Aim at the Centaur Stealing Your Wife
By Jennifer Nelson
Ugly Duckling Presse
Reviewed by Maggie Millner
So often, writers invoke important people to seem important by association. I catch myself doing it sometimes: citing my literary heroes to sound more credible, or parroting a scholarly book to avoid the work of articulation. Unsurprisingly, I get the most mileage out of thinkers who are well canonized but poorly understood, or oft-quoted passages that most people get wrong. And if reading criticism has taught me anything, it's that the most droppable names belong to people with clear claims to institutional power—which often means people who are white and male and dead.
Jennifer Nelson's debut poetry collection, Aim at the Centaur Stealing Your Wife, is loaded with references to dead white men. Hölderlin and Kafka, Montaigne and Engels, Nietzsche and Fellini all get nods in this small white volume, whose lightness, both in color and mass, belies the verbal density of these accumulated proper nouns. Obsessed with art history, Nelson devotes entire poems to European painters and their works; the second of the collection's six sections is inspired by the etchings of eighteenth-century artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, and the book's title comes from a Renaissance-era painting by Antonio del Pollaiolo, which is also featured as the frontispiece. If that sounds like a lot to take in, it is.
But if I was initially wary of the phonebook-level number of names in this book, I was quickly convinced that Nelson is up to something much more complex than showing off. Her voice is too assured to boast, and her language is too raunchy to be pandering. Instead, Nelson is doing the opposite of name-dropping; rather than trying to elevate her poetry with canonical references, her fluid, iconoclastic verse works to undermine the rigid authority of the Western canon. By sandwiching Kafka between explicit sexual metaphors ("I want to fuck a symphony / into you gonggg / gongg gongg") or starting a poem about a hangover with an epigraph from Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Nelson cuts these inflated figures down to size. "I thought art was not about money / I thought art history was not for the rich," she writes about going to a museum as a child. In her poems, art still lives in this colloquial, anti-hierarchical space.
It helps that, while the bulk of her allusions are to Old Masters of various stripes, Nelson complements them with references to Billy Idol, MTV, Occupy Wall Street, and World of Warcraft. Her gaze is omnidirectional; it roves between newsfeeds and engravings, violins and genitals, art and astrophysics. One poem devolves into literal gibberish, while another spouts abstruse words like "albedo" and "apotropaicon." Nearly every page spans many centuries, describing age-old artifacts in the cybernated vocabulary of some millennial subject. In "Melencolia II," she writes:
Georg Simmel totally called it
the city replaces my presence
but he got the valence wrong
it is soothing as a river
I have never bathed in a river
I think of my body as a hulking
force for abstraction
thus cannot admire Cézanne's bathers
except as staging my donation
of my body to modern art
which I don't want to do
Part of what makes this highbrow-lowbrow style work is the cool authority these poems project about their subjects. Nelson's speaker is familiar enough with Simmel's discourse to both refer to it in shorthand and offer a corrective, and she exudes interpersonal familiarity too, making small confessions about her relationship with her body. The more she surrounds herself with male artists' idealized depictions of bodies—depictions that privilege female "fertility" and rarely feature "brown folk"—the further alienated she feels from her own, which starts to seem more like a "hulking / force for abstraction" than the substantiation of her discarnate inner life. Elsewhere, the speaker's online and video game avatars occasion similar moments of self-estrangement. (In "The Beauty Mark is Infinitely Deep," for example, she "image-searche[s] 'peignoir,' and late / ways to have a body.") In both cases, her intimate disclosures, combined with her vernacular ("totally called it") and extratextual gestures, give me the sense of being invited into a private, cluttered room.
But it is not just familiarity with the works in question that compels her homages, nor is it anything as simple as scorn. While the speaker often feels repelled by them, these works also inspire her genuine reverence ("Tiepolo invented / this game of Fantasia / . . . the noblest surrender"), and her complicated fandom comes through as clearly as her love of mythic beasts and mixing dictions. Maybe this is what she means when she claims that the art historian is "the artist of forgetting:" that appreciating art from bygone eras requires suspending our criteria for what constitutes thoughtful art today. Yet for Nelson, that suspension is not always acceptable. "The whole thing's about mixing incommensurate scales. / . . . remember universal means colonial, / please," she writes in "The Mantegna Oculus Rift." Here, to "mix incommensurate scales" is to expect an audience to relativize its principles in order to better appreciate an artwork that does not reflect them—rather than, as Nelson does, questioning the transhistorical value of the work in accord with the principles of the living.
Aim at the Centaur Stealing Your Wife, then, flows out of a tension between the antiquated and the ultramodern. This tension manifests most often in the dialectical relationship between the book's central obsessions: the exclusionary world of academic art history and the inclusionary space of the Internet. Sometimes a poem equilibrates by staging a confrontation with its own subject matter, either in the form of witty self-sabotage ("These are some of the things my so-called critical / eye can see") or a straightforward takedown ("it's a kind of ugly painting"). More often, though, Nelson just plies the tension by writing about the very old in language that sounds very new. On the ways that the conservation of art also functions as the conservation of its imperialistic memes, she writes conspicuously anti-rationally, and is all the more convincing for it. Her poetics is dizzyingly paced, eminently associative, and formally disordered (the Pollaiolo section, for example, contains five permutations of the same sonnet, itself an ekphrasis of a painting, which ends up reading more like an Oulipian exercise than an Elizabethan cycle). It mimics both the lushness of Renaissance art and the expediency of electronic correspondence.
These hallmarks condense brilliantly in "The Mantegna Oculus Rift." This excerpt follows Nelson's introduction of the titular pun, which pits Mantegna's fifteenth-century trompe l'oeil oculus against Oculus Rift's virtual reality headset:
So in my jpg of the oculus
I'm less into the Moor
or staring at a putto's well-foreshortened
balls-and-peen and more
into imitating his neighborling
who bites a marble bow
and pierces the oculus rim.
I am thinking of the people who suffer
to make my electricity possible
not out of love, because it is crude
to fall in love with the fallen
emperor's daughter, but because another
foreshortening is always possible to render another
space that dilates failure:
near the core of Mantegna's oculus
a dark slit could actually hold an eye
and probably was for hanging something. I
don't want to look it up.
From the bathetic "balls-and-peen" to the pseudo-archaism "neighborling," these rangy lines carry out the poem's formidable epistemological task: to map the relation between an ancient and a newfangled mode of representation, all while centering Nelson's antic, lyric "I." And she takes no shortcuts. She won't "foreshorten." Narrative closure is contrary to her goals, a notion she supports by refusing "to look it up." Just as her references suspend me between dusty past and digital present, her appraisals end up somewhere between lampoon and ode, pan and panegyric.
That Nelson manages to cram so many fossils of Western Culture into this book without seeming stodgy or pretentious or even vaguely dilettantish is a testament to her verse. Her chattiness never comes at the expense of musicality, and she counters every wisecrack with an equal dose of warmth. In a landscape where younger poets are often scolded for being either myopically self-centered or so thematically opaque as to preclude personal identification, this book emerges a triumphant foil. And when her references are over my head, Nelson always recovers my attention with her frank and fine-cut tenderness: "I am human / and have been in love;" "all fucking night I'll give you my email."