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Reviewed by:
  • See Me Improving
  • Steve Langan (bio)
Travis Nichols . See Me Improving. Copper Canyon Press.

A new form of spirited, generational, and at times hyperfluent neuroses (I say this as a compliment) and a dedication—my friends and I versus the big bad world—to the juvenile and its inherent deep and clear honesty appear in the best poems in See Me Improving, the second collection by Travis Nichols. The opening poem, "Florida," ends with an accurate, chilling description of the universal fear of the father:

His giant bald head rose into the window frame followedby his one green eye, one blue eye, then his red-veinednose and finally his beard-fuzzed mouthwhich sang out in a clear human voiceI have been afraid of ever since.

This generation of poets makes us face facts. With all we know, or think we know, about outside reality and our own inner workings, isn't it absurd to think and feel at all? The peers Nichols tracks and brings to life throughout this collection really do seem to saunter along. This slowness, however, with its brazen, odd prioritizing, is a kind of wise surrender.

        I've had sex with one of my friends from Chicagobut not the other one though I wouldn't have sexwith either of them now after I've read how it is always [End Page 178] colder in Chicago than it is in Massachusettsbecause of the wind.

("Wild Is the Wind")

Among the many other self-knowing and funny moves in this collection is the insertion of the goofy names marketers develop for us, which serve as this generation's collective holding pens—just as coffee and transcendence, etc., are ready to take them away, back to the earthly over which they are clearly powerless. For example, the poem "Don't Worry Me" begins "The Lord shined / a light on / my weary soul / when I was / in Bruegger's Bagels."

Nichols is at his best when he struggles with the burden of reality. That said, in many of these poems there are ongoing, perhaps too persistent, moves toward the surreal, some more successful than others but mostly driven out of a legitimate deflection—or even fear—of the real that presses down and in. In the poem "Smile," Nichols ends, "A human sees himself unexpectedly reflected, / brushing his teeth, suddenly ordinary, ugly, ready to die."

If whole books are metaphors, then this book continues a long-running debate, "reality versus the imagination," and sometimes advances a true polarity, a franker reality and a more far-flung imagination, in unexpected combinations, to the ongoing conversation. Examples include the brilliant poems "Vita Nuova," "Eulogy for What Will Take Care of You," and "War Hero," which should be read in their entirety.

"Love poems" dominate the middle of this collection. Some are corporeal, even prurient; others are direct, jokey, romantic, or attempting to present a stance of being giving. When he documents the way of his inscrutable tribe—dude-to-dude exchanges or a dude talking up a chick—Nichols's artistry is in full effect. Casualness is his mode and his theme—and also a way he hides that, at times, he is a genuine postmodern romantic.

But in more than a few poems, the inexact phrase or series of lines, perhaps for the sake of the momentum or the music, is too frequently embraced. So the wisdom, while not the intended outcome, gives way to faint interludes in search of basso profundo. Nichols's brand of surrealism, while naturally courting incoherence, often doesn't quite cohere. It feels intrusive, which may be what's intended, and, in its own way, liberating.

Because he allows himself the freedom to generate a full hybridity throughout his poems, he can be exasperating. While he causes me irritation and at times lets me down, I give this poet the benefit of the doubt. Ultimately, I trust his nerve. In his best poems, Nichols puts the reader fully in a specific time and place—American youth and burden and spontaneity right now—and gives us a complete and often courageous and full picture of the generation that...


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pp. 178-179
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