Nate Pritts’ ‘The Wonderfull Yeare’

by CLAUDIA MCQUISITON

The Wonderfull Yeare
by Nate Pritts
Cooper Dillon, $14.00 paperback, 74 pp.

Strewn throughout Nate Pritts&rsquo The Wonderfull Yeare are tiny declarations and confessions, small phrases that suggest the speaker has become disillusioned with our world and his perception of it. “I feel things/ that aren’t there to be felt,” he admits in the collection’s opening poem, “Tulips—An Invocation.” Later, these confessions become bleaker, bolder: “I’m lost to myself,” he says in the sixth poem of a sequence called “(Sonnets for the Fall”), “I’m just this sky & whatever’s left.” These moments of resignation continue into the book’s final section, “Winter Constellations,” where he bluntly states, “We don’t matter a bit.” Littered with dismal revelations like these, it might be easy for the superficial reader to dismiss The Wonderfull Yeare as a collection that seeks only to capture a unique unease and unhappiness. And in one way, this view wouldn’t be totally incorrect, for the volume does chronicle a particularly doubtful time for the speaker, one in which he confronts the loss of a relationship and all the questions which spring from that. But rather than solely direct those questions inward, Pritts’ speaker takes them to the outside world, where he tries to find answers in the passage of time, through the steady cycles of nature. Because what are the seasons, after all, but a salve for our deep wounds? What does our individual pain mean in the face of a greater landscape? Why are we even here?

Big questions indeed, and only a sampling of what Pritts goes after in his collection. As much as The Wonderfull Yeare is knit together by the speaker’s self-obsession and self-doubt, it is clear that that he is also quite invested in the way the physical universe unfolds at his feet and beyond his doorstep. Almost all of the poems contain observations of nature, which vary from the minute and ordinary: “Fifteen ants/ crawl all over the mint plant” in “Spring Psalter,” to the sacred and tremendous: “The gull-breasted moon/descends among/quietly folding grass” in “Winter Constellations.” Though Pritts’ speaker could be accused of a solipsistic take on himself and his world, detailed visions like these seem to keep both he and the reader afloat, curious about what will come next. As the content of these poems oscillates between what goes on inside and outside us, it forces us to wonder about the relationship between them. On one hand, we may feel that our problems belong only to us, and would occur despite whatever environment we’re in. “It was the summer I fucked up,” the speaker says at the beginning of the first poem in a series called “Endless Summer.” However, although he takes responsibility for that, he later explains it differently: “the summer fucked up me.” Even crass lines like these make the clear distinctions between the self and the outside world blurry.

And this is why The Wonderfull Yeare is worth spending time with. Pritts’ writing is at its best when the speaker truly “resign[s] [him]self to the influences of the earth,” as Thoreau states in one of the collection’s several epigraphs. Although we witness the speaker’s embrace of the earth in all four sections, the conflation of the speaker’s identity and natural landscapes are the most pronounced in “(Sonnets for the Fall)” and “Winter Constellations.” In the fourth poem of “(Sonnets for the Fall)”, we see the speaker examine himself by using the imagery of autumn:

One less leaf in me I’m losing leaves & branches & each one is one less leaf in me these last fall leaves blink to a rainy grey & there is no dawn & me & you naming everything

Along with others, these familiar sights—the leaves, the trees, the color of the sky—repeat throughout the sonnets, but they do not arrive in a predictable way. Indeed, Pritts abandons the sonnet’s strict form for a looser, more organic presentation of language, one that manages to be both distilled and intimate, reminiscent of W.S. Merwin. In “(Sonnets for the Fall),” the speaker is slowly waking up to the world around him and seeing how he is reflected in it. The unstructured appearance of the poems also echoes the natural disintegration that the fall is known for. The speaker, like the season, is in the act of uncovering, seeing what was hidden beneath the “dull, red ache” of his spring and the “green rage” of his summer. The whir and destruction of what came before is now transforming into something else: the solitude of winter.

At last, the speaker reaches some kind of solace in Pritts’ haiku-like final section, “Winter Constellations.” At this point, he has come to terms with the “tired landscapes that don’t care about [him] at all” (“Spring Psalter”), “the summer circling” (“Endless Summer”) and the “stale sunlight” (“(Sonnets for the Fall)”). Although the sequence is marked by a quiet sadness, the speaker seems to have accepted it, and in some ways, may be struggling less. The poems in “Winter Constellations” also make frequent use of we, suggesting that he no longer feels quite as disconnected from his former relationship and is perhaps more attune to the earth and our fleeting presence on it. In the seventh section of “& then afterward,” the opening poem of “Winter Constellations,” Pritts writes,

Our arms together we searched for patterns & sunlight. (viii) Our arms laced together, pointing together over wind-tossed grasses. Us: waist deep in night blue.

Like memories, or dreams from a long hibernation, these elliptical moments show us a time when the speaker did not feel as alone. And though “Winter Constellations” is marked by a certain stillness and solitude, as Pritts writes of “the silence of stars” or the “Wooden arms of trees/long since emptied,” it’s clear that the speaker is at some kind of peace. He illuminates the past but does not despair in it; instead the fragmentary visions translate into something hopeful. “I hear you breathe in the next room,” the speaker says in one section called “morning, noon & night,” “& believe I’ll hold that light.” It’s a small statement, but it speaks volumes. Rather than continue to doubt himself, the speaker begins to see that this relationship might not be such a burden after all. While the outside world freezes, the speaker has begun to thaw, welcoming the pleasures of the past instead of harboring anger towards it. These memories even lead the speaker to his writing. In one section, he says, “Leaves unfold to collect sunlight./ That: & flick on the light to write poems.” Later, these associations become looser and more abstract. Recalling an earlier vision of birds in flight, the speaker says,

Through clouds, I see the sun & believe I feel her again: my love, the familiar. (xiii) Wings white as unmarked paper.

The speaker’s relationship may have ended, but the residue it has left is at least as powerful. Unlike the previous three sections, “Winter Constellations” is about the embrace of desire, harnessing it rather than lamenting its loss. In this sense, the sequences also speak to the effect of transformation; just as the seasons change, the speaker has as well, becoming someone who is content to “stumble through” the cold, discovering.

However, this emphasis on transformation isn’t just limited to “Winter Constellations,” but can be seen throughout the entire collection, as the speaker records himself throughout the year. While the book’s four sections would each be successful alone as a freestanding chapbook, part of why The Wonderfull Yeare reads so well is because it is accumulative: each section is a sequence of poems that are based on a particular season. Like weeks in a year, the sequences give us a sense of time moving slowly, letting us witness the speaker’s growth as those weeks press forward. Calling it “a shepherd’s calendar,” Pritts’ The Wonderfull Yeare deliberately charts how we change as seasons pass, even when those seasons are composed of sensations we’ve seen and felt before. Of course the speaker (and reader) knows what to expect when summer occurs or during the nascent months of spring. But we can’t always anticipate how we’ll react to those things or interpret them. Even the familiar can go awry: “I can’t describe the air on my skin can you,” the speaker pleads in “Endless Summer,” “I know it was important.”

And it is this disparity between the familiar cycles of nature and our strange encounters with them that makes The Wonderfull Yeare more than just a record of a year in someone’s life. In Pritts’ universe, the natural world is bound to surprise us if we look at it deeply enough. Miraculously and mundanely, the seasons keep going. And somehow, it seems, so do we.

CLAUDIA MCQUISTION holds an MFA from UNC Greensboro. Her poems have appeared in Third Coast, Fifth Wednesday, Flint Hills Review, Pebble Lake Review, and Hayden’s Ferry Review.