Decoherence, Nate Pritts (42 Miles Press, Indiana University South Bend), 2017, 88 pages
The first poem, “A Responding Noise,” in Nate Pritts’ eighth collection, Decoherence (42 Miles Press), launches itself in response to an utterance unheard—as of yet—by the reader, yet crucial in presenting clues about the book’s trajectory and poetic commitments. The poem’s perspective largely belongs to a speaker invested in both navigating and describing a world seen as “…so tender” but also “…still so dark.” The disarming directness here of this speaker’s discourse, of the speaker’s stated desire to be open and honest with the reader, gains traction from the word “still.” Does “still” here refer to the ongoing condition of darkness? We can also open the possibility of “still” as the cessation of movement, the fear of what happens when we stop moving, as in Robert Creeley’s “I Know A Man”? Although many of the poems in Decoherence contain and describe individual people in motion (or considering various motions), the ways in which Pritts uses blank space also creates moments of stillness, pauses between clauses and images, allowing readers to experience the speaker’s uncertainties and second-guesses, pressurized by the idea of an elusive coherence.
Decoherence’s opening epigraph from Lyn Hejinian challenges readers to think of time rather than velocity, and this collection to me feels like a forward glance or pause to listen, which is what a response often anticipates, whether the conversation or exchange is happening between individuals or within a community and with the expectation of a communal response. Nate Pritts’ poetry has been compared often to Frank O’Hara’s, and it’s not difficult to see the shared commitment to quotidian details, their conversational addresses to their readers, and their deceptively casual collections of fragments and phrases with twists that create tension. In “Something Beautiful,” for instance, the poet’s focus on the domestic allows for distinctions and assertions to be made between the interior and exterior portions of life:
I fold the laundry & can’t tell the fresh of the air
apart from the scent of the house apart
from myself. I sit on the bed
looking out the window & it is a pleasure
to remember breakfast remember
so many things it doesn’t hurt to remember.
These moments in which our outside lives meld with our “other” lives can merge, then cohere. Nothing is ever completely separate. For every painful memory, there is the potential to start over and to collect oneself over breakfast, looking forward and outwards.
If to decohere is to fall apart, coherence contains the possibility of existence as a part of something larger. In “Watch the Ground Darken,” we witness a speaker negotiating the moments—in this case in nature—when raindrops attach themselves to form something larger. The speaker then undoes this trope by imposing a human viewpoint and set of values upon it:
All those rain drops
nudging each other the long way down.
Suddenly their parts are a lake.
My front yard is many shades of green
but I like this green the best.
If there is a “best” color, must there must also be a worst? For the lover discarded, there is another to be claimed? For the missing, there is the space left behind, an extended response to Mark Strand’s “Keeping Things Whole,” in which the speaker asserts that “Wherever I am / I am what is missing.” This pattern of filling in spaces and substitutions occurs numerous times throughout Decoherence, as in “Messenger Particle,” where rain functions again as an example of transitive form:
Each individual instance of rain
smacked the glass becoming
a discrete dot & the rush
Perhaps it is the collection of disparate things, linked together by the commonality of each that creates coherence. More crucially, memory—and how we know we employ it—is central to this collection.
The speakers throughout Decoherence remain, for me, rooted in a self-conscious anguish, beginning with the opening poem and tracing its way through the book, as in “Sonnet 44:”
Describe the place where you are
& what makes it a refuge in your thoughts.
Is that feeling transferable?
I am having a hard time getting the tone
right in this poem.
This glimpse at process, at how the poem is itself made, appears towards the beginning of the collection and continues in later poems, like “Snow,” in which the speaker explains that sharing a preference for “big wet flakes” covering tree branches somehow makes the ordinariness of the utterance seem “less embarrassing.” And when technology shows up, which it does often throughout the collection (in the form of printers, cars, televisions, and telephones), it holds no answers either:
What you need most can’t be found
in this regular world. It’s not on your phone
no matter how often you check. (“Another New World”)
Where can what you need most be found, if not on the screen, then? Pritts is asking us to imagine something different, a way of connecting through speech and memory, rather than instantaneous connection, perhaps thinking back to Hejinian’s epigraph on time and speed.
In “Decoherence Suite 1,” when the speaker explains how the expression and dispersion of memory creates a bond, regardless of what those memories truly are. The diction takes on a “corporate” feel as the poem progresses, borrowing the language of advertisements, of progress and synergy:
When we talked about our memories
it was the process & not / the disparate elements we sought
to examine in harmony.
We are designed
for the moment.
The pause built into the last two lines of this quotation from the first of four long poems which anchor the collection serves here to undo the assertions presented thus far. The indentation of “for the moment” forces the reader to pause, elongating the moment and negating its ephemerality. It also creates a double meaning; our current state will do for now, but even as we remember, the memories themselves are changing. If we tell stories long enough, we may no longer even need to recall the original events.
By the end of Decoherence, in the fourth and final “Decoherence Suite,” the speaker concedes that even if the elements were correctly aligned, they would not suffice, and they would save neither the speaker nor the reader in this instance:
something is not / exact enough
for the elements to provide
One of the “elements” of poetry is a title, and in this collection, the titles themselves seem to resist the readers’ expectations to provide a coherent narrative. Instead, they belie the vivid, generous imagery and narrative in the poems and create a stark contrast, a neutral façade that conceals the turmoil beneath. Titles such as “Snow,” “Simultaneous Events,” “Twilight,” and “The Friend,” are asking for readers to project their own expectations onto what the events might be.
The final image in Decoherence is one of desperation and of hope, of figures and entities “…unfolding desperately in the light.” The pleasure that comes from the revealing of the self and from the vulnerability returned is worth the risk of destruction. A lesser poet might stop here, but for Pritts, the end of this collection will be—I have little doubt—the beginning of the next.
Erica Bernheim is the author of a full-length poetry collection, The Mimic Sea, and of a chapbook, Between the Room and the City. She is currently Associate Professor of English at Florida Southern College, where she directs the creative writing program. Her writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM, the Missouri Review, Hobart, and Cutbank.