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Jesse Nathan
Unbound Edition, 2023


reviewed on January 24, 2024

Founded in 2020 by former publishing consultant Patrick Davis, Unbound Edition is one of a handful of small presses operating on the academic avant-garde of—or publishing avant-adjacent to—more or less “mainstream” American poetry, the latter embodied among its other forms in the somewhat risk-averse catalogs of Graywolf, Norton, and Penguin.  In contrast to such publishers, and along with venues like Canarium, Changes, Song Cave, UChicago Press, and Wave, Unbound Edition has dedicated itself to distinctive, intellectually ambitious work, publishing lesser-known writers in beautiful editions with hardback covers, heavy-stock paper, and uniform design reminiscent of New York Review Books or the Pléiade.


While one might recognize Jesse Nathan from his editorial work with McSweeney’s, he makes his poetry debut with the 2023 collection Eggtooth, a tight, carefully structured sequence which follows its speaker’s coming-of-age in the rural Midwest and later on the West Coast.  As it charts this trajectory, the book juxtaposes the autobiographical with the historical, tracking the speaker’s breaking out of his shell—an “eggtooth,” I did not know, is the temporary projection which allows a hatchling to break free—alongside the settler colonialism of American expansion.  Refreshingly, Nathan neither extricates nor exempts himself from that history, describing “a people, my / mother’s, who must’ve believed the line // that these contours were theirs to grid, grounds theirs ‘years / before’ they landed this ‘gift outright…’”


As here, Eggtooth is rich with literary reference, the allusion to Frost evoking the affinities between the “culture” of language and the “cultivation” of the land; the eclogue, Nathan suggests—a mode in which Eggtooth traffics to a considerable extent—remains inextricable from social and political considerations, as it had for Virgil, Spenser, and others.  Like Frost, moreover, Nathan charges his landscapes with an almost Gothic occultism, as if they were possessed by druidic potencies: “‘Do you,’—she sniffs—‘ever sense your dead?’”


In excavating both etymological and historical links between culture and cultivation, poetry and the plow, Eggtooth’s deliberate invocation of the pathetic fallacy at times shades into Romantic sentiment; one can accept that “[t]he city proceeds for several miles and finally shivers / and slides into ocean empty-handed,” for instance, but it strains legibility to suggest that “[t]hey sashay, those tendrils of mist” or that one might spend an afternoon “goosing uncle’s cranky catamaran / across the pixie humor of the reservoir’s surface.”  This is Lowell at his most aristocratically mannered.


The counterpoint to such rococo is Nathan’s careful-to-the-point-of-reverent attention to and rendering of both human and natural worlds, as in the incredible telescoping-out from a clapboard Midwestern church to his own cultural and geographic exile, of sorts, on the West Coast.  “[T]here I am,” Nathan writes in the poem “Footwashers,”


                                    turning over a word

in my head—catenary—for parabolas that fountains

  form, word for the U a necklace makes, curve

an upside-down arch, as I towel off a sprouting

           cousin’s fallen arches, anklebone,

              all thirty-three joints known and unknown

           that carry me away from home.


Whiplash in its line-breaks and reversals of attention, sublime in its catapulting across space and time, the passage anticipates the speaker’s turning-back, in the final movement of Eggtooth, toward the family farm he has left, to a culture imperiled by familiar economic and ecological dispersals.  On a phone call with his parents, Nathan's speaker evokes from San Francisco the gulfs of language and culture which must, I imagine, separate almost any exile from their true place in the world:


                              And the son, not really sure what then to say,

says an iconic radio tower, from where he sits, presents

   like a comb jelly.  And they, who in his imagination

are in the dining room he knows well, hold up their phone, up against

              the back window to let him hear

                the call—so personal and clear —

             of the train out there.


These are the closing words of Eggtooth, evoking a sound which, as it travels across space, resonates with emptiness and great distance.  So does Eggtooth resonate, a sophisticated yet deeply felt, avant-garde yet spiritually ancient collection, and one of the strongest debuts I have read in some time.

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