Though neither poet came away with a Minnesota Book Award, finalists Tim Nolan and Todd Boss have produced solid books of poetry unmistakably tinged with Midwestern sensibility and Minnesotan landscape. Tim Nolan’s The Sound of It (New Rivers Press, $13.95) is his first poetry collection—by profession, he is an attorney in Minneapolis—and Todd Boss’s Yellowrocket (Norton, $23.95) is his solo debut after a book of poems called On Marriage in collaboration with poet Katrina Vandenberg.
Nolan and Boss are very different poets in terms of style, voice, and influence. Their subject matter, however, converges on themes of time, memory, marriage, family, and—most especially—their kids. Both poets often teeter on the edge of grandiose philosophical musings, bringing to mind ye olde Keatsian questions of Truth and Beauty. Thankfully, they touch on these larger life puzzles in artful ways, steering clear of hackneyed expressions and images.
Reflecting on the passage of time, Nolan writes about bowling with his parents in the poem “Diamond Lake Bowling.”
My heart echoes in a memory cavern
as I gaze at the blue and broad
Hollywood curtain along the sidewall.
My parents turn to me across the way.
Dear lively eyes of them. My first faces.
Always surprised to see me.
How can I explain this sense, become
serious, that we are picking up speed,
rolling in upon ourselves, and falling
alone down this noisy, inevitable lane?
In a similar vein, Boss flashes through his life in the poem “To Be Alone Again in the Thick Skin,” trying to recall how he arrived where he is now:
I live in someone else’s city, in
someone else’s house, it seems.
It’s as if one day I stumbled into a
giant jumble sale of dreams, and
left with my arms loaded, caring
only that I got some good bargains.
While poetry is often discussed in terms of the “speaker” rather than presuming that a poem’s voice is that of the poet himself, it is almost impossible to miss the intensely personal themes of both Boss and Nolan’s poetry. In one particularly emotional section of Yellowrocket, Boss discusses what the reader can only assume were problems he had encountered in his marriage. After water had spilled on the kitchen counter, the wife in the poem “Mess” brings her hand down,
“Like this!” she said, and her open
hand slapping flat on the counter made
a spritz of the spill there: splat! “You
asked me how you should love me.”
Her hand on stone went slap! slap! slap!
Nolan writes a poem called “Frank, Running Around the House” presumably about his son:
He says—How many times around the house
is a mile?—(About sixty times)—and so
he runs sixty time around inside the house—
(smiling at me each time)—like a happy baby—
(Oh—How can we survive this beauty?)—
With each poet drawing so heavily from his life, the reading experience is very personal and at times slightly voyeuristic. For Minnesotans it is even more personal, with mentions of the St. Croix, Lyndale Avenue, 35W, and a poem written in and about Minneapolis’s Longfellow Grill.
Though different in style and technique, both Nolan and Boss seem to possess rich poetic backgrounds. Nolan’s use of dashes—he uses them often—as well as his mixture of cynicism and naiveté bring to mind Emily Dickinson. The honest, declarative nature of many his poems mirrors Charles Simic. It is also clear that he has a classical background, often alluding to Greek literature and mythology. In several poems he mentions Russian literature—Chekhov and Tolstoy specifically. He also devotes a whole section to religious themes, putting strange spins on the story of Christ.
Boss’s poetry is more rhythmic and playful with language, reminding the reader of T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. The simplicity of some of Boss’s poems, particularly the opening section about farm life, echoes with the spirit of Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays.” While these more classical poets may have influenced Boss, he also reveals that Jimmy Stewart Reading Winnie-the-Pooh on RCA Camden Hi-Fidelity/ was my introduction/ to poetry.
Both Nolan’s The Sound of It and Boss’s Yellowrocket are enjoyable reads. They offer insight into the worries of growing older, the workings of family life, and various other world-weary conundrums. Both writers inhabit their own space in the poetry niche, sharing personal stories and each carving out his own unique poetic voice.
Ellen Frazel (email@example.com) is a recent graduate of Macalester College, with a degree in English and creative writing.
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