Nathaniel Farrell’s book-length poem, Newcomer (Ugly Duckling, 2014), from which these excerpts originate, could be read as a genealogy of the political self. Threading himself through the pastoral landscapes that have for background an unnamed and intemporal war, the likewise unnamed speaker seems to traverse the boundary between symbol and thing as he travels between the things that cannot be said and the things that get said instead of them. Denied the origin of the narrator’s wanderings, we never do get to parse between war as a contingent and destructive force, and war as the experience of being born in a world in which we must die. Instead, it is the impossibility of making the distinction that gives Newcomer its force.
The speaker seems to accept this interregnum between the thing and the symbol that grows from out of it. Often, in Newcomer, experience seems to just elude the speaker, as he attempts to tell it, leaving us with the sense that something that could have been told was not lived enough to be able to tell it. Sometimes the poems are infused with the smell of the earth, and with the warmth of light, but with a lacuna nonetheless in the experience of it: The same sun shines in a land that’s not mine anymore / But I can’t see it shining. I see it going home instead / To loved ones…(62). It is at moments like these that the speaker appeals to an imagined reader to see it, who then becomes the real reader, recruited now, to traverse with the author the distance between thing and symbol, between being in oneself and seeing oneself, and between civic blindness and civic duty.
At other times, the speaker reverts into a child-world that is less the past than another possible now: a now in which the subject takes the world as its familiar, as if the childlike absorption were a force that affects the balance of the world: On Sundays the children will play in the yard, the fence bowing under the littlest watching. (44). Underlying this is the "adult" context: the soldierly being-subject to the world. So that moments such as when the speaker says, I'm holding my battery between two pennies / to warm my fingers up / to do the laces, create an echo for these childlike moments of connectivity. In this iteration, however, they propel the speaker back into his place in the configuration that was assigned to him, leaving a smaller field of play, perhaps a microcosm of the expansive, childlike world, a world where the frames can be seen, but which still offers no more answer to the question of where we are.
We might think, in Newcomer, of Nathaniel Hawthorne's character, Wakefield, a man who, in the short story of the same name, walked out of his home one day, and returned one rainy evening twenty years later, after having lived during this time on the next street over, where he could see into the window of his own house. "Amid the seeming confusion of our mysterious world," Hawthorne writes, "individuals are so nicely adjusted to a system, and systems to one another, and to a whole, that, by stepping aside for a moment, a man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever." Newcomer seems to reveal the dangerous distance between a system so attuned to itself that it has lost all sense of that which lies outside it, and the horror that happens when one finds oneself outside. - Noam Scheindlin
Everybody likes to listen as he pulls the threads
at the corners of the handkerchief, white threads
thin as burdock's deep but fragile roots.
We bend together over the trinket,
take turns blocking the wind—the same wind
that during the day slowly pulls apart the milkweed pod
blows all its contents away except what sticks
to pant leg and boot lace.
I am only ever tired in the mornings now, knowing that
my boots will be worn down
only over unfamiliar ground, knowing that my scar
appears when I don't shave and disappears when I do.
I used to polish my shoes before I went to see her.
Before she went to bed she braided her hair, she
told me so, that it kept it nice. She kept
dancing with me even when her shoes hurt her.
They say it moves through you like wind, but I think it moves over me
more like wind over water.
I am in every photograph we take. I put my heart
into the flat part of another forking road, the part still with grass
after the tracks have been dug by the loads carried over it, as if
beneath the road there were still grass. But beneath
the part that is and isn't a road
the part that is and isn't a heart
there is only dirt.
Our hats tilt back across our foreheads a little more every hour.
I could tell then that I would be able to tell
what time of day it was when we took each picture
just as I can tell where we were
when we took it by how many of us there are.
I watch until it moves to tell whether it's
an arm or a leg
or a branch or a root.
If it's a man, it moves slower than a tree. If it's
a root it grows toward
the water as slow as the stream cuts the dirt from beneath
until there is no bank.
I grow old slow
among men not growing old at all. The puddles
already deep enough for a bird to wash in, but
if I stay flat
the ground under me will stay dry
The beach inland is there
because we brought it in our pockets.
We're waiting for snow so we can boil it.
I'm dreaming of the oceanside
rolled up like a sleeve cuff, rolled down like a pant leg.
Ice shifts in the lake above us—
wet wool pulls at our shoulders.
Grain by grain, what's left of the sand
goes from the creases of our clothes
into the road frozen in knots the last march left it in.
I'm holding a battery between two pennies
to warm my fingers up
to do the laces.
Letters bring news of family friends,
family feuds settled
and renewed, birth, death, fights
in town, acres sold to the highest bidder.
Her father, his ring—the compass
and the square—his handshake.
Her mother at the window watching
washing the dishes, lecturing her daughters about us.
Her father's trees will be a little taller;
grass will have begun to grow through the new stone wall.
Her husband will have carried the rocks from the field
and taught her how to teach him
the things he should do to make her happier.
On Sundays the children will play in the yard, the fence
bowing under the littlest watching.
Behind the border
our shoulders are broader but worn by the packs we carry.
After long enough
all things make their mark.
Sleep puts me behind her limb by limb.
No memories of home come to me.
Maybe tomorrow or the next day:
my sister squinting, holding a split end up to the light
finding the tails with her fingernails.
I used to believe I could sleep if I had
only the shade of a picket fence to lie in—
sleep so deep that nothing would be able to grow under me.
When some animals can't get shade,
they can think of nothing else. We learn this very young
watching cows in the summer. Here, in the sun,
I think of how big a trunk I would need
to have shade enough to sleep in, for how long
I could sleep how far
from the tree before
the sun moves it away from me.
Nathaniel Farrell, an educator and poet, was born and raised in Western Pennsylvania. He holds a doctorate in English Literature from Columbia University in New York. His chapbook The Race Poems was published by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2005. Newcomer (UDP, 2014) is his first book, a long poem set in an undefined American-soil campaign. He has published poems in 6×6, Greetings Magazine, and The Recluse.
Photograph: Sonia Sehil