It takes guts, and/or a lot of irony, to title a book of poetry My Feelings, like Nick Flynn has done, because the one thing non-poetry-readers think poetry is about is the melodramatic sharing of one’s feelings. As a male reader of poetry there’s always a small twinge of defensiveness I feel, or think I feel, when people find out I read and write poetry. Like, ‘Oh, John must be sensitive,’ implying I lack some (american, of course) masculinity. The fact that I drink green tea doesn’t help either.
But the irony of Flynn’s My Feelings is that it is a collection of poems very much about his feelings. In this case, though, not the cliché gushy lovey kind, but about grief, about the recent death of his father, who had been in a coma, with Flynn having to give the order not to keep him alive (in the poem “Kafka”). And with mentions of his mother’s earlier suicide. And, by the silence of any kind of mention of the mother of his child, either a divorce or a bad breakup. So, other emotions include sadness, and not a little hidden anger.
The effect of the poems on me personally, as a shy, introverted, male from an uncommunicative family in the midwest, is to make me uncomfortable. I acknowledge that people feel grief, including even me, but it feels, or anyways seems like it should be (I don’t want to share my feelings!) a private matter. But what draws me in, or at least keeps me hovering with interest are the moments of lighter, perhaps slightly humorous, moments/interactions, with his daughter, with her innocent voice, like in this section from the poem “Father, Insect”:
bath, as a way to apologize for all
my imperfections, I remind my
daughter, You know, before you were
born, I was not
a father. She takes this in
silently, moving a tiny blue elephant across
the rug. If you weren’t a father, she
eventually asks, then what were you—
But also perhaps the italicized voice in “Aquarium,” which could be her, but could just be some disembodied voice, but which sounds young, and could maybe be Flynn’s inner child. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who the voice belongs to, only that he (and we) finds comfort in it:
an aquarium, one fish inside, slowly circling.
Imagine two cameras set up to film this
aquarium, to film this one fish…Is it a clown fish?
A clown fish? Sure, a clown fish. Imagine also….
But then there are the wee bit less accessible poems. Which, you know, not that I’m shirking from a difficult poem, but their ‘sense’ seems up for grabs, like, say, “AK-47.” Brief excerpt:
love lays hold of everything
& yes all the houses whiten in the sun just as they whiten yes in the snow & yes from above each looks like a tombstone yes just as a graveyard from above is a city yes the world is one big graveyard after all
a phone rings in a labyrinth
this house, unpainted still—when you go back, if you go back, if you can find your way, it won’t, it cannot [your hand on the door] be as you remember…
Seems like just an obscure LANGUAGE poem (I know, that’s redundant), a collage of quotes and original lines. I get that the single lines in italics here are quotes, though I’m not sure from whom. Stanza 2 sounds like Molly Bloom, though I’m not sure on that either. And, I’m just not sure how to take all 23 stanzas. They get weirder. I don’t see the bigger picture that the weapon of the title implies.
On that note, Flynn includes a “Notes” section at the end of My Feelings, though I question, or at least wonder about, its inclusion, even as I found it to be the most interesting part of the book, perhaps because it’s the safest, away from all those icky feelings. Though I’m not sure it changed my appreciation of poems the notes are about. For example, turns out “AK-47” is a cento. Huh. Ok. That doesn’t do anything except make me google what a cento is. Which, you know, takes me farther and farther away from the text. The poem, whether it’s a cento or a sonnet or whatever form, should stand on its own without explanation, should it not?
Flynn is also a fiction writer, and maybe most well known for his memoirs, like Another Bullshit Night In Suck City (which is maybe my favorite title of all time) and The Reenactments, a memoir about the making of the movie Being Flynn, the adaptation of Another Bullshit Night In Suck City. I think knowing all this, and having read his previous work, might help inform My Feelings. That is, this book feels like a coda or an epilogue. Coming new to his work, I felt a little lost, or maybe left out, or at its best moments like I’ve missed out on something big. I think what I expected, based on what I’ve read about his other work, is a little bit more humor to soften (or add contrast to?) to the grief. Though neither did I expect grief. I think I expected gritty cynicism, but somehow this book feels like a goodbye to cynicism.
Flynn’s poetry is certainly not coming from some kind of “glib poetics” that Arielle Greenberg criticizes in the May/June 2015 American Poetry Review article/conversation (with Joy Katz). Greenberg and Katz use My Feelings as one of six examples of books by poets who avoid the current “trend of affectlessness” in (at least American) poetry, in which poets are “avoiding sincerity, but not as a clear strategy, and not…in service to any other aspect of poetry—language or social structures or some other area of interest. There seem[s] to be a whirlwind of these superficially appealing, low-stakes poems.”
She doesn’t name names, but I can guess, either from someone like Dean Young, to Billy Collins, poets who (perhaps, it could be argued) take the ‘shtick’ of New York Poets like John Ashbury, Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch, in humor, and lines that lead un-logically to nowhere, while abandoning the…well, the feelings. And maybe the wisdom. For mere cleverness. I’m not sure if I totally agree with Greenberg, and maybe it’s not fair of me to single out Young and Collins when really it might be their next generation acolytes.
In any case, the cleverness is what keeps My Feelings from wallowing in despair. And Flynn doesn’t pretend to aspire to wisdom, like say W.S. Merwin. I do favor humor, and wish there were more here, though given that this is about grieving, well, ok. Still, I think Flynn was spot on to include his daughter and her voice here. How does the quote go? From the mouths of babes? The wisdom is hidden in there somewhere.