Book Review: Into The Fire by Denise Wheeler

Review: Into the fire: Mike Nelson culls beauty from the ashes in “Another Forty Years”  Published in The Wire 2014

South Berwick poet Mike Nelson gives us a hint about the effect he wants his words to have in the poem, “The Book Review.”

“It doesn’t matter what I say. I just want the review to say, ‘He’s so good,
I didn’t know what happened until three days later
When I woke up in Mexico face down in the mud
With the words SING THIS tattooed on my ass…’ ”

Such is the humor that punctuates Nelson’s third volume of poetry, “Another Forty Years,” from Senile Monk Press. It is a collection of reflections and captured moments that hinges on themes such as relationships, shedding skin, and the monumental significance of seemingly simple actions.

Nelson, 42, is a poet who lives conscientiously and authentically, chronicling life in vignettes large enough to incorporate universal themes but small enough to include even a mouse’s point of view. His new book finds him at a midlife precipice, looking at what has brought him here. But it is the reader who gets a sweeping panorama.

Nelson’s focus is often on recognizing beauty—even, or especially, in ruin. He does so while tackling a range of topics, from the traditional to the taboo, from meditation to masturbation to monsters real and imagined.

“…the ghost whispers an answer.
Only now, in the absence of all that was good about us, am I able to listen.” —from “ex”

“Ultimately, I think we are here to redeem—it’s just that there’s a train wreck we have to get through. Suffering is temporary, but enlightenment is eternal,” Nelson says.

A regular reader at Beat Night at The Press Room and former member of the “Blood on the Floor” poetry workshop group, Nelson has been writing poems since he was 17. “That first poem was a terrible and sad little thing that had squirrels, birds and horses in it. But what’s important is that I started writing and I haven’t stopped since. I can’t imagine my life without it.”

For him, writing is a way to organize thoughts and work through an idea or emotion. “I’m often inspired to write by music or a great movie or something I’ve read, but sometimes it’s an uncomfortable build up of tension that becomes a desperate urge to be put into words. When I wrote that first poem, I felt like I just didn’t know who I was and that maybe writing would help me figure it out. It did, and continues to do so. Along the way, though, writing poetry has become much more of a pleasure and a joy. I sit on my own front steps now and feel pretty grateful.”

While writing “Another Forty Years,” Nelson says he was dealing with the issue of letting go. “The picture on the cover is a barn going up in flames and that pretty much says it all,” he explains. “This is my past going up in flames, and me, with another 40 years to go.”

“I fall through a dazzling wormhole.
flesh collapses, condenses
into a speck of hydrogen,
primed to burst
into a brand new universe.”
—from “Raised by Wolves”

Former New Hampshire poet laureate John-Michael Albert was a mentor to Nelson during the process of creating the book. The two met at Beat Night. “Editing with Mike Albert was necessary to bring this book to life. He taught me the importance of the economy of words,” says Nelson.

When Nelson feels the urge to drink in the words of others he finds sustenance in the works of Li-Young Lee, Galway Kinnell, Anna Akhmatova, and others. His reaction to their work is a reflection of the way he hopes readers will approach his own poems. “Lee has been my favorite poet for awhile now. His words are butterfly wings that create tornadoes tearing though my soul … Wendell Berry makes me want to run naked through the woods. Seth Abramson makes me feel like I totally suck as a writer, but if you really want to get better, it’s a good feeling to have. These poets knock me off that dreadful path of linear thinking.

Nelson’s poetry does the same for his readers. It shifts our point of view, equal parts photograph/microscope/philosophical meditation. In the space between his lines the reader holds breathe in as moments burn. We rise with Nelson, not from the mud in Mexico, but from the ashes and into another stage of life.

Denise J. Wheeler

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