A Review of Jesse Nathan’s Eggtooth

Eggtooth, like most debuts, is a book about growing up. Raised in Kansas on a family farm, Jesse Nathan writes meditations in place. A grounding observation begins many of these poems—“Dame’s Rocket,” a poem about an invasive species of flower, now a common volunteer on the prairie, starts, “Rising straight as canes” (5). But this beginning is as concentrated with meaning as it is with sound. The poet’s also “rising Cain,” a nod to the vegan brother who haunts butcher Abel. The drama in this “growth of a poet’s mind” is in the language. 

In the earlier sections of Eggtooth, Nathan conjures up poetic scenes in the middle of small-town farm life, a border-zone in which nature and culture meet. Here, in the last stanza of “A Country Funeral,” the child-poet eyes, and hears, a religious ritual tumbling into chaos: 

Then a windless, a wild calm. Four cousins boost
The yarrow-strewn coffin – walk in us – their lighthouse eyes
O have you not heard
– show us their charge is loose,
The body – O fount – sliding around as one misguides it,
as virga near and curtain the creek.
When dirt raps the casket, she squeezes
my hand. It aches for reach.

In lines intensified by an idiosyncratic diction, the boy sees how limited our stories of death are, feeling those limitations, literally down to the bones of his hand. Here and elsewhere, Nathan uses a stanza form borrowed from the 17th century metaphysical poet John Donne, in which a tercet in triple rhyme follows a looser quatrain. The rhymes are consistent but not exact, sometimes only keeping a ghost of a vowel. In his appreciative introduction, Robert Hass calls this “an ecosystem of echoic effects.” I would simply add that it offers as much distortion as harmony, satisfying the expectation of rhyme more like a jazz musician than a chamber artist. 

Nathan’s style resembles those most sonically extravagant of poets writing in English who retain the power of narrative, from Gerard Manley Hopkins and Hart Crane to John Berryman and (more recently) Atsuro Riley. Such language shines with intention. Even as Nathan beautifully registers a summer afternoon’s delight in the four-season calendar poem “How We Played,” he encases that scene in made speech: 

Mom salts ice in the wooden bucket
of nostalgia, and we all crank the cream till its stuck
paddles stop their play. And speechless, eat our luck. 

The state being described haunts as it lingers. Why are the children speechless? Out of joy, or for something darker? In this moment and others in the collection, it’s difficult to tell—Nathan prefers to leave observation as the last beat of the poem, provoking a reader who might think herself owed more. This gesture directs attention back into the language, which loads the material with meaning (“bucket / of nostalgia”), turns verbs into nouns (“stop their play”) and coins new idioms out of old (“eat our luck,” which I take as a kind of recidivist cliché from “press your luck”). 

In poetry, description can be predicament enough. The gorgeous single stanza of “A Note on the Cooking” knows this: 

The state of my garden’s a sign of my health,
says my mother the teacher-farmer. If plush, she’s hale.
If weeds, the classroom’s got her head. Of her sometime wealth
of basil and pepper, rows of green beans, even broccoli, kale –
a treat, she taught, to get to eat one’s fortunes raw.
As the asparagus topped against her knife, I saw
the stalks melt like some elysian butter-straw. 

A praise poem, “A Note on the Cooking” is nevertheless understated in encomium, paying its attention as much to its own odd locutions as its subject, which sound like a form of local patois as particular as much to the poem’s small territory as to any real geography or cultural group. This is speech for a poet to delight in: “If plush, she’s hale.” The mother might be an Achilles (this is a continuing theme in the book, to alchemize female figures into heroes), with her “elysian butter-straw,” but the allusion also places her in the land of the dead, the real location of those earned, but never longed-for, fields. The poem telegraphs the (agreeable, uncontroversial) notion that something useful and moral could be made from gardening that gathers up the spirit along with the body. But the scene oddly arrests itself without completing that teaching—or rather, the teaching at the heart morphs into poetry, teaching the poet simply to turn an asparagus into an allusion. This is a poem about poetic authority—in which how to describe an asparagus replaces the task of gardening, for a new form of worth and value. 

Nathan’s style isn’t subtle—the sonic intention is to break and be broken, to trouble what’s usual with a new sort of sting. The vocabulary feels as much found as much as felt for even when the descriptions are ordinary: “Young grey cat puddled under the boxwood / only the eyes alert. Appressed to dirt.” (“Straw Refrain”). Sometimes, this is less a matter of diction than of repetition and rhyme, as in “The Student,” a poem later in the collection: “of wonder a student of blunder. / Wonder and blunder, blunder and wonder / I’d chant till I dulled any feel for either.” “The Student” describes life in the city, but this impulse to break, or to break through, remains. In a sense, the speaker forever aches for “reach,” for some kind of meaningful ambition, which, in the content of this book, is generally framed as love—but which is also the pursuit of poetry. Both require vulnerability, which Donne’s ghost, arriving late in the book, finally articulates in an ars poetica that covers life and art, the book’s title poem: “I say / use me like an eggtooth, break // the shell that shields you.” Eggtooth’s title references the horn-like projection a baby bird grows to break out of its shell. 

Nathan’s parents went “back to the land” to live on his mother’s farm in a Mennonite community after an earlier life as lawyers in California, but Nathan has some questions: “I hear George, my cabbie once in Athens: / Sure it’s nice here, unless you want to leave.” (“Archilochus”). The narrative spine of Eggtooth follows the poet’s journey from country to city, and it’s an old story—asking questions about the garden is, after all, only slightly younger than Eden—but it’s a new century, and the questions hit differently. First, the “rural” experiences being spoken about here feel alienated as soon as they arrive, flummoxing any notion that this pastoral world offers a healing. In the unforgettable “Scouts,” queer coming of age and small-town hazing inhabit the same bathroom stall: 

There was a boy even stranger than I was
who’d call me in the evening
to see if I’d come to Scouts. Something in me
hesitated. Then one morning

during eighth grade English we got hall passes
and did it in a stall in the bathroom
taking turns over the john
as thrilling as clumsy. 

This isn’t the only poem in which the poet sees himself crammed into a small space. “Shock” begins inside a house, inside a storm, with a child whose size makes him the perfect candidate for sussing out the source of a household emergency: “so I, small and spry / someways slithered in / up the crawlspace, and / find a burning fan.” (46) “Shock” ends in revelation, but the theology offered up is a negative one: 

Some say it was lightning in a mineral bisque
That triggered first life. Grandpa said in 1933
He lost six head – his life savings – to one strike.
And I, in the soaphouse later with an EMT,
Would sense in the rafters swallows
Veer, loop, follow
As if a shadow had a shadow. 

The life energy of the Donne stanza, as used by Nathan to describe the confusion of his rural childhood, is sinuous and dark, full of the extremes of voice being both overeager and evasive. It’s not just Hart Crane’s formal extensions and frank ambition I hear in these intricate stanzas, but Gerard Manley Hopkins’ existential overcompensation in sound and word and detail for whatever delights must have seemed forever out of his reach as a closeted Catholic priest. Indeed, Nathan’s book is full of what feel like scenes of re-closeting—in “Shock,” he’s essentially lit on fire in an enclosed space, a pretty good metaphor for poetry. 

It’s hard not to feel like these accounts of childhood and adolescent experience are the soul of Eggtooth—their scenes are just so vivid. In later poems in the book, the poet narrates his settlement in a new city, the breakup of that relationship and the formation of a new love, and the results are less consistent. My favorites from the later pages of the book are the unruly poems, like “Aubade within Aubade.” When his (female) partner tells him she’s seeing someone else, he doesn’t respond, but the poem responds: 

He thinks, I’m no better,
thinks of a stranger, 

what started in a park, 2 am – on a swingset,
on the slide – they’d moved to a bedroom, a twin bed
among teetering cities of books, among which he
afterward woke to a siren, toppled those books, genitals
still sticky, still flush. The call in old times
of the nightwatch passing – light! Light! –
which supplied the alba its title

to the lovers meant dawn, loathsome dawn nears, so
Flee! Was in this case a firetruck charging down Mission…
What music his farmboots beat in the ears
of the empty sidewalks! 

Here, the poet lives, and thinks, his way into the middle of a poetic form. He doesn’t map poetry onto life; in his body, walking down a city street, life becomes poetry. There’s something evasive here—a way of becoming, of growing up, and accepting oneself, and understanding oneself as human (and here, as queer) in which truth-telling isn’t about exposure, or what we generally call “recognition,” but about the stranger aspects of aesthetic making—dissembling, rejecting, telling secrets, being secret, hiding, preserving oneself in the hiding, not owing your story to anyone.

When I was a younger poet, I wondered what gave you poetic authority—what forms, what practices within the poem might possess that magic that would make you capable of that memorable poetic speech, which, on behalf of others, I wanted so ferociously to possess. Now I understand that writing that poetry itself is what does this—poetic authority comes from being with poetry. It’s a gamble, not a bargain. Subjects of contemporary relevance are present in Eggtooth: living on land stolen from indigenous people with alienated purpose, queer sexuality—but the question I’m compelled by in this collection is whether poetry is worth your time and why it might be. I found myself thinking about my favorite line from Townes Van Zandt: “Living’s mostly wasting time.” Moments here risk the silliness of poetry: “And the son, not really sure what then to say, / says an iconic radio tower, from where he sits, presents / like a comb jelly.” (“This Long Distance”). And admit poetry’s uselessness: “A disheveled, monkish tassel / on a snowy egret on the evergreen exit sign / settles nothing.” (“March”). Eggtooth keeps pointing back to poetry’s lack of obvious, or shared, or easily stated, social value as it undergoes its own personal evasions of social intelligibility. These poems acknowledge that much of time is wasted thinking about what the meaning of it might be. As the poet-child says in the “Fall” of “How We Played,” the season immortalized by one of the greatest poetic authorities of all, John Keats: “A lull – I trust that interval.” 


Katie Peterson

Katie Peterson’s sixth collection, Fog and Smoke, is forthcoming from FSG in January 2024.

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