Today as I glance out at January’s first whiteout, obliterating the world from my window, I happily nestle back under blankets to recharge with Nick Flynn’s first book, Some Ether. First books read as coming of age novels in that they make a stake in outlining a poet’s primary obsessions and concerns. In Some Ether the poems ache for interconnectedness and express fear of drowning in that need. Full of uncertainties, Flynn longs to find beauty in what is often an ugly and terrible world.
A multiplicity of voices haunt Some Ether. The mother who suicides speaks as her last letter is burned, her “voice…released into the night/ like a song.” The black box in which a pilot’s voice might explain why a disaster occurred is missing. The phonograph’s needle “falls to black vinyl, a song without a body.” The disembodied voice on the telephone relays bad news and the world is irrevocably altered, “how overnight we could be orphaned/ & the world became a bell we crawl inside/ & the ringing all we’d eat.” Even Marconi, the inventor of wireless transmissions, “believes we are wrapped in voices, that waves/ never die, merely space themselves/ farther & farther apart.”
Children are left and bewildered in these poems. At school, clouds are studied, rules are enforced, tests are taken but no one teaches what to do to survive. If you listen carefully, a compassionate adult voice suggests some lifesaving techniques: “hang lifelessly and breathe only air.” Still, there are no maps in this childhood. There is a grandmother whose side door is always unlocked for the child yet she “says I can have anything/” only “when she is dead.” The mother who leaves the child on the side of the road and drives away is no more responsible than the grandmother or the boyfriend who allows the child to play with a gun or the Vietnam Vet boyfriend who destroys the home’s interior while two boys cower in fear and helplessly yell, “Leave!” The idea of home exists in memory only where “it is always raining” and “no one inside/ remembers me.”
These poems remind us of the need for heroic imagination in childhood. For a child to resist the urge to rationalize inaction they must learn “the rules of cartoon animation” and find heroism if not in adults around them, then on television and in comic superheroes. The paperboy in And Then, And Then, imagines Superman: “ he’d plough through the crust of the earth for a handful of coal/ & compress it to a diamond.” As mentor, Superman offers the paperboy a degree of autonomy and hope and thereby, the child is able to draw his own door and walk through it.
The children in Some Ether are pushed into witnessing more than they can bear, mopping a mother’s blood, “ I rinsed the rags/ in the sink & she whirlpooled / away.” Longing for the barely remembered absent father who writes from prison, the child acknowledges that even “the silence you move through/ shaped me.” The father cast out of the garden lives by his wits in the elements and rises godlike “from his stone mattress” but cannot help his child.
In the book’s last section, sex and drugs are used as a way to get back into a body, one’s own or someone else’s, it doesn’t matter which. The child inside is still alive needing to be nursed through the panic: “I’d reached too far overhead/ for the branch that could save me.” The mother cannot be resurrected; the father cannot return home. The adult child knows he can only save himself and that, “You without a body without a compass without oars/ your hands are useless in this world, / resting on my shoulders/ trying to steer.”
Why love anything if it all disappears? Maybe it doesn’t disappear. I’m reminded of two probable concepts of the ancients. One is the concept of transmutability, the idea that man can become a tree or the wind and vice versa. The other is the idea of permeability, that there is no boundary between this world and the one of the spirits. Of the many disembodied voices from the past, Some Ether reminds us to listen again, more deeply this time, even if the spaces between those voices are far, far apart.
Republished from MassPoetry. This is the second in a series of stories on poets to be featured at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival (May 1-3). Attend Nick Flynn's events at the festival.