Retrospective Review: Nick Flynn’s Some Ether

Nick Flynn’s debut poetry collection, Some Ether (Graywolf Press, 2000), now twenty years old, is a book that still holds resonant power within the contemporary poetry landscape due to its aesthetic and technical achievements. Winner of the 1999 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry, the collection is filled with moments of personal memory and self-reflection as Flynn explores familial relationships, childhood, nature, environment, mental health, suicide, homelessness, and addiction, and how all of these elements form a poignant collage of what it means to not only experience, but survive, trauma. This book is also noteworthy for the ways it speaks to intimacy, spirituality, and philosophical ideas about time and memory. The technical strengths of the book are equally as impressive. Flynn’s foremost talent as a poet is his voice. His soft-spoken and highly observant tone fuses with the controlled yet fragmented style of his poetry in ways that are truly rare and powerful. In revisiting these poems, what also becomes apparent is the way Flynn uses image in a sensory and metaphorical sense in order to create unique poems that transcend beyond the personal, into higher modes of thinking. After twenty years, Some Ether remains a landmark book, displaying Flynn’s talents as a deep meditator and a brilliant image-maker.

“Ago” is an impressive poem for the way it investigates time, technology, and intimacy. In the first part of the poem the speaker admits: “I don’t even know / how a telephone works, how your voice reached / all the way from Iron River, fed / across wires or satellites, transformed / & returned,” speaking to the complex nature of communication through technological devices. He continues: “I don’t understand / the patience this takes, or anything / about the light-years between stars.” What these opening lines really point to is the speaker’s desire to understand the true nature of communication: intimacy, which is the end goal of these technological tools that are intended to bring people closer together. Poetic tension is heightened through the manipulation of time as the speaker says “An hour ago / you cupped your hands in the tub & raised them up, / an offering of steam. Now / we’re driving 66 mph / & one maple is coming up fast, on fire.” The poem is complicated further as the speaker continues to attempt to articulate what he sees and feels: “I begin, / it’s like those fireworks over / the East River, but it’s not enough / to say this.” Once the speaker realizes he is unable to communicate, time starts to break down: “By the time I find the words / it will already be past, rushing away as if falling / into a grave, drained / of electricity…”

What is interesting about this poem is the way it enacts several small shifts through a series of images that build off of one another: “Think of an astronaut, big silver hands / & gravity boots, the effort spent / to keep from flying off into space;” “Think of / the first time your grandparents listened / to a phonograph, the needle falling to black / vinyl, a song without a body;” “Think of the names / you see on a map, think of these towns and rivers / before they were named…” The speaker attempts to attach metaphorical meaning to all of these images in order to explain the relationship between evolution, technology, communication, and intimacy. However, the images resist metaphor because they are not stand-ins for direct experience/feeling. This is where the speaker becomes truly candid: “It’s what / I’m afraid of, the speed with which everything / is replaced, these trees, your smile, my mother, / turning her back to me before work, / asking over her shoulder, / how does this look?” After all of the metaphorical agony, the speaker finally recognizes the source of his anxiety: time’s power to erase lived experience. And yet, through memory, he is able to access his mother “asking over her shoulder, / how does this look?” Here, readers discover that the speaker has understood intimacy all along, through his relationship with his mother. This concluding image transforms the entire poem. Intimacy becomes a personal and deeply emotional experience that transcends time and technology.

“Emptying Town” is another poem in the collection that addresses intimacy, but from a different angle, incorporating the concept of Jesus as the martyr figure through image and emotion. Here is the first part of the poem:

Each fall this town empties, leaving me
drained, standing on the dock, waving bye-
bye, the white handkerchief
stuck in my throat. You know the way Jesus

rips open his shirt
to show us his heart, all flaming & thorny,
the way he points to it. I’m afraid
the way I miss you

will be this obvious.

The insertion of Jesus is a captivating surprise, but one that is highly suggestive. The speaker points to the traditional image of Jesus who “rips open his shirt / to show us his heart, all flaming & thorny, / the way he points to it.” However, the image is transformed through the language the speaker uses: “rips open his shirt,” “shows us his heart,” and “the way he points to it” suggest a willful desire on Jesus’s part to draw attention to his suffering, so that his martyred state is not just a solitary experience; it becomes communal. Then, the image is transformed again into a larger metaphor as the speaker uses it to represent his feelings: “I’m afraid / the way I miss you / will be this obvious.” Here, martyrdom and heartache become intertwined. In the second part of the poem, the image of Jesus as martyr is complicated further:

a friend who everyone warns me
is dangerous, he hides
bloody images of Jesus around my house

for me to find when I come home—Jesus
behind the cupboard door, Jesus tucked

into the mirror. He wants to save me
but we disagree from what. My version of hell
is someone ripping open his
shirt & saying

look what I did for you.

This poem operates on tension involving heartache, friendship, and religion, but what makes it truly gripping is the way the speaker takes the martyred Jesus image and turns it back on himself. Jesus becomes a metaphor for personal turmoil as he inhabits different spaces within the speaker’s house, but also internally, through the speaker’s ideas about love and suffering. He recognizes: “My version of hell / is someone ripping open his / shirt & saying / look what I did for you.” The concept of the martyr is transformed a third time as Jesus is taken out of the image and replaced by “someone.” “Rips” becomes “ripping” and the martyred state is verbalized: “look what I did for you.” This poem is exceptional for the way the speaker personalizes and internalizes the metaphor of Jesus as martyr and then eloquently resists it.

The most memorable component of the poems in this collection deals with the speaker’s relationship to his parents: his mother’s suicide, his father’s homelessness, and the deeper connections that exist within these complex relationships. “Father Outside” is a poem that focuses on the speaker’s poetic perspective about his father’s situation. Like many of the poems, image is a key element that gives readers access to the speaker’s deeper feelings. Here’s the first part of the poem:

A black river flows down the center
of each page

& on either side the banks
are wrapped in snow. My father is ink falling

in tiny blossoms, a bottle
wrapped in a paperbag. I want to believe
that if I get the story right

we will rise, newly formed,

that I will stand over him again
as he sleeps outside under the church halogen
only this time I will know

what to say.

The poem begins with a sharp image: “black river” with “banks…wrapped in snow.” The speaker compares his father to “ink falling in tiny blossoms” and “a bottle wrapped in a paperbag.” These images/metaphors bring the reader to the speaker’s state of mind as he proclaims: “I want to believe / that if I get the story right / we will rise, newly formed…” This belief runs all through Some Ether: if the speaker can effectively put all the pieces together as he remembers them, his life, and the lives of his loved ones will be transformed and they will be delivered from their precarious mental states and oppressed environments. The speaker also believes that through the experience of memory he can become profoundly articulate: “…I will stand over him again / as he sleeps outside under the church halogen / only this time I will know / what to say.”

This is where the poem begins to shift into a series of images that describe the scene in precise detail: “it’s snowing & starlings / fill the trees above us / so many it seems / the leaves sing;” “I wait for his breath / to lift his blanket / so I know he’s alive;” “Three girls in the park / begin to sing something holy… / as their prayerbook comes unglued / & scatters.” These images, hauntingly beautiful, set the stage for the central moment of the poem: “I’ll bend / each finger back, until the bottle / falls, until the bone snaps, save him / by destroying his hands.” This is a moment of utter clarity for the speaker, who finally gets to the root of his true intention: his desire to save his father by any means possible. The closing lines of the poem make a move toward that same feeling, but in a meditative way:

…From my roof I can see
the East River, it looks blackened with oil

but it’s only the light. Even now
my father is asleep somewhere. If I followed

the river north I could still
reach him.

What becomes so compelling about the poems in Some Ether is the way Flynn puts forth a speaker who continually tries to articulate his internalized self, often using metaphors and images that are poignant, but resistant, and purposefully so. As a result, these poetic elements become heightened at an aesthetic level and subversive at a technical level. Flynn is one of the most prolific image-makers in contemporary poetry; all of the poems in Some Ether can attest to that. It is how he uses images: he transforms them, enhancing complex situations within the poems that go beyond the material realm; they become stepping stones to a fully-realized moment or emotion. On the surface level, these poems are about familial relationships, about poverty and survival, about love and intimacy, about solitude and loneliness, but on a deeper level, these poems are about artistic struggle, how abuse and trauma impact memory and personal expression, and ultimately, the poem itself. This is what makes Some Ether so special and enduring: Flynn’s willingness to inhabit his difficult past and turn it into a transcendent experience full of poetic complexity and technical skill.

January 27, 2020