Daniel Nadler’s debut poetry collection, Lacunae: 100 Imagined Ancient Love Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), showcases the poet’s ability to achieve poems that contain interweaving strengths of vision, language, and sensual emotion. The work is full of artistic depth; the energy is gentle and hypnotic. Each untitled poem is short but compressed—this creates a fluid rhythm and a loose narrative thread that focuses on erotic desire for a beloved. Nadler’s lines are tight and well-constructed, the diction simple and musical. The poetic work in Lacunae is stylistically complex because Nadler does not shy away from the challenge of writing about love in ways that are fresh and inventive. The poems build into a mosaic of image and sound that creates an inspiring and enjoyable reading experience. As a result, the work as a whole takes on a sense of timelessness.
The imagined love poems in this collection are captivating because they operate at a high aesthetic level. In fact, many of these poems venture close to the spiritual, due to the speaker’s skillful tone (a balance of nonattachment and passion), choice of images, and quality of line arrangement in terms of efficiency. Love, in these poems, is an inner desire rather than an emotional proclamation of psychological need which elevates the work into a more sublime consciousness. An example of this type of poem in Lacunae follows:
When the sun is wide and drying and filled
with the soft light that snares
the evening mind of life, no feet
will find the spot where a tiger
leapt back and forth
over the rose it worshipped (31).
The first line begins with a lovely blend of image and rhythm: “the sun is wide and drying and filled” and then there is “soft light that snares the evening mind of life” which creates a higher energetic presence. There is no solid human perspective (no “I” or “he” or “she”) and the poem confirms this by saying “no feet / will find the spot where a tiger / leapt back and forth / over the rose it worshipped.” There is a higher mind at work, but no visible proof, as in “no feet.” This means that the tiger, which is the only physical creature in the poem, holds the most weight, as does the tiger’s action of leaping back and forth over a rose. The tiger performs a repeated action that no person will ever see; it is an act of devotion. Love, in this poem, takes on a spiritual form in regards to the beloved.
Love, in Lacunae, also becomes an occasion for philosophical play. These moments work best when paired with a sharp accompanying image:
A glacier glows pink
from the sun it encases
in its ice. This is what is told
about time (36).
The glacier and time are both the focus of this love poem. It may not be uncommon to use a glacier as a metaphor for time; however, the way the glacier is described makes this comparison new. According to the speaker: “A glacier glows pink / from the sun it encases / in its ice.” The emphasis of the poem happens here: “glows pink / from the sun it encases.” The glacier glows from the energy of the sun and the color pink is chosen, rather than red, orange or yellow, possibly suggesting a rosy hue that is more in tune with the idea of love. Additionally, there is the play on cold and hot sensory images from “glacier” and “sun.” The philosophical statement about time is introduced after those visual elements are established which implies that time is not merely slow: it “glows…from the sun it encases.” This offers another possibility for metaphor, which is the sun being representative of love. Further, the sun contained in ice represents love contained in time. The rhetorical beauty of this poem emerges as image and diction are unpacked and examined. The glacier glows on the inside from a sun but does not melt. Love shines inside time but does not dissipate. Both the glacier and time represent a steady momentum of passion.
The sensual desire of love appears in Lacunae, but in unexpected ways that are dark and intimate in nature. The poem on page 49 shows the poetic expression of an erotic connection between speaker and beloved:
Cooking under some trees
you must break the salt necklace
and let its white beads
fall into the iron pan.
Rain in the glint of an eclipse.
Your dark breasts glow,
The pan crackles.
Image and rhythm interact playfully in this poem as the lines unfurl: “you must break the salt necklace / and let its white beads / fall into the iron pan.” The act of breaking the necklace is an erotic act; it combines white and black objects (white beads, iron pan), followed by a metaphor that uses nature objects (rain, eclipse), followed by the sensuality of “Your dark breasts glow, / the pan crackles.” The last two lines contain a deep, primal energy in the way it uses image and sound. The softness of breasts and the hard sound of a pan crackling increase the sensory power of the poem to pleasurable levels. This creates a fuller appreciation for the playful lines that occur before it. A subtle game is being played between speaker and beloved, but it is well-contained so that the kind of love evoked here smolders just beneath the surface.
Nadler has a knack for creating a range of memorable images that build over the course of Lacunae. The poems in this collection explore multiple locations (beach, forest, and village) and sensory moments (temperature, texture, and energy) with great ease. An example of imagistic progression occurs in the following three short poems:
The strawberry she held between her teeth
was wild, plucked; quiet. Its color
into the seal of her lips (11).
I would twist my arms like coral
if that made them delicate enough to hold you (12).
I want to boast
around you, like a horse rearing up
into the stars.
But I have nothing to say.
when the moon is out (13).
The images (strawberry, coral, horse, stars, moon) are simple, but gather magic within them when combined with poignant action (plucked, twist, boast) and emotive power (the strawberry she held between her teeth…the seal of her lips; I would twist my arms…if that made them delicate enough to hold you; I want to boast around you…But I have nothing to say). The variety of images point to a sense of familiar naturalness in surprising ways and contribute to the rhythmic momentum of Lacunae which serves to depict love as a high-consciousness experience.
A debut poetry collection, if built well, has the potential to successfully introduce a poet to the larger literary landscape. For Nadler, to begin an artistic journey with 100 imagined ancient love poems is a highly ambitious undertaking. Good love poems are not easy to compose; contemporary poetry can always use more of them. But more importantly, the way love is represented in Lacunae speaks to Nadler’s talents as a poet already well-developed in rhythm, line-construction, image, and metaphor—but also, true feeling and the desire to take a creative work to a higher level of aesthetic consciousness. A later poem in the collection speaks to Nadler’s poetic ambitions:
They do not want to be noticed
among so many burning things.
as quiet as the sound left by an ink brush
moistened by water,
recording nothing (78).
Here, love’s understatement announces itself at full volume. The first line: “They do not want to be noticed” evolves into “Their kiss, / as quiet as the sound left by an ink brush / moistened by water” that records “nothing.” Nadler’s poems are ever-winding meditations that provoke insightful observations. An ink brush is situated between a proclamation and an ironic action: “They do not want to be noticed” and “recording nothing.” Even though the lovers want to practice the spiritual exercise of nothingness, their kiss suggests that nothingness and being are both linked by love. The “ink brush moistened by water” is the visual representation of an ongoing artistic pursuit shared by two people. Their mutual love is subdued and asserted simultaneously. Nadler, as a new poet, excels at complex poetic thought. Lacunae: 100 Imagined Ancient Love Poems, a strong first effort, establishes a sturdy foundation for Nadler and sets the standard for more work to come.
January 28, 2019