Thursday, January 5, 2023

Review of J. D. Nelson’s “in ghostly onehead” by Jerome Berglund



If you read literary journals, chapbooks, print and digital magazines you very plausibly are no stranger to the extraordinary, inventive, captivating poetry of J.D. Nelson.  A master and expert in a wide variety of forms, as comfortable in the pure and stunning nature subjects of haiku as he is with surrealist, dada, absurd, thrillingly experimental modes he is best known and revered for, I was admiring this poet’s exquisite collections (and many years of epic, fruitful publications fastidiously inventoried on his polished, immaculate website MadVerse which any aspiring publishing poet can benefit from frequently visiting) long before I dipped my toes into the writing game personally, or had the great privilege of making his kind and generous acquaintance through the wonderfully potent platform of connection and collaboration Twitter provides for likeminded, gregarious creatives! 


So it was with great excitement and anticipation that I learned of this upcoming, career-defining collection “in ghostly onehead” many years in the making, laying out painstakingly in crackling glory the grandest achievements and finest examples from a career which has spanned two productive decades, includes over two thousand published poems in upwards of 300 distinct venues from a genius talent carrying the luminous torch of the Beats and French avant-garde into our singular digital era.  This is J.D.’s first full length collecting of poetry (his seminal Cinderella City released by Red Ceilings ten years back, available to download at no cost, has long been regarded as downright iconic) and you don’t want to miss it.  From his legendary subterranean laboratory (also renowned for its sound art, available through Bandcamp under the banner of Owl Brain Atlas) this recent Best of the Net nominee has compiled something truly special in a slick, riveting volume.  From its glorious cover artwork – the mossy Gothic arche pair wonderfully, capture eponymous ‘ghostly onehead’ idea – to the intriguing and memorable title, as the poet continues his tradition of specifying the length of time the pieces within were composed over, spanning a round two thousand days from his Coloradan location, one gets an immediate sense of the enormity of the venture and its cumulative weight. 

A dedication to his niece and nephews also provides readers with an immediate appreciation and understanding of what a considerate and caring person Nelson is in life, anyone who has had the great pleasure and privilege of interacting with him individually is well aware of his equal famousness as thoughtful human being, caring proponent of the vulnerable – championing both homo sapien and animal rights, laboring for and magnanimously supporting efforts for peace, economic, racial, environmental justice – and struggling populations, amazing mentor and resource to fellow aspiring poets and artists, in the writing community he has earned a well deserved reputation as elder statesman, senpai and role model, deep respect from editors and contributors alike, has made invaluable contributions to any journal big or small worth its salt invariably, recently also been dazzling the short form world with spectacular haiku with classical sensibility one would be hard pressed to observe outside of Red Moon anthologies, the collected works of English virtuosos such as Richard Wright. 


And here with surrealism of the highest order J.D. similarly shines and amazes, will leave the reader absolutely astounded.  There’s something so inherently enjoyable about allowing dada poetry to immerse you, like enjoying an unpredictable but fantastic dream.  It’s a wondrous and stimulating experience, akin to navigating one of those immersive aquariums through a glass tunnel down the center, surrounded by marine life on all sides, floating past beside and above!  Yet the flashes of humanity, joy and pain, hope and suffering that emerge, illuminate sporadically like bioluminescent fish, somehow manage then to hit harder than ever being lulled into a false sense of security once you’ve settled into the sensory freedom of surrealism and abstraction…?!  It’s also astonishing to find Dada with such a meditative, Zen sensibility, there’s something beautifully Eastern and timeless energizing terrifically modern — in terms of form — poems like “the detroit rock! rock! rock! liver” with its closing line, “the faint ‘coo, coo’ of the mourning dove”.  Nelson’s deep appreciation for and command of the Japanese short forms, many years of experience composing elegant, hard-hitting, top caliber haiku certainly inform and galvanize the economic, punchy, charged snippets of meaning in thrilling fashion, and the pivots at times almost resemble the classic shifts of a masterful chain poem or renga if viewed from a certain angle! 


The gems of social and climate consciousness, and righteous concerns and deft critique, are also not to be overlooked or discounted, such as ‘the water water’, an urgent missive amplifying and giving voice to both a planet and the next generation fated to inhabit it (to whom this collection has been addressed explicitly), in powerful passages such as “earth is the water”…   There are deep qualms but also cautious optimism balanced and moderated thoughtfully: “closing another bank account at midnight…the help is the thinking cube”.


(The suggestion, legitimate earnest brainstorm to call the aliens for help — in the first poem of the second section — is also a quite reasonable outside the box solution one can’t entirely laugh at or dismiss in these dismal, apocalyptic times… <_<)


Indeed, a leitmotif of lifesaving liquid (“what is water?”) recurs a few times throughout, is quite reasonably on the modern everyman's mind, and gets articulated here with legitimate primacy.  Other striking symbols including the worm, boots, monsters, salt, pants, and the act of humming — reproducing the sound the universe makes? — recur notably and deserve attention and patient consideration.  But earth, as supporting character and often protagonist, is the most omnipresent and heavily featured force and focus of these poems, and is one of the takeaways readers will no doubt retain on their minds long after concluding.


The numerous years of hard, diligent labor that went into this are appreciable, and also charmingly apparent in occasional self-reflexive asides, echoes intruding from the outside world as near the end of ‘eye milk’ a third of the way through: “are you still writing your book?”  These interruptions further situate the collection in the fascinating, aware and fourth-wall-breaking traditions of confessional poets such as Hemingway and Buk’, Berryman and of course his revered Beat influences!


It’s a shame J.D. was not born in a more receptive era or anointed scion to some influential line, for he is without a doubt one of the most unified with the universe’s creative forces individual I may ever have witnessed. There is a sadness in that responsibility, a loneliness to the task and duty (or ‘dharma’ even), the thankless and at times outright self-defeating aspects of this noble calling — “a machine, alone at night” — like the nomadic sanyasin of Hindu traditions, the wandering monks of Japanese poetry’s golden age, the underappreciated geniuses of impressionism toiling in obscurity crafting the greatest masterpieces of all time, yet facing enormous difficulties in their lives from beginning to end as a rule with few exceptions…


Personally, I’d love to see posterity’s many accomplished luminaries receive more deserved recognition in their lifetimes.  As readers (and many of us writers) we can help with that by supporting outstanding figures, valuing their work and celebrating it, sharing with friends and family.  Can’t encourage you enough to start here, this collection is out of this world, something truly significant and mesmerizing I so hope society learns of and has opportunity to sit with, reflect upon, enjoy thoroughly.  Congratulations to the author for bringing this monumental achievement to print, it makes a phenomenal testament to his prolific career and a fine introduction for fresh readers to many profound capabilities, rich materials to be unearthed in his earlier chapbooks and countless sizzling publications across the interwebs.  Poetry for appreciators of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, Jack Kerouac and Baudelaire!!

Jerome Berglund graduated from the cinema-television production program at the University of Southern California, and has spent much of his career working in television and photography. His work has been featured prominently in many journals, including as haiga in Abstract magazine, gracing the cover of pacificREVIEW, and appearances in Drunk Monkeys, Evocations, Landing Zone, Oxford Magazine, and Please See Me last year.  His pictures have further been published and awarded in local papers, and in 2019 he staged an exhibition in the Twin Cities area which included a residency of several months at a local community center.  A selection of his black and white fine art photographs was showcased at the Pause Gallery in New York, and his fashion photography is currently on display at the BG Gallery in Santa Monica.

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