by Nicholas Pierce
(Criterion Books, 2021, 68 pp. Hardcover. $22.50)
In Transit, Nicholas Pierce’s debut collection and winner of The New Criterion Poetry Prize, is, as its jacket-copy suggests, a book fiercely concerned with love. Each of its three parts focuses on a different kind of love, though the categories of philia, éros, and storge—to which each section roughly corresponds—are themselves porous monikers, signifying boundaries to be tested, expanded, or transgressed. It seems fitting to call these loves by their Greek names, since the influences of Homer and Plato are felt often in the poems.
Pierce’s obsession with love and boundaries is apparent from the outset. The collection’s proleptic poem, “New Weather,” depicts a Southern Californian family of four navigating a West Texas dust storm. The poem begins in medias res just as the storm hits, diminishing the vast expanses of the prairie down to a car’s confines as the windshield and windows are covered, the road disappears, and dust begins to fill the vents, being likened to:
the lingering cloud of a compact
snapped shut and stowed away
in the secret depths of a mother’s purse.
Breathed in, sneezed out. Terrifying
to her two boys in the backseat,
whose Southern California childhood
never acquainted them with weather.
Merely irritating to her husband,
who thinks it best to keep driving
despite the litany of taillights
glaring from the roadside. Vanishing.
Who capitulates, begrudgingly,
when raindrops black as crude oil
begin to sludge the windshield,
mascara tears that leave behind
blinding trails as they trickle down,
reducing the world to a car’s interior.
To darkness. Sound. The crunch of gravel
when they reach, they hope, the shoulder.
The sibilance of tires tearing past.
The mother bracing for impact
while telling her boys not to worry.
The shrinking limits of the outside world allow us to see the family members in relationship to each other more easily: the frightened boys; the irritated, stubborn father; and the mother, aware of the danger of the situation while still comforting her sons. And though, in this instance, disaster is averted when the rain washes everything clear, there is a sense, confirmed later in the book, of other disasters to come. There may even be hints of the mother’s connection to one here, as the blotting dust of the storm is compared to the powder of her compact and, later, its mud to running mascara. But these remain only hints. Meanwhile, in the fresh sunlight, the boys’ eyes open, “as if for the first time,” filled with the knowledge that this brief underworld journey of sorts (the first of the book’s two katabases) has imparted to them.
The first part of In Transit centers on the friendships and mutual affections of men, most variously on display in “Erōmenos,” which depicts a tipsy, twenty-first century version of the Symposium held on the rooftop patio of the speaker’s close friend, Joe. Here a group of male friends have been enjoying dinner with much wine and now take turns defining what love means to them. To define something, of course, is to identify its boundaries, and so as each person speaks, we get different delineations of love: love as divine, love as a word to uplift attraction, love as only comprehensible when likened to something else. We also witness love blurring certain boundaries:
Johnnie—whose photographs revealed, to all,
it seemed, but his best friend and muse, J. Eric,
the feelings he had for and kept from him—
considered love impossible to capture
in words because it was at odds with thought.
Here is love as an extension of friendship, as inspiration for an art that both reveals and conceals the feelings of the artist, love as tension. It’s complicated, as lovers often say in the presence of love’s ambiguities and truths. “In Vino Veritas” might be an apt alternate title for this poem. The actual title—a Greek word for the passive, usually younger member of a homosexual partnership—further encourages the blurring of boundaries, which is most obvious in the poem’s conclusion:
“Love,” I began, uncertain how to go on,
looking around the table, at the plates
stacked up, the faces waiting for an answer;
at Joe, our Socrates, my closest friend,
who lived alone in an Art Deco rental
with paint chips flaking off the outside walls
and water stains collecting on the ceiling,
and who expected nothing in return
for all he gave us, which was more than plenty—
more, anyway, than I could often eat.
That’s love, I thought, while at the same time thinking
of Joe’s foot running up and down my leg,
a gesture that I told myself meant nothing,
which I (admit it) even sort of liked,
since no one else received such special treatment.
“Love is attention by another name,”
I said at last, and left it at that, waiting,
despite myself, for Joe’s approving touch.
There is Joe as the wise yet humble friend, the selfless host of modest means; but also Joe of the caressing foot who may be seeking something in return for his hospitality after all, Joe as the potential erastes to the speaker’s erōmenos. And while the meaning of this caress is never revealed, the speaker briefly revels in it. There is pleasure here, and yet sadness too, perhaps because Pierce’s adamant parenthetical is reminiscent of Bishop’s “(Write it!)” from “One Art,” that great poem of loss.
“North of the Border,” the poem directly following “Erōmenos,” gives us a larger picture of the speaker and Joe’s relationship (Joe, incidentally, is present in each of the first section’s five poems, all of which are written in first-person, inviting the reader to see them as an episodic sequence of sorts). In this episode, the speaker and Joe are sharing a tent in a campground not far from the Mexican border outside of Marfa, TX, where they’ve travelled to view the work of the artist Donald Judd, when suddenly the sound of what seems to be gunfire erupts, causing the speaker to speculate at length on its origin. The ambiguity of not knowing the source of the gunshots (and the fear it causes), complements the questions associated with the men’s own relationship. And while they are two men sleeping next to each other, there is also a fraternal feeling when the speaker refers to their tent as “our incubator” after imagining himself—and by extension, Joe—as “an embryo.” The form of the poem itself—regularly rhymed ten-line stanzas whose lines vary in length from iambic dimeter to pentameter—also contributes to this tension, putting the predictable and the variable at odds with each other. This dynamic is further reinforced in the way rhyme is deployed: the scheme of each stanza being set, but the rhyme-sounds themselves often alternating between true and slant. (Pierce’s attention to poetic form throughout this book is masterful.) The night passes without further incident, and the following day the pair tours Judd’s nearby estate, Chinati. Judd’s work, they’ve been told, is known for “leaving no mystery / unsolved,” and in the presence of such work, they speak with one another:
as we make our way through
the first artillery shed—
a long brick building that Judd
converted into a gallery—we forget (or I do)
that we’re not alone with the boxes
and speak candidly
about valuing each other’s company,
which must seem obnoxious
to our observer, who must feel,
whatever our feelings, like a third wheel.
While the conversation of the two men could be that of close friendship, the nature of their relationship still seems uncertain, at least in the speaker’s mind, who imagines their guide as “a third wheel,” a term commonly used to describe someone in the presence of two lovers. Even when it’s revealed that the source of the previous night’s noises are Judd’s aluminum boxes, this knowledge is received with some uncertainty and uneasiness:
Then comes a POP!
POP! POP!, our guide stepping in
to explain that this can happen when
the warming metal expands. We get up
from the floor, laughing off our mistake,
though the fear is harder to shake.
The peace of their previous conversation is broken by the noises, much as they were the previous night, and despite the guide’s reassuring explanation, the pair still feels the same uneasiness they felt—an uneasiness the reader feels along with them but also, more broadly, about them. While the situation isn’t always so dramatic, all the poems in this section to some extent dramatize the manifold tensions between the homosocial and homosexual in the relationships of men—a dynamic that initially makes for keen reading and an appreciation of Pierce’s skills as a poet, but later leaves a residue of grief that contemporary American society allows for so little breadth when defining the kinds of love that are possible between men.
The book’s middle section reads like a tribute to the splendor and pain of romantic love. It is the longest of the three, covering eight poems and some thirty pages. Where the previous section consisted of poems rooted wholly in the present, directing our attentions to the drama of the moment, here the primary means of composition is retrospection. Indeed, even when a poem is framed in the present tense, there is still the sting of nostalgia, an ineffable sense of looking back. “Wonderwall,” a canzone obsessed with barriers of all sorts, is a prime example of this. It begins at Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie monument that marks where the Berlin Wall used to separate East from West, now a tourist trap, where a street performer wearing a donkey mask (yes, Bottom comes to mind) serenades a young woman with a cover of the song that provides the poem’s title. The woman, nicknamed Charlie, is at once a stranger and the speaker’s would-be love interest, and soon whisks him away from this scene on a chaotic S-Bahn ride through Berlin. The city is strange to the speaker, a tourist, and his lack of German as well as Charlie’s lack of English leads them to communicate through that most unfortunate medium, Google Translate. As a result of this, the speaker remains confused about where he stands with Charlie or why she has chosen him as her impromptu travelling companion; eventually the two are routed by language’s barriers. A sense of obsessive desperation pervades the poem as it develops, thanks largely to Pierce’s deft handling of the canzone form, one which all too easily can lapse into dullness as its end words repeat again and again. The poem ends as strangely as it began, with the main characters facing a wall:
…she leads me to Berlin’s glorified Walmart,
Kaufhaus des Westerns, to show me a “wall
of fish.” An exaggeration or mistranslation,
either way packed with salmon soon to be translated
into fillets, into nutrients and shit, her “wall”
sweats in a corner of the food court. Charlie
exhales and on the fogged glass writes “Charlie
& Nick.” I note the ampersand, hurt that Charlie
didn’t use a heart. Two salmon hug the wall
as if to read her message. Wide-eyed and westward-
bound (though forced to change direction before
too long), they mouth a prayer we don’t have to translate.
It is a stunning conclusion, one the reader does not expect, given the zaniness of the poem up until now, Bottom’s dream turned nightmare. Not only has Charlie and Nick’s adventure hit a wall, so to speak, but clarity has replaced confusion in the unlikeliest of places—a supermarket. There, for Nick to see, is the writing on the wall, with its disappointing ampersand. Something in this gesture (in the whole scene really) recalls both the triviality and the gravity of childhood, this message sketched in Charlie’s breath as if on the window of a school bus. Behind the aquariums’ glass the captive salmon move, and, as if aware of their plight, attempt to swim westward—once the direction of freedom in Cold War Berlin—though they are unable to do so, mortal things mouthing the same clear, impossible prayer.
Every poem in this section—in all of In Transit, in fact—richly rewards the reader’s attention. Literary allusions, especially, occur often and to great effect. “Katabasis for E.,” for example, transforms the mundane act of descending the stairs of a multistory apartment building for a midnight swim in the pool as a descent into the underworld. And there “while testing the black water with our toes” the hero-speaker receives the knowledge he seeks from his companion. Knowing, too, that another definition of katabasis is “to retreat,” helps us experience the speaker’s repeated hesitations to act on his romantic feelings for his friend (indecision is another kind of barrier) in a more heightened way. Similarly, in the collection’s title poem, the sign posted at the entrance of a storm-damaged cemetery that reads “ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK” recalls the written warning Dante and Virgil encounter in Inferno Canto 3 as they enter another ruined city of the dead. And in the book’s longest, most ambitious poem, a sequence of eleven nonce sonnets titled “The Death of Argos,” the story of Odysseus’ faithful dog serves as a kind of master-text through which the poem’s other narratives—often fractured by violence and memory’s lapses—can be sorted and interpreted. (An entire essay could be written on the relationship between love and boundaries in this captivating poem.)
Poems of family comprise the final section of the book, though this family—transformed by divorce, by a mother’s illness and eventual death from cancer, by the passage of time itself—hardly resembles the one seen at its beginning. “Palimpsest,” the brilliant brief poem that begins the section, manages to register many of these changes and more through its description of the marked surface of a much-used wooden table: “Hold your eye level with the dining table / To see how much its reclaimed pine remembers / The scars of thirty years.” And, after listing some of the causes of those scars, this keen list-poem ends with that trickiest of things, a serious pun: “The wood not young but still impressionable.”
The poems, too, remain impressionable, bearing the marks of experience and grief while maintaining their form. Such is the case with the villanelle, “Nocturne,” a poem that simultaneously confronts and avoids the reality of the speaker’s mother’s terminal cancer. I quote it here in its entirety:
The nights I stayed at MD Anderson,
tossing and turning on that green recliner
or wandering the halls, went on and on.
Post-op, bedridden in a johnny gown
and socks, my mother put on fresh eyeliner
the nights I stayed. At MD Anderson,
her nurses knew me as the quiet son
who studied poetry (with a psych minor)
and wandered the halls. They went on and on
about my mother’s strength, fooling no one
when they described her pain meds as “designer.”
The nights I stayed at MD Anderson,
I made excuses to be on my own,
forgetting her room number (eight or nine or…)
to wander the halls, on and on and on,
sometimes till morning, waiting for the sun
to whisk me away like an ocean liner.
The nights I stayed at MD Anderson,
wandering its halls, would go on and on.
Pierce takes full advantage of the tension already present in the villanelle form between repetition and variation, which is complemented by the speaker’s own struggle to both confront and avoid his mother’s illness. We know that he stays with her many nights in the hospital, but also that much of that time is spent not in the recliner (presumably near her bedside) but wandering the halls. And just as the mother and her nurses parry the grim reality of terminal illness through their respective barriers of cosmetics and humor, so too does he, pretending to forget her room number as an excuse to extend his nightly wanderings, often until dawn. In the poem’s refrains this dynamic is present too, with the first always repeated exactly and the second varied, either by syntactical rearrangement or through small alterations in diction. Here, again, “One Art” comes to mind, especially in Pierce’s clever rhyming of “or nine or” and “designer,” which, to my ear, echoes Bishop’s own “my last or” and “disaster.” Both villanelles also share the common subject of loss, though where Bishop’s method is episodic, Pierce opts for a more singular narrative.
The final poem in Pierce’s book, “Explaining Myself,” is part ars poetica and part retrospective, expounding and demonstrating the virtues of strict poetic forms while naming the forms of those poems he has written in previously. It is also an elegy addressed to the speaker’s deceased mother. Here’s how it begins:
Form, my teacher averred,
can protect against outpourings
of emotion such as a occur
after a loss, advice I followed
when documenting the toll
cancer caught late took on you,
subjecting peers in workshop
to accounts raw as they were
It is an account of the birth of those poems concerning a mother’s terminal illness that the mother herself didn’t live long enough to read. As the poem continues, its tone becomes more intimate, a voice speaking to the dead as to oneself. In addition to naming the poems he has written about his mother, the speaker also mentions one he was unable to finish, a pantoum depicting her final days, which he now attempts to conjure. We glimpse the mother, “whom chemo / had winnowed to a matchstick.” Resting in a bed-swing her older son has constructed, she is “swaddled for warmth, / suspended as in water, rocking / back and forth…” her end resembling her beginning. Yet the poem doesn’t end there, but on a phrase that affirms its method: “form, that bulwark.” Much like this exemplary finale, Pierce’s entire collection provides just the right mix of resistance and structure to both challenge and charm its readers.