turned to what was created and gently dabbled in by Ginsberg and applied the form to his own ambitious daily life as a poet. Each day for fourteen years, Nelson wrote one an American sentence. In the age of texting and Twitter, the constraint might not seem like such a big deal, but if we remember that fourteen years ago was on the onset of popular cell phone technologies, and way before Twitter, then the project becomes far more impressive. Then we take it a step further and note that Nelson isn’t just babbling on endlessly with character-constraint writing. No, he is following as Ginsberg did in the footsteps of haiku, in the chill of Zen: a practiced mindfulness exhibited through precision and concision arises out the growing mass of ethereal content.

7.25.05 – Artillery firing practice sends clouds of dream birds – skies darken. (p. 37)

3.06.01 – The moan of your approaching orgasm – while in the distance – train horns. (p. 12)

11.13.13 – Downtown L.A. parking lot, a cockroach crawls over a razor blade. (p. 102)

Nelson’s crafted beauties come off as one liners. Single lines that exist onto themselves. For the most part they work—they achieve one of many of Nelson’s poetic strides and strives. There is a healthy blend of humor, intellectualism, cynicism, anger, remorse and sadness, and, of course, love that makes this collection almost like a single poem in its entirety. In its sprawl there is a sense of Song of Myself. There is a sense of Maximus. There is a sense of many beautiful artifacts of poetry present, but mostly there is a sense of Paul’s own world. His own living, breathing daily life that he has converted over into a digestible form for us readers, us audience, voyeurs, spectators.

This part of this post is where I more fully respond to the book as a whole. The book as a whole comes off as representing every single American sentence Nelson wrote for fourteen years, but that’s far from the truth. Just as Nelson would revise and sculpt his sentences from his daily travelogue notebook, he has worked in this book to provide the cream of the crop. There are sentences within the book from each of the years, but some years are painfully lacking in their represented sentences. Other years are represented by a lot of sentences, but are missing sentences from several month-long stretches. At first it was annoying to read Nelson’s work and then see these gaps; however, I’ve since renounced my perturbation. The “incomplete” collection adds to the mystery of Nelson as a writer. Maybe his sentences were incredibly private for long durations. Maybe he considered some stretches incredibly boring or uninspired. Maybe he’s simply not admitting a failed hard drive that lost a good chunk. Who knows! This is the unspoken poetic truth.

5.11.14 – Just to take the shine off Ma one last time, my Dad dies on Mother’s day. (p. 107)

3.16.10 – Not a cigarette butt, slice of magnolia blossom dying on the sidewalk. (p. 71)

12.14.11 – The passing bus ripples the maple tree reflection in my teacup. (p. 83)

Regardless, in a way this volume is the “best of,” and therefore the reader who enjoys these easily digestible and often-entertaining-cum-insight poetic lines can only hope for a complete (unabridged) edition in the future. I personally look for an annotated edition, which responds to Nelson’s sincere and sincerely thorough representation of the details around him. This curated world held in the reader’s hands is filled with first name friends, Seattle street corners, business names, and so on that beg explanation. They beg explanation because the poems are functioning in brief and naturally remain dense for the reader. Where are these sentences taking place? Why should we care about so-and-so’s quote or the image of such-and-such? As a historical text, which this book undeniably is, questions of context arise left and right. As a personal text, I simply want to know more about the author and this significant chunk (fourteen years!) of a life he’s describing.

My own fussiness aside, this book and the form it supports (as a collection) will remain with me. For writers at any stage and with any solidified approach to writing (through form, content, ideas, etc.), the American sentence can at the very least be a fruitful experiment. Of particular note I’ll recall what I said earlier: the form is able to explore various moods and themes quite well. 17 syllables can easily allow for a joke, a romantic sway, a frustrated outburst, an objective description, a subjective description, and so on in a versatile way. I wonder if more writers will read Nelson’s book and, as I have, encounter some sense of inspiration and renewal towards a short, energetic form that can represent so many different instances and utterances of poetic language and thought.

11.20.10 – Want to call her and tell her I forgot my cell phone but I forgot my cell phone. (p. 75)

7.7.08 – Each on our computers, adding the same Facebook friend, not talking. (p. 61)

4.05.07 – The sign at dairy queen says: New Flamethrower Chicken Now Hiring. (p. 52)

In an age of micro bursts of creativity, where is the relevance of the American sentence form? This moment is where I turn back to Twitter, which behaves similarly, and can “harness” or “handle” individual thoughts, short thoughts, and other microcosms, and deliver them to many eyes with or without much effort. The Twitter of today, as most know, is far from the Twitter of five, ten years ago. Comedians are throwing out textual one-liners to hundreds of thousands of digital viewers. Poets of varying styles and audiences are unbelievably prolific (and, if like me, unbelievably intolerable). Politicians make jabs. Celebrities play the social media, ungendered version of “king of the hill.” Terrorists conspire. Hackers recruit. A gazillion fragmentary ideas sift in and out of this multidimensional hourglass. Twitter might be the most versatile platform for these short bursts of creativity that has come about since the walls of a bar bathroom’s stall.

But Twitter is not that versatile–it often limits itself in its size. Like other social media, Twitter often (not always, but often) comes off as being too big for itself, too expansive, lacking any central point. For the writer who seeks a centrality and focus demonstrative of practice and endurance, the American sentence of Paul Nelson is the perfect anti-Twitter response. It is hardy, requires effort (it’s got to be 17 syllables!) and is rooted in a history Twitter simply doesn’t have. It’s also rooted in a focus on history that Twitter doesn’t have. At least as American Sentences shows us, all the sentences add up and successfully present time and place for powerful moments and occurrences.

10.02.07 – At the spot where my car was totaled, five years later, a traffic circle. (p. 53)

4.12.05 – She woke him up w/ her Ramones ringtone: I Want to be Sedated. (p. 35)

10.20.11 –  Seattle day: wondering if the solar-powered prayer wheel will turn. (p. 83)

Like the haiku form, and like most forms of writing, the American sentence form can be a challenge with its constraints. Nelson’s own book features a few blunders—sentences that come off as unchiseled, or missing the mark. These sentences—and there are only a few that I caught—rely in abstraction, play around a bit too obscurely with language, and don’t fit Nelson’s “usual” voice. But I wonder if Nelson was aware of the inclusion of some of these in the book. I wonder if Nelson was conscious that their difference provides support to the book and the form for the book as a whole. These several poems of tension and roughness, the sentences that don’t click or don’t vibe only counter those that do in harmony.

American Sentences covers 2001 through 2014. There are a lot of things going on in this book and they are really delightful to explore. In the day and age of more, more, more, I can only hope that Nelson is continuing this journey of his own poetry and creating more sentences each day. A vibration or a standard, these American sentences must be habit forming. Especially for Nelson, who seems to find undeniably amazing language and images in every direction he turns. Let’s hope for the next volume—perhaps in fewer than fourteen years from now?

This article was originally published on queenmobs.com and has been reprinted with permission.

Featured image courtesy of Meredith A Nelson.

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