Newcomer. Nathaniel Farrell. Ugly Duckling Presse. Brooklyn, New York. 2014.
Nathaniel Farrell's Newcomer is the imagined journal of a very eloquent foot soldier, most likely from the American Civil War. But Newcomer is not about war. It is about being human.
These short verses are untitled but connected. Newcomer flows with a silky Shelby Foote voice. It is a quiet, considered look at the minutiae of life that continues unabated by the calamities of war.
Horses move between
rifles and shoulders and unsent letters.
We pass a place where one body of water
meets another body of water. Down below
the surf moves like a lock of hair
twisting up and down the coast.
When we stop I wonder how a man
can eat with tears in his eyes, how
another man can eat with sweat over his,
how I can eat in sight of so much water.
I was completely transfixed by Farrell's steady, sure tone, his hypnotic hold on the reader is a pleasure to endure. The voice in these poems is an instant familiar.
The morning sun burns off the fog. In this heat
the smell of the sea follows us inland.
Every hour I spend lagging behind, telling my own future
like a dog chasing a stick into the surf, wondering why
fog feels more wet when you rub your fingers in it.
Farrell muses about the weather and the when, why, where of spider webs - and just like a spider's web, these poems works mostly by unseen tethers, with delicate ferocity.
I am in every photograph we take. I put my heart
into the flat part of another forking road, the part still with grass
after the tracks have been dug by the loads carried over it, as if
beneath the road there were still grass. But beneath
the part that is and isn't a road
the part that is and isn't a heart
there is only dirt.
Our hats tilt back across our foreheads a little more every hour.
I could tell then that I would be able to tell
what time of day it was when we took each picture
just as I can tell where we were
when we took it by how many of us there are.
Farrell does not avoid the blunt face of war, he marks that bitter pill - but mostly he wants to be human and not fodder. Our narrator reminds us of his humanity by constantly marking his place in the natural world.
At night in the clearing
the moon shines on the sleeping faces of men
making their beards curl up
like in dim pasture
lambs curl into the shape of sheep.
Lesser men moan in their sleep
to be treated like they are during the day
to dream out of rank at night.
I loved the precision in these poems, the human warmth in the hero's voice. Newcomer is a mesmerizing read from the opening salvo.
ABOUT THE AUTHORNathaniel Farrell, an educator and poet, was born and raised in Western Pennsylvania. He holds a doctorate in English Literature from Columbia University in New York. His chapbook The Race Poems—a take on race relations during the Iraq War and the Second Intifada—was published by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2005.Newcomer (UDP, 2014) is his first book, a long poem set in an undefined American-soil campaign. He has published poems in 6×6, Greetings Magazine, and The Recluse. He currently resides in St. Louis.
These are Nathaniel Farrell’s poems, of course, but when I read them they are mine, too: common life told with common words, resounding and clean. Their setting may be historical, ostensibly the Civil War, but their concerns are the stuff of daily life, glimpsed from porches and saddles and moonlit camps and recorded with quiet intensity. The simple counters of weather, family, fields, and roads make for homesick songs that anyone might sing. In an age of hard trying, such anonymity is a virtue and a pleasure.