By Nate Pritts
Reviewed by David Nilsen
We've had it wrong. Life isn't accumulation.
Every day is a slow destruction.
Nate Pritts's Post Human is a quiet and quietly profound collection that explores the evolving contrast between experience and its expression, between life as we live it and life as we project it to our electronic followers, between identity as personhood and identity as brand, between "the one that experiences the life / & the one that is quiet." The book looks at the varied consequences of the disconnection and distraction of modern life and the artificial affirmation we receive from increasingly frenetic channels, but it does this without ever devolving into abstract social commentary. Pritts is pretty sick of his own entanglement with the digital world, but Post Human doesn't stop there; just as the boundaries between online life and "real" life have all but dissolved, so too have the boundaries separating this poet's disconnection from his online life and his disconnection from his real life. He drifts through experiences, wondering aloud if he's actually experiencing them or not. Is he just recording them for posterity, and do they count if he is? Is there such a thing as real connection with another being? Are we still a part of the natural world in any meaningful way?
If these sound like the masturbatory questions tossed around during an introductory philosophy class, well, they are. But Pritts poses them so earnestly, and with such succinct desperation, any notion of pretense is stripped away and we're left with the bare, valid questions themselves. There is a particular brand of low-stakes self-loathing here we're used to and usually write off with some self-congratulatory reference to mumblecore films, but we forget the misery and sincere confusion behind it can be very real. Pritts has a gift for infusing even the most pedestrian and privileged expressions of modern suburban ennui with genuine pathos, in lines that require a slow pace to recognize the despair at their root: "More than anything else / I want to go to the mall tonight / & maybe buy something."
Pritts isn't sure what it even means to be authentically human anymore, let alone some kind of human called an "artist," tasked with telling other humans something meaningful about their humanity. His resignation to the decreased authenticity of modern experience is expressed repeatedly:
Once I was a unit building itself
Interacting with the environment
Taking things into myself
Now I process the process
The digital-era discouragement in Pritts's collection is compounded by a very real depression undergirding his verses. As expressed in these pages, his depression isn't debilitating or crushing—it's a depression that traipses into our awareness on cats' feet, slowly but unmistakably pervading any empathic reading of these poems. We feel it in the constant precipitation, the low clouds, the numbness to external events, the resignation and lack of motivation:
. . . don't even feel
the wind I'm supposed to
but I know enough science
to react appropriately.
There is a way in which this depression, this perception contorted to tune in only to the grimmest stimuli, is the only thing counteracting Pritts's disconnect from his environment. In a poem (none of the poems in Post Human are titled) that concludes with lines perfectly expressing the book's core theme—"I am recording / the final experience of a human / on this planet entangled / with nature"—we are given some of the richest natural imagery of the book:
abound crowd the season
You can't distinguish
the noise of wind
the rilled air against leaves
from within the sinister engines
of the rain.
Pritts struggles to find a way to construct a meaningful life, one filled with actual experiences and sensations, one that is not merely chopped into parts and distributed piecemeal to literary journals, to social media feeds, to online acquaintances, to coworkers and students and friends in stolen moments of communication. This is the poet working against himself, sick of his own textual vocation. In a poem rolling around in its own existential dread, Pritts gives us a clever visual metaphor for the cannibalism he fears is robbing his life to feed his art:
The frame for the picture
is made of wood remnants
from the same house
you see in the picture.
It came apart under
the weight of its own
The idea of "story" emerges later as a central idea of the last section of Post Human. We live in a publishing culture in which it behooves a writer to not only have a platform, but an angle, a story, a part of his personal identity that defines him to his audience. Tell your story, and stick to it. Don't try to tell any other kind. But Pritts doesn't have a single story to tell. He's a writer, a poet. He has lots of stories. He has no one big story worth repeating, and it's an angst and a pressure he pushes back against throughout the book's final movement—appropriately titled "Life Story"—in progressively more explicit pronouncements. The first poem of this section lays out the problem plainly:
I don't have one story to tell
can't find myself by returning
to any unified narrative
since I am always cycling / discovering more parts.
Coherence is not a value I believe in
& has brought me nothing but pain.
"I don't have one story to tell" is incanted throughout the following poems until we arrive at its next logical iteration, the same words slightly rearranged on a later page: "I don't have to tell one story." The first version feels desperate, the second rebellious. Finally, in one of the book's final poems, the statement reaches maturation in the declaration "I don't have just one story to tell." Pritts has many stories to tell. Every lived experience is one real human story, a lived story. This final section of Post Human layers quiet despair with a growing sense of acceptance, a greyish kind of hope that these small moments might coalesce into a life. Pritts writes, "Each picture on any wall is never more than a reminder / of a single gone moment / among so many." In selecting those moments to capture in art and writing, we are condemning the remainder to be largely forgotten, and yet, wouldn't they all be forgotten anyway? Isn't writing ultimately a redemptive, if quite selective, act of preservation? As Pritts puts it, "Everything gets lost & only some things get found. / Somewhere in between is the only love we know."
What is in between for Pritts, what this book's questions have been building to, is the thin shared wall between resignation and contentment, between exhaustion and peace. I'm not sure he actually gains purchase on hope by book's end, but he's not where he started. He seems closer to rest, closer to accepting the emotional violence of his own vocation as a poet. The final lines of Post Human breathe with calm sadness, the gentle doom of acquiescence to the human condition. In a poem that has covered quotidian details of his day, addressed his ongoing dread, touched on nostalgia, and finally arrived at the hushed beauty of nature outside his door in early spring, Pritts offers the thin holy hope of this sigh:
It's the kind of air that feels like rain
& when it starts I'll go inside
to watch it. I'll just watch it.
No commentary, no shaping into meter, no Instagramming or captioning with #amwriting. He'll just watch it. And on that Pritts wagers his last savings, his final grasp at stopping short before he becomes post human. Moments are lived, moments are lost. The same is true for relationships, for memories, for everything we live. For the poet, maybe some shavings can be scraped off each, trapped between pages. It's not much. Everything gets lost, and only some things get found. In between, Pritts hopes to find the only love he'll know.