Nick Admussen to Jeff Alessandrelli

Dear Jeff,

I will say by way of introduction that I wouldn’t be arguing with you if I didn’t like Don’t Let Me Forget to Feed the Sharks. I am going to argue with you because I like Don’t Let Me Forget to Feed the Sharks, and am in fact going to argue about why it is so good and how it is so good. So bear with me, even if I’m presumptuous or inaccurate along the way. I swear there’s going to be praise by the end.

The cold, judgmental disagreement I have with you is about the struggle between the imagined and the created in the freedom of the Dao. You write “I hope to be creatively satisfied / in the same manner as the windmill and the jetstream.” You quote the Daoist Liezi arguing that what we imagine about our fathers’ graves has much more impact on us than the graves themselves. You say “it is only the imagination / that can resist the imagination.”

This is not true and that I can demonstrate to you that this is not true. The book Liezi, for example, also called the Classic of the Perfect Emptiness, was “edited” by Liu Xiang in the Han dynasty; his version, perhaps, was handed down to Zhuang Zhan, who made further changes during the Jin dynasty. It is Zhuang’s version — not that of Liezi himself (if such a person existed) — that you quote in the preface. This is a making and a remaking that stretches out over the course of five hundred years, it is the eternal presence of the nonexistent (the lack of Liezi) flowering in a sudden expansion into the existence of the book. Somebody sits, grinds an inkstone, and writes it out, copies it over, reads it, edits it. They make it. They give it to their children. Such flourishing is not a passive experience: it is the way that dark and yielding yin gives birth to the light of yang.[1]

I would also put it this way: it is the world that resists the imagination. We do not know the wind — from one perspective, it doesn’t even exist — until it pushes on something. That pushing back against us is the delicious unloneliness of the practice of art.

For example, when I read your repeated, worried murmurs about moral and physical fatness (“made fervent by the weight /  of too much expectation: and yet I know that / I see I’m still fat.”) they made me feel fat, too. I’m a little older now, and I sit and read too much, probably, which can make one morally and physically unfit. Then I realized that the especial reason I feel this way recently is because I have a fresh, inch-long surgical wound on my belly that really dramatizes the pear-bulge curve that my stomach has grown in the last five years. So I decided to take a picture of it all, then I thought it was gross, then I took another one and then a whole bunch. After a while I took one that was the right combination of blurry and close-up, such that the scar was transformed into an old man’s closing eye.[2]

It wasn’t windborne chance that this happened. I’ve read plenty of people talking about their weight, and they didn’t provoke me to start photographing my belly. What got me, I think, was the way in which that feeling or that experience of weight isn’t the subject of any single poem, but penetrates many of them: guilt about boysenberry jam in this poem, the flat-out desire for a “delectable sweet” in another. That back-and-forth conversation persists like an itch in the mind, like a scar. More importantly, maybe, it persists just like our own guilt over our culture’s consumption, over the degradations and the “slow poisoning of so many many wells” that are a result of the small decisions we make in pursuit of satisfaction and ease. It wasn’t an accident arising from inaction,not “landslides / of poetry”: you expressed this itch in precisely this way, you made it echo and that’s how you got me.

Which leads me to the warm part of my disagreement with you. Regardless of your level of consciousness of yourself, or its danger, or its particular qualities, you are conscious of us and we are conscious of you, and that is part of the joy of your book. A book, I might point out, which was hand-made and hand-designed. It has a double cover like an expensive hardback novel would, and on the inside of the dust flap the cover designer, Ian Hubert, has left his initials. My copy is (hand-numbered) number 27 of 150, and when you open it to the center page, the stiff, high-quality string they used to bind it stands straight up as if demanding attention, or alternatively as if giving the V for Victory sign.[3] Those people are using their craft — I am picturing Ian Hubert carrying around a sketch book, one day realizing that he has just the thing to put on your cover — to answer your craft. Your craft pulls their craft out of nothing and into something.

What I mean by “your craft” is the image created by “Out in front the clouds are half-pale scabs / on the ceaseless patina of the sky.” Or the crescendo of B and L sounds in “Someone we can’t remember / once played it beautifully / on an abandoned lute.” Or the way you move between the cathartic (“we ceaselessly pray that we will never have less.”) and the comic (“Go fuck your soul. // Do it now.”). That movement isn’t the movement of the machine, or of reason, or of philosophy: it’s a human to-and-fro. It’s not easy to sit and read 25 pages of poetry that is intricate and also emotionally heavy. You know that, perhaps, and such is why the book lightens unpredictably. You know we like music, and so you give us music. There is something warm and personable about such a practice, something that inspires a book-maker in Seattle to hand-tie 150 knots on behalf of your poems, or me to spend all day reading them. The fact that you often take the pulling-away of self-regard as your topic puts the issue more sharply into focus: you imagine yourself alone, and the world of things, the red-suited man that Ian drew for you, my letter, your readers — we all push back insistently against your imagination, as well as pull your imagination in towards us.

I enjoyed pushing against and pulling at your imagination. Maybe it’s because you’ve managed to make yourself perfectly still, so that I have heard is a chorus of natural energy speaking through your inert body; I submit instead that it is because you have made for us a fine book. Either way, I’ll be looking forward to the next.

Best wishes,

Nick Admussen

[1] It’s interesting, too, that although what I am essentially accusing you of is overattention to the primacy of receptive yin in your explicit poetics (although not in your poems themselves), the Liezi occasionally engages in the opposite error, by which I mean to say it is misogynist and proud. Here’s a fake dialogue with Confucius from Book One: “’My friend,’ said Confucius, ‘what is it that makes you so happy?’ The old man replied: ‘I have a great deal to make me happy. God created all things, and of all His creations man is the noblest. It has fallen to my lot to be a man: that is my first ground for happiness. Then, there is a distinction between male and female, the former being rated more highly than the latter. Therefore it is better to be a male; and since I am one, I have a second ground for happiness. Furthermore, some are born who never behold the sun or the moon, and who never emerge from their swaddling-clothes. But I have already walked the earth for the space of ninety years. That is my third ground for happiness. Poverty is the normal lot of the scholar, death the appointed end for all human beings. Abiding in the normal state, and reaching at last the appointed end, what is there that should make me unhappy? ;What an excellent thing it is,’ cried Confucius, ‘to be able to find a source of consolation in oneself!’” This concept would later become a piece of Louis CK’s stand-up, but Lieh-t’zu isn’t joking. Perhaps it is not so great to have internal, peaceful self-satisfaction.

[2] If you’re used to the indignities of oversharing on the internet, the picture is available here.  This picture made me think that it is my slowly advancing age that causes me to interpret my physical insufficiencies as failures rather than bad luck.

[3] This is what I’m talking about.

Nick Admussen is the author of the chapbook Movie Plots from Epiphany Editions. His work has appeared in Fence, the UCity Review, the Boston Review, DIAGRAM and many other journals: lists and links are available here. The two most initially offputting letters he has ever received were 1) a nice letter from a girlfriend that included a red construction-paper “A” in the envelope — but it turned out that said girlfriend had never read Hawthorne and “A” was for “Admussen.” 2) an anonymous death threat provoked by a very mild letter to the editor that was published in the St. Louis Post Dispatch — but it turned out that health care reform really is a moderately effective, people-first policy, and haters can go soak.