Review: ‘Bright Brave Phenomena’, by Amanda Nadelberg

Bright Brave PhenomenaBright Brave Phenomena by Amanda Nadelberg

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

From the poem ‘Like a Tiny, Tiny Bird That Used to Make Us Happy’:

bride and groom were shivering, it
actually started to snow. The shadow
of the mind stood up, changed tables,
like a plane I was coming and going.
Furniture happening places it shouldn’t,
blank bodies on the wrong half of the
world, we don’t know what to do.”

Amanda Nadelberg has accomplished so much polish alongside a kind of paradoxical cohesive chaos in this book that it makes me struggle to remember the last full-length collection I’ve read that seemed to hold together so well, particularly when playing (this is an understatement; toying? Nadelberg is running a linguistic fun house / carousel / quiet star-gazing party, here) along with its own physics and weather patterns.

Weather and nature seem so important throughout the book, and the often intense movement from line to line and poem to poem kept reminding me of a tornado, made of debris and always collecting more while always throwing off a house or tractor-trailer for the sake of the explosion–and always the twirling momentum intact, growing stronger, even when lazily meandering with approachable language. Nadelberg likes to let things float astray with brilliant collaging of imagery and tone while keeping things anchored with an almost jarring, lucid lyric-I mode that surfaces with an enjoyably unpredictable frequency and mood. Always a bit sly, whimsical, vulnerable and affirmed/affirming.

In an interview with Geoffrey Hilsabeck, Nadelberg mentions the use of weather as a kind of universal referent, and indeed it becomes another anchoring force throughout. This is yet another truly satisfying aspect of the book, as she bounces around accessible language and imagery yet always in a way that remains mysterious, as disjointed in presence and meaning as the classic ‘speaker’ that is far from an everyperson. This had the effect on me, like the linguistic shapeshifting and semantic riddling, of feeling like I was always in on the play and the joke, but only part-way, the perfect climate for a book that revolves around broken patterns (weather, words, histories, memories). The sadness isn’t always joyous but it nearly always felt affirming, a word that seems to come to my mind often (and, it seems, often in the minds of other reviewers / blurbs). Even the ‘I’ of these poems is fluid and ungraspable, often inhabiting other beings and spaces without a stumbling register of that change.

From the poem ‘Recommendation or Decision’:

“One of the nights
the sky fell over, came home, put his
keys in the jar. I am the Ostrich in the
foyer, I think about death a lot in general.”

What I perhaps loved and appreciated the most is Nadelberg’s talent for counterbalancing, for playing the thin line of whimsy and play against against genuine impressions of sadness, vulnerability, sadness flooded through with nostalgia and memory, quieter, more unsettled darker poems that to me re-emphasize the feelings of affirmation and hope; these aren’t distractions or defense mechanisms or put-ons, they’re machinations of brightness and progress, of surviving and doing so without ignoring all that might hold one back or in more toxic places.

From the poem ‘Poem from Claire’s Knee’:

“Come at me
with flowers and I will
run away. I manage a
factory of self-preservation.
It’s like I’ve found you
again in the factory.”

This slippery ‘you’ could easily be the poet herself, could be the frequent other ‘you’ that pops up often in the book, could be anything really, amid so much unhinged morphing–but I feel like I know, though I can’t put my finger on it, or it doesn’t quite matter, always the real trick when the reader is given a space to play a bit ourselves, sometimes even a seemingly straight-forward word can be a bit of a Rorschach.

To me this is the larger effect the book had on me, at least–everything that seems mundane and ‘accessible’ (always such a problematic term) becomes gorgeously strange, unsettling and affirming usually at the same time. More simply described, Nadelberg works amazingly well on the level of the line, word-to-word, letting fault lines form and the underlying plates slip and break almost constantly but without ever letting the entire thing crumble. Her poems here are coyly wrought, intensely emotional with thoroughly intellectual veins, witty and often enormously funny. A hallmark of what talent has meant to me for a while now is a kind of consistency–a book may have three or four truly mind-blowing poems, but do I read the other 70 or whatever to find them, the filler and scaffolding for the supernovas? Nadelberg offers one after another, every poem has earned its page and place in this collection, it’s a constellation of stars exploding, no bit of line here has gone slack.

‘Bright Brave Phenomena’ is published by Coffee House Press.

View all my reviews


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