Caleb Nelson

Sun Bear

I’m just someone not partaking in elegant 
beginnings, I’m not especially black or white
like the rhinoceros when I rest in a bed of mossy
logs. I’m equally startled by my appetite for honey
and sunlight. Supposedly, I have never been
to a slumber party. It wasn’t some joyous fantasy,
a day of significance, when my ferocious jaws were
caught up in the need for breathing. When lightning
shines, you can’t see me. In the ambiguous sense, I make
jokes like a good sport. Although, who wouldn’t rather
repent than sleep in the arms of a fruit tree? You must not
touch me unless you are dripping down a large golden flower.
Now, I’m curled in matted fur where desire is dark like a horse.
Ultimately, I know nothing but the elastic measure of the air,
my lazy guilt. I drink from open beehives as you hunt me
down in the pink wilting shadows of the grasslands.


Even before fire,   this inglorious 
    hunger. Yes, I heard about your    marriage
in Idaho, how elk antlers adorned
    the white arboretums, how fireflies sparkled

like midnight dew.
    Each day another mountain
passes between us    like a hidden war, one

    you do not remember or recall. Even now I can see
the matte-green forest of the Blackfoot rising
                                 behind you,
            it was scissoring
             an alchemical
                         sky, the death-throes

    of an almost life, some strange possibility I was never able
to grasp, the image    of your fly-rod casting    its thin green

thread over the waters    is pressed    in my heart    like a book.

    There’s always a taxonomy of loss, the blue    ford truck I
later abandoned, beers
    at the Rhino, the Top Hat, old running shoes and tennis racquets,

    I still have questions, where do the remains of love

and friendship burn, intersect,     dissolve, do they
    disappear like goat bones
             in the desert, like rain on a wardrum, like some
misery, or one long goodbye.

Glass Bowl

My brother has wounds 
on his body, already
the world is not what
he expected. I imagine
when he goes out into the night,
to work, a kind of sorrow
casts a violent thread
down the collar of his uniform
like an invisible scar. This morning,
I made eggs with parsley and salsa, a thin
mist fell over the grounds, the arborvitaes.
I’m afraid, these days, I have too much
inventory mixing in my cranial bones.
I’m worried when the snow comes and melts
away, I’ll simply be another sign condemned
to empty space, dirty water. Or maybe, like my
brother, I’m a glass bowl with horizonless dreams,
surprised by orphans and blood. Years ago, I saw
him, once, look at a single pink flake of snow
caught momentarily in the winter’s light, and its
perfection was not lost on him. Back then,
he wasn’t searching for answers in the wind.

What We Once Called Worship

People think I’m crazy 
to build a bridge
of loneliness

with little white balloons.
Here, the horizon shuffles saffron
over the sparkling hills.

A tower of blackened smoke
freckles the bees by the barn
in a thunder of noon.

I could never float
like a simple flower
over brittle bones.


What bubbles from the wound 
like a powder? In columns of smoke,
I slept fathoms in barren red dust.
Buzzards stretched forgetfulness over
the shadows there, and elegiac horses headed
for the hills. Whatever is the opposite of rust
now infects the ground like a virus, one flora
of ghostwater is giving birth to blue jays, frogs
glittering in the orange fibrous flowers.
I’m a slash of threaded netting bruising
the swollen gash, bloodhounds howling
in the dark.

Author’s Note

As far as I can tell, poetry consists of paradox. Writing about poetry requires the abolition of absolute judgements. In terms of poetic theory, I think Marjorie Perloff has given us useful ways to think about the qualities of indeterminacy and ambiguity, which are two of the spaces of paradox. This indeterminacy can arise in a “field of contiguities” where self-reflexivity meets the open-ended. I would say I have tended to write poetry by way of paradox: through fleeting intuitions and learned aesthetic formulations. Intuitions are not formulations (otherwise they wouldn’t be intuitions), but in the moment of composition I find myself moving between spontaneity and poetic guidelines like Ezra Pound’s famous “go in fear of abstractions” or Filippo Marinetti’s playful “every noun should have its double.” I rarely make use of “every noun should have its double,” but it represents the kind of formulation I have tended to lean on when I don’t know what to do next.

In revision, I find I have no choice but to rely on poetic theory (Charles Olson’s consideration of line by way of breath is an interesting technique, Gertrude Stein’s obsession with recasting a phrase is another) even as much as one goes on nerve, as Frank O’Hara put it. During my MFA, I had a wonderful poetry teacher named Austin Hummell who said, borrowing from Yeats, “it’s the poet’s job to praise.” Praise, as Professor Hummell explains, does not mean blind admiration. And praise does not have to mean optimism for the sake of optimism. Instead, paradoxically, praise can simply be what is worthy of our attention, even in the midst of life’s tragedies. These kinds of sentiments have been instrumental in my writing life. Even if one is naturally inclined toward writing, I have always felt one can learn a great deal from writing instruction. The rigors of the MFA, as “useless” as they may be, commercially speaking, can still sharpen one’s abilities in important ways.

While writing and the teaching of writing are obviously different endeavors, they are also inextricably linked. Curiously, it is said by some rhetoricians and compositionists that creative writing has no pedagogy — as if this were a reason to ignore the discipline. I find this humorous because creative writing pedagogy mirrors creative writing process and this is often the laborious undertaking of exploring a wide range of competing methodologies. Process remains a serious part of any attempt to study writing. I would argue methodology becomes a kind of pedagogy. There are plenty of aesthetic models and creative manifestos in the world. There are entire anthologies devoted to theories of poetry — Jon Cook’s Poetry in Theory being a strong example —and writers have developed numerous strategies for teaching creative writing from these texts. Still, poetry does not exist merely as something to teach and to study. Poetry exists to help us live our lives, as Wallace Stevens reminds us. When we describe art and poetry, we theorize art and poetry. If I say poetry moves by way of paradox, I am basically guilty of advocating poetry moves by way of self-contradiction. The only thing I know for sure about poetry is that there will be no final word on the subject and I am thankful for this.

Caleb Nelson is a third year PhD student studying poetry at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Currently, he serves as the Editor-in-Chief for Cream City Review. His work has appeared in Stoneboat, Prick of the Spindle, Superstition Review, Red Savina Review, Storm Cellar, Josephine Quarterly, Heavy Feather Review, Gravel, Into the Void, Split Rock Review, Epigraph, and Cardinal Sins.