Poetry News

Jen Hyde Reads Jennifer Nelson's Aim at the Centaur Stealing Your Wife

By Harriet Staff

Jennifer Nelson, cover

At Coldfront, Jen Hyde introduces the online periodical's readers to Jennifer Nelson's 2015 Ugly Duckling collection, Aim at the Centaur Stealing Your Wife. Hyde writes, "in many ways I think her speaker serves as a model for those young girls told by their father not to speak their minds." Yes! Let's start there:

It’s nothing new to look at art not as an escape, but as a means of of understanding one’s reality and the variety of human experience and presence. When one needs to make this argument, as I have in recent months, one may look to Aim at the Centaur Stealing Your Wife as a source text.

We follow the speaker from her home in Jackson Heights to a church in Germany, to Wall Street, and elsewhere. Along the way, the poems slip into explicit investigation of artworks corresponding to the book’s six sections: Niccolò Paganini’s Variations on a Theme of Rossini’s Moses in Egypt; Angela Gheorghiu’s Casta Diva as Heard in the Films of Wong Kar Wai; Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism. In the Capricci and Scherzi di Fantasia of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, the poem “The Birth of Fantasia” invites us to study, alongside the speaker, the way Tiepolo thought about a person—a pregnant hermaphrodite—and his aesthetic decision to draw out the surrounding figures (a serpent, an owl, a collection of skulls). But at the end of the poem, the speaker invites us to linger on his process, revealing his fascination with the shift in focus from the whole of the picture to the person within it. Here it is in its entirety:

The Birth of Fantasia

the other apprentice is boy and pregnant by
hisandherself confirmed
since the snake rose from its urn our master
hasn’t chanted for years but waits
spreading his lap his face
drooling and dark
as when someone wants something the jaw
forgets his jaw forgets his desire
tilts his pose it
illustrates the perfect
orthogonal of his time
without expected torque its
torpor stops torque

and still the snake rises

Master has forgotten he waits for the infant
born of one fertile
He’s obsessed with his owl
walking in alchemy
of skulls and codex and battle-flagged trumpet

my task is to wait in the rear with our sign
the true living snake
beside the Chaldaean
Tiepolo monument
which is real though another
Tiepolo appears where Fantasia ends
on the bottom
Tiepolo invented
this game of Fantasia
for fragments of a frieze he found
the more he reconstructed it the more
the outlines wouldn’t fit
he etched them apart
the original frieze showed a famous surrender
the noblest surrender
no serpents
no owl
one bent neck
no jaw

This poem follows “The Shrine of the Later Sibyl” in which Amiri Baraka appears, speaking. Nelson teaches us what ekphrastic poems can do, honoring the artist as much by inhabiting their world as by responding to it. The resulting relationship is beautiful, to me, as a correspondence across historical as well as spatial time; they exist as correspondence between [poet and artist] and [poet/artist and reader].

Read more at Coldfront.

Originally Published: May 23rd, 2017