Jennifer Nelson’s Civilization Makes Me Lonely

Civilization Makes Me Lonely, Jennifer Nelson. Ahsahta Press (2016).

The first two sheets of Jennifer Nelson’s Civilization Makes Me Lonely act as a palimpsest. Translucent paper covers Ahsahta Press’ emblem, making it slightly opaque. On the next page, Nelson begins: “I have learned your wine vernacular/ And matched it to my inner taste”. In this way, Nelson’s poems could be the digitized papyri left over from a disintegrated world.

Civilization Makes Me Lonely won the Sawtooth Poetry Prize in 2016, as judged by Anne Boyer, who says of this collection: “[w]ho knew poetry could frack the totality?” Jennifer Nelson is an Art Historian and poet who teaches at the Art Institute of Chicago. With this, Nelson’s poems can be read as the friction and unease caused by two stones rubbing together; the two hardened surfaces of Art and History. Unpacking the sequencing of Nelson’s poetics can be difficult. These poems are dense, theoretical, and create complex networks of meanings with the heavy-handed affectedness of a cross-disciplinary poet. This is not to say Nelson’s poems are not genuine, her poems are acutely aware of themselves. In “Proliferation Zero One”, Nelson sequences a poem about nostalgic computation while avoiding the monochromatism of the Luddite.

These poems are about the accelerated disintegration of society, imbued with the necessary hopelessness and sheer irritation of one’s physical manifestation in a world that continually rejects your existence. Where Nelson’s collection loses its momentum in the chapter ‘Locus Multus. The Sleeper’, which feels like more of an experimentation of voice in exclusionary poetics, she gains in ‘The Control Room’, the byte by byte analysis of a society that has been digitally sequenced. Though Jennifer Nelson explores and hovers in the dark underbelly of a rapidly developing ecosystem, the self-identified “radically failed perfectionist” still demands that we “counter the equations/ the sun the suN the sun the sun the Sun”. –Tatum Howey