Nick Flynn

» December 1st, 2019



Years ago I remember being thrilled by Nick Flynn’s memoirs Another Bullshit Night in Suck City and The Ticking is the Bomb. Because I liked them so much I resisted reading his poetry, perhaps fearing that his skill in one literary venue might not transfer to the other in a way that sustained my admiration. So I waited a decade and, having just finished his latest book of poems,  I Will Destroy You, am pleased to note that my fears were unfounded.

Flynn’s poetry centers on addiction, nature (and ecological destruction, but not in a pedantic way), the child inside every adult, and, most successfully, the limits of language to articulate the power of emotion. This last accomplishment is most evident in “Saltmarsh,” a poem that opens with the image of a book “facedown in the flattened/grass . . .” and then declares “I want all/language to dissolve, to/become    (again)    salt . . .” By the end of the poem words have exploded, the meaning they intend to represent unrecoverable. Strangely, though, the feeling is not one of loss or destruction, but faith in the feelings that words can’t signify.

In Flynn’s world, what accounts for the limits of language are both the depth of human feeling and the ease with which we allow language to be commodified. To get at the latter, Flynn develops numerous metaphors around birds and nests. In “God’s Will,” a woman struggling with the pain of her brother’s overdose is juxtaposed against the bower bird’s habit of collecting “blue/things–bottle cap, rubber band/bits of broken  band,/bits of a broken/cup–to make an elaborate, sparkling/blue nest on the ground.” The message stresses how an instinctual love can drive us to protect others but, no matter how beautiful and even magical our efforts–a blue nest–can still be inadequate, and may be even nothing more than a symbolic move really designed to protect ourselves.

In “If Only They Could Bottle This Feeling,” Flynn pits language against the forces of commodification that all too easily gut it of its power, most of it in an attempt to make humans supposedly happier. It opens: “Pages torn from magazines/taped to the walls–a sunset,/a puppy, a tree in/ a field–all of it more real/than these words.” Then comes a kiss so consuming that “if I/was made of paper I’d have/burst into flame . . .” With the flame leveling a forest of words you think, again, about the limits  of language.

But in a twist, Flynn shows how, instead of accepting those limits, a commercial culture that is limitless in what it promises inevitably intervenes: “If only they could/bottle this feeling, I thought/&then they did.” The sadness is in the reminder of how what’s really being commodified is not language, but rather the emotion that language cannot grasp, thereby making our feelings graspable and cheap. One wonders if this is where sentiment and nostalgia derive, how much of our emotional reaction to life is genuine and how much if fabricated, and a lot of other worthwhile considerations that great poetry can evoke.

Leave a Reply