Nate Pritts’s Big Bright Sun celebrates witness, of one’s self and the self’s relationship to the world.
All of this is, frankly, // too much. When the bright red fire truck / zips (brightly) by I want to yell, “Here / is your emergency!” The red stop sign / sways gently in the bright wind not working // as usual. Today is still today. Time, / though brighter, passes normally. The difference // is that I can see exactly what I’m doing.
- From “Bright Day”
The speaker wants desperately to be the emergency, raison d’être for the fire truck howling through the streets. He wants to be causal event for the world. Is that personal? Duh. But aren’t we all simultaneously experiencing subjective emergencies, elevating them into global dilemmas?
Melodrama / is when you act like the stakes are higher / than they really are. God! Maybe / if we all pray for the same thing at the same / time then what we want to happen will happen.
Don’t you want to scream?
I do. The problem is there are no outside solutions: firetrucks to put out our problems. This is an argument for a society that seeks simple answers. But it is the us that are in control. We can’t blame the world. We can only take responsibility for how we interact with it. I’ve been told to stand in doorways / during but what about afterward. / Afterward is it ok to come in?
There is excessive celebration in these poems, which accumulates and lends itself to another level of meaning: desperation. To be consistently emphatic about everything (there are a lot of exclamation marks) is a psychological device employed by the self as a coping mechanism. It’s like the old dictum: If you force yourself to smile all the time, you will eventually become a happier person, or, if you want to be a happier person, just surround yourself with happier people. But Poetry Prozac the art is not—
Maybe we should see other people.
Just ten years from now, all this will be the past.
We’ll be so high above everything
in our flying cars & metallic jumpsuits.
We’ll be so hard to reach, no one
will be able to hurt us & there’ll be no disease
so we won’t be able to hurt ourselves.
Doctor, what I’ve been feeling just hangs on.
Give me any stupid reason to stay in bed
& I’ll do it. Don’t tempt me.
You wouldn’t like me when I’m tempted;
I get stuffed so full of desire I’d smash
my whole life just to get at you.
- from “Future Shock”
The world, both for its beauty and emotional spectrum, is overwhelming for the speaker, who is (and excuse me if I’m propagating a cultural myth about poesy) a person with a heightened sense of perception. When the speaker turns toward himself or other people, there is violence. The only way to approach the situation is by mediating past versions of the self and projecting it into a future world. But time is at the centre of presence, and the present is the only tense for being, which is at the core of this meditation. But isn’t a purely positivist version of reality just a lie? Rhetorical question—
This morning as I stepped outside, right
as my tender toe touched the tender ground,
my whimsical but determined theme song kicked up
& since then everything has gone decidedly my way—
no pianos dropped from second floor windows
to knock me flat & give me cartoon-style ivory teeth,
no potted plants dropped one-two-three, bright
white lily then sunny sunflower & finally
the pinkly clustered chrysanthemum, to fall & shatter
upon mine big soft head, birds & stars sprouting from the soil
like ideas scatted & thought better of; no threats,
no menacing, no inconveniences major or minor
dost me befall & so surely this must be the best
of all possible worlds. Honestly, I woke up stupid & sore
afraid thinking of my nil prospects for the future as I stared blank
into the grayscale sun. This is the unhappy world I’ve made,
I thought: no pictures on the wall, nothing but leftovers
in the fridge. I had to think of all the me’s
I’ve shaken hands with & bid farewell to over the years
& I had to wonder what they’re waking up to,
what’s on their living room walls. But
since then, everything has been perfectly fine!
Life is grand! Sensational! Spectacular! Nothing is going
horribly, disastrously, irreparably wrong.
The velocity of Pritt’s verse is unusually ecstatic— ecstatic but not frantic. In addition to his adept ability to surprise with double meanings that often occur through enjambment, his control is apparent in the stanza breaks and the attention paid to the individual line as a single, self-embodied unit. Furthermore, the use of antiquated diction, code switching, the excessiveness of language and repetition, build an artificial optimism that continually breaks down throughout the book. When the language breaks, when the poems become self-reflexive and aware, is where the project and speaker are most honest. The coping mechanism is false. The world is not beautiful all the time. It’s sarcastic. It’s a lie. But by the time we realize it’s a lie, Doctor Pritts got us. It’s not the speaker’s lie, it’s our lie. We totally bought the cake. We ate the whole fucking thing. I feel terrible. I’m so happy, I’m sad.
This book asks all kinds of questions, not about itself or the poet or literature, but what the hell we are doing with our selves. Big Bright Sun is stuffed with all kinds of pomo metatextual, ars poetica, etc… but what is it in service of? That’s the affect. The problem for me is that you can see through what’s happening early on in the book. That’s not necessarily a global problem for the text, as it’s a fulfilling read, but perhaps how I am today as a reader. The entirety of the book is not as necessary as its argument (in its artifice). “Happy Day” appears a third of the way into the book. It’s not that the first third was necessarily empty, but it feels fragmented, like a buildup that disappoints… particularly in comparison with the poem, “Happy Day”… which as a single, one page poem, is a complete work. I may be asking a lot out of books these days, perhaps because I have so many new ones I want to read, but the first 33 pages seem unnecessary. Don’t get me wrong, they are filled with moments, pleasures, but aren’t pages I’d come back to read again.
A fire burns in my heart // which is just to the left of where I’m standing, / where I’m wondering, hoping something // I’ve said makes the kind of sense that saves.
There is a series of expectations the speaker hopes to appeal to, but we are constantly discrediting him as he continues questioning his own authority. He is telling us about how troubled he is, an equal trouble to our trouble of trying to sort out his troublemaking. Double trouble.
I realize / what I’m saying makes no sense but I’m saying it. // I’m as troubled by my tone as you are. I’m not sure if I take myself seriously. One thing is certain: I am // not one of those stop signs you speed through! / I am a dangerous intersection; you should use caution when approaching me!
I’m reminded of Chelsey Minnis, who I admire a great deal— or at least the bravado Pritt’s employs when he explores the pathetic fallacy of self determinacy that dislodges all sincerity. The point is not to take the speaker at his word. That puts semantic weight on the poet, not the poem. Is that a problem? Because the speaker can credibly witness the world as an event, can delve into the complicated depths of human emotion, and can construct arguments about the psychological state of American individualism, we are left to wonder why he explicitly and transparently discredits his poet-self as fabrication. We already know the poet (speaker) is not the person. But when we are repeatedly pushed to recall this knowledge, we are pushed out of the poem.
To make the person I write about more interesting / & also complex, I pretend he is a me / who is crazy-sad about a lot of things really. I recommend this to anyone who desires success.
The last line is straight out of the Chelsey Minnis playbook, “If you want to be a successful poet”. Half this book is about questioning the efficiency of the speaker in terms of “success”, both through the work as a meta-device and via the content. The better half explores the fragmented struggle of emotionally coping with the fragmented psychological state of contemporary life. Fortunately, the better half is so good, it’s worth the book (your time). In relation to this book, and maybe a little more, I agree with Werner Herzog, who I quote, “I think psychology and self-reflection is one of the major catastrophes of the twentieth century”. I am much more impressed when the disassociated self no longer takes precedent over the world.
There’s joy all over the streets of today
because my blue eyes can see it
in big smile faces stuck silly on people
going somewhere in cars, traipsing
to anywhere they weren’t at before
which is always always
a much better place
We can hear it in the voices of angels
when they sing it over guitar, over drums, over
over & over: Heaven is whenever,
a time to hold out, not a cloudy destination,
& it’s only their crooning that makes us
- from “Big Bright Sun”
and I believe it.
Jake Levine is poetry editor at Spork Press, a director at Summer Literary Seminars, was a Fulbright Scholar, or is a Fulbright Scholar, received his MFA from Arizona in poetry, is the author of a few chapbooks, one of which you can buy from Spork Press. He is currently in and from Tucson, but is about to move to Montreal. He got third place in the Phoenix Zuni Elementary Geography Bee when he was in fifth grade. He used to be Co-Chief of Sonora Review. He made bagels in Lithuania for the first time since the Holocaust and is a big fan of Arizona despite its politics.