Sunday, November 22, 2009

This post concerns Catalytic Exteriorization Phenomenon, a book of poems by Mel Nichols. I explain below why I bought the book (the reason’s unusual), “talk” a bit about the book’s title, and then explain some about why I enjoy reading it. The post includes, and I discuss, two poems that particularly caught my fancy. As a kind of coda, I end with an embedded video of Nichols reading a few poems from the book, and then a link to an audio recording of a reading in which she reads a number of poems from the book.

I thank you in advance for your interest in Catalytic Exteriorization Phenomenon. I strongly believe Nichol’s poetry deserves attention, and will richly reward any time and effort that you may give it.


I bought Catalytic Exteriorization Phenomenon, I swear to Calliope, Erato, and Polyhymnia, because of its cover. Yes, its cover. I know that doing that seems (maybe is) shallow. It’s not my usual way, which typically involves reading a bit (a lot) of a poem-book before deciding to buy it. However, sometimes – and this book is a great example – the cover’s so special, and so indicative of what’s inside, that nothing more is needed. At least not if you’re willing, as I was, to put your money where your poetic faith leads you.

I mean, look at that cover up there, at the top of this post. Nichols’ book has an exceedingly rare characteristic: it has no text at all on the front cover. Or on its back cover, for that matter. On the front and back covers, there’s no author’s name or title (that information, along with the publisher’s name, is printed on the book’s spine), nor blurbs or other hype (that stuff can be found on the publisher’s website).

That’s bold. How many other books have a text-less cover? Not many. (As I sit here, I think of Philip Lamantia’s Destroyed Works (1962), two 1975 titles by Bernadette Mayer, Memory and Studying Hunger, and more recently, Tony Trehy, 50 Heads (2007).)

As startling as Catalytic Exteriorization Phenomenon’s lack of cover text is the image that serves to announce and introduce the book: a beautiful, eye-catching skyscape with clouds, a utility pole, and wires.

Eye-catching yes, and not just because of the lushness of the grey-white-blue sky and black-brown utility pole and wires. There’s also the fact that the image doesn’t seem quite right. I think this is a big deal. Take another look:

The angle of presentation is odd, isn’t it? The top of the utility pole, and its cross-arms, are at the bottom of the image. The perspective here has been altered. More specifically, I believe the photograph as presented on the cover has been, in relation to how the image was originally shot, rotated either 90 degrees counter-clockwise or a full 180 degrees. Please take a look:

Front Cover
Catalytic Exteriorization Phenomenon
– rotated 90 degrees counter-clockwise –


Front Cover
Catalytic Exteriorization Phenomenon
– rotated 180 degrees –

In both of these rotated images, the orientation of the pole vis-a-vis the camera lens and viewer’s eyes makes sense. The pole extends up to the top of the image, as it would be seen when encountered on the street.

Rotating the photo, as a practical matter, allowed Nichols to wrap the image around the spine and onto the back cover. If the image had been used in its as-shot orientation, it simply wouldn’t have worked with the design of this, or any, book.

But if there was a practical reason to rotate the photo, doing so also had another, and marvelous, consequence. Shifting the photo’s orientation also made for one hell of a dreamy cover image. Please indulge me, and take another look at it:

It’s wild. You somehow look down at the top of the pole. Somehow, you visually dive down but while doing so you also travel up towards the sky. Or, to put it another way, you soar up while moving down towards the top of the pole. The image in this way is other-worldly. Or maybe extra-worldly. It’s definitely through-the-looking-glass, and thus arrestingly fresh. This truly is why I love how this cover looks. It is superb, and it hypnotizes me.

I hereby declare the cover itself a kind of poem. Via the rotation of the image (or the skewed angle at which the photo was taken), “reality” is creatively altered. The world, or that part of it that is depicted, is intensified. The familiar is given a new slant. My eyes stop on this image, stay steady on it and look, look hard. I see it, take it in, and reverie begins. Hmmm. That all sounds – how about that – almost . . . entirely . . . exactly . . . poetic.

Given its poetic beauty and energy, it came as no surprise to learn, from the publisher’s web-site, that the cover is by Nichols herself. Bravo!


The title of Nichol’s book – Catalytic Exteriorization Phenomenon – is a phrase attributed to Carl Jung. He used the phrase when talking with Sigmund Freud (!), to describe what he believed was the ability of the mind, or more precisely a thought in the mind, to cause something to actually happen in the physical world.

Well, I dunno. If I think that your monitor will – right now as you read this – blink momentarily (assuming I really sensed that it would), I’m not sure that it would come to pass.

And yet maybe “catalytic exteriorization phenomenon” works as a description, an exalted one, of what happens, or can, when a poem is read. A poem, in this way, can be considered a collection of thoughts. And just as Jung believed that certain thoughts in his mind could cause something to happen in the “real” world, so too a poem (when activated by being read) can put in motion something in the world. The consequences of poem = a catalytic exteriorization phenomenon. That’s certainly an expansive view of the power of poetry, although it is a view that I sometimes endorse.

In any event, the long string of syllables (4-7-4, for a total of 15) that is Catalytic Exteriorization Phenomenon is a trippy and fun phrase. Nichol’s title is a Groovitastic Lexicalization Spectacular. Well, not quite that perhaps, but you get my point, I hope.


Catalytic Exteriorization Phenomenon has seventy-four poems in its ninety-four pages. The longest poem is three pages, and the shortest has but eight words. Most are about a page or less in length. As you’ll see in the two poems typed out below, there’s much blank space on the pages of Nichols’ poems, and sometimes even within lines.

Most of the poems in the book are part of one of three series. Approximately fifty poems have the same main title – “Day Poem.” These poems are further distinguished, in the Table of Contents at least, by a parenthetical statement of the poem’s first line – for example, “Day Poem (rosemary resembled).” Nine additional poems are titled “Stop at” followed by a specific time (e.g., “Stop at 1:48”). Four others have the title “Bicycle Day.” The remaining half-dozen or so of the book’s poems have unique titles, apart from the aforementioned series.

What I like, really like about the poems in Catalytic Exteriorization Phenomenon is on some level difficult to articulate. It’s a gut level thing, and typing this, I find it not easy to put that into words. But here’s a try: I like the mix, in the poems, of the observational and more philosophic. I like the mix of concrete details and the more abstract, of finely focused clusters of thought and the obscure. The mix of the serious and funny, the quotidian and dreamy.

I like too that the poems mostly proceed in fragments, some of which are syntactically spun and occasionally alliterated, and that the lines are often interestingly enjambed. I like the use of space in the poems, with a double-space, usually, between each line, with lines sometimes placed about the page, away from the left margin, and with individual words sometimes spaced apart within the those lines. I like the repetition and echoes of words and phrases between the poems. I like the quality and character of Nichols’ thoughts, and of the poems themselves.

This description, I’m afraid, doesn’t really do the poetry right. I’ve tried to be specific, but it seems vague. To best introduce Nichols’ work, and to show a bit about why I’ve been reading Catalytic Exteriorization Phenomenon so much, I think I need to share a couple poems, and write a bit about them.


Here’s “Day Poem (rosemary resembling ),” found at page 27 of the book:


rosemary resembling

an octopus

on the porch                                    snow

still             now               a comma

a ticket                             a timetable

a bus           stops           outside my house

a door slides open fallout

of banjo elegy on glassware

some clearing collapse of the

ghastly gravitational rummy winter sojourn

nonce violin                 besieged                 confused like autumn

diluted diffused different difficult differential

torrential                                     leaves                           whirling                     confused

like humans                                like                                 gander in meddle

squander weedy this fluke or                 gobbledygook or

bibliophile or brain or                               wheat-colored

indeed                               ecstatic buckets of daytime

in the ellipsoidal notorious some

My favorite thing in this poem, and I think it’s extremely special, is the phrase that ends the next to last line. It’s a phrase that’s stayed in my head since I first read it, and which often comes to mind when I walk out the door each morning. It serves to remind me of the wonders I hope to encounter in the world, or even act as a kind of talismanic chant that might evoke such things. It’s Nichols’ fragment / image:
ecstatic buckets of daytime
and that phrase is something else. It’s rapture, the rapture of day-energy, caught in words! That phrase gives me giddy joy. Thank you, Mel Nichols, for this line! The fragment / image seems all the more glorious given that it’s sandwiched between an emphasizing interjection (“indeed”) and the poem’s final line, an almost completely obscure or indeterminate fragment, “in the ellipsoidal notorious some.”

You can yourself, I’m fairly certain, identify many other things in Nichols’ poem that give it a great richness and make it great fun to read. There’s the observational or descriptive, sometimes creatively rendered (“rosemary resembling / an octopus”), the Larry Eigner-like jumps between seemingly moment-to-moment (and in-the-moment) observations, sometimes linked to each other (“a ticket” and “a timetable”) and sometimes seemingly not (the phrase “wheat-colored” near the poem’s end)), the surreal (“banjo elegy on glassware” and the aforementioned “ecstatic buckets of daytime”), the many examples of alliteration (including the line of “di” and “diff” words), repetition (“confused” is used twice), the diversity of vocabulary (the practically archaic “nonce” and the modern (1940s) slangy “gobbledygook”), and the simile, the only one in the poem, that stunningly likens leaves – “torrential,” “whirling,” and “confused “ – with humans.

What’s it all add up to? Well, it’s not a mathematical equation with a provable sum, at least not to me. And that’s not a criticism at all. It’s a poem, with no single “correct answer.” But it’s also, as I read it, a poem about a day, a particular day. We don’t know the specific day, true, but we do know, from the text, the general time of year. We also can surely sense some of the things that were significant to Nichols that day, and some of the things that she became aware of or thought. We also – and this is what for me gives the poem its power – can clearly hear, and strongly feel, some of the emotions she experienced that day, and some of the energy too.


The second poem I’d like to share is from the “Bicycle Day” series. I’m not sure what that series title precisely means. My guess, perhaps simple-minded, is that the poem’s so titled simply because it was made on, or arose from, a day when Nichols happened to ride a bike. In other words, as with the “Day Poems,” I hypothesize that Nichols in the “Bicycle Day” series, including the poem that follows, makes a kind of poem-record of a particular day. I’m not going too far out on the proverbial limb on this, at least with respect to the poem that follows, given its opening words:


                                                      woke up today thinking everything rhymes the

                                   smell of coffee and madness in the clouds

                absence becomes presence        epiphany

look under the leaves and you will find me

              a boy sees a wolf step from the woods rhymes

                                      with vast light shining on night screens or

                                                          water falls sunning geese on weather

                                                                                also got lost in the supermarket

                                                                                                      and such rivers of great blue heron you’ve forgotten

                                                                                forgot to look in the field guide for that

                                                      radially symmetrical pink wildflower

                                   got lost watching birds at the feeder all day

                for what is love but falling

                                                                          and a telemarketer calls back again

I love the – here I go again – giddy joy that arises from the idea, stated in this poem’s first line, that “everything rhymes.” How’s that for a particularly lovely and concisely stated poetic world-view? “Rhyme” here is not used narrowly, as in similar sounds, but in the broadest possible way. Nichols (the voice of the poem) believes that parallels, concordances, and connections can be sensed (heard, felt, seen) or intuited everywhere.

The thought that everything rhymes is a wonderfully optimistic and life-affirming belief, bringing to mind people such as Lucretius (On The Nature of Things), Jakob Boehme (The Signature of All Things), and the scientists at the CERN Large Hadron Collider seeking evidence of the Higgs boson, hypothesized as a fundamental and pervasive component of the material world. Here in Nichols’ poem, the thought that “everything rhymes” no doubt fuels the transformative “absence becomes presence” and the otherwise undescribed “epiphany” in the third line.

I also love how Nichols backs up her thought that “everything rhymes” with a series of examples. The first “rhyme[],”as I read it, comes in the poem’s second line: “the smell of coffee and madness in the clouds.” The chord or harmony between those two things remains obscure, but that’s okay – it feels right to me, and the distance between the two makes the asserted connection stronger and more poetic.

Nichols presents other, and equally unusual, examples of things that rhyme a few lines later. Here, she sets forth things that rhyme with the first italicized phrase in the poem, “a boy sees a wolf step from the woods.” Some of these things that rhyme with that – for example, “such rivers of great blue heron you’ve forgotten” – are almost little poems in themselves. For each of them, the mind works and flys to make connections. These are very liberating lines to read.

Let me circle back here to the poem’s stand-alone fourth line, “look under the leaves and you will find me.” I read “under the leaves” as fallen leaves, the pronoun “you” as the reader of the poem, and “me” as Nichols. I like the idea of finding the poet here in the rich, fecund soil biota beneath a pile or layer of decaying leaves. Of course, Nichols’ line about where to look to find her echoes the well known lines by ol’ Walt Whitman (“Song of Myself,” section 52): “I bequeath myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love; / If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.”

The last five lines of this “Bicycle Poem” are especially marvelous. Although only the scantiest details are provided (“radially symmetrical pink”) the wildflower seems almost an archetype of wondrous beauty. But mostly the penultimate set of four lines, all of which slant towards the left margin, concern being disengaged from purpose-driven experience – Nichols “forgot to look” in the field guide and “got lost watching birds” – and the linking of that free-flowing state to the experience of falling in love.

Of course, there’s then the amazing on-the-page drop, a sudden, steep, vertiginous swoon, following the fragment
for what is love but falling
The drop on the page after this line works amazingly well, and it does so because the architecture of the poem as a whole, and in particular the location and starts and stops of the poem’s previous lines, set us up for it. We read Nichols’ line about falling and we expect to find other words, either on that same line or perhaps a double or triple space down the page. But instead the space between the lines here is increased, such that no words appear for the equivalent of five or six lines, making the drop after “falling” seem almost dizzying. Remember falling in love? The keen roller coaster heart-in-yr-throat rush of a love supreme at any time? There it is, I submit, right there, in Nichols’ poem, on that page.

And then there’s how Nichols ends the reader’s free-fall. It’s the poem’s final line, a fragment and an image that in its quotidian anti-glory becomes a reverie and mood-buster for the ages: an oh-so-true goddamn “telemarketer” call. How great (grating) is that? Exactly perfectly great (grating), to me.


There are more than seventy poems in Catalytic Exteriorization Phenomenon besides the two discussed above. Many take a similar approach (a record of or arising from a particular if not specifically identified day). But saying that shouldn’t mask the diversity of the poems. For example, “Day Poem (I was a magician’s assistant)” is in the main, it seems to me, a kind of dream or reverie about a memorable and somewhat horrifying “small accident” involving getting sliced in two. There’s also the ten-line “Day Poem (two)”that collages language from commercial advertisements to create a fast food weaponry product that seems, sadly, perfectly and uniquely American. Catalytic Exteriorization Phenomenon is the kind of book in which, as in all great poem-books, I keep finding words, lines, and poems, that spark or ignite, or – to shift the verb-metaphors – blossom forth or bear fruit.


Another way to appreciate Catalytic Exteriorization Phenomenon is to hear Nichols read some of the poems. I’ve embedded below, and will end this post with, a video of her reading the book’s first five “Day Poems.”

In Nichols’ oral presentation, the poems’ lay-out on the page, including line-breaks and word spacings, are mostly lost. However, hearing her read the poems enhances certain other aspects of the work, including the intensity of the words and pacing of the lines, within which one hears in real-time the marvelous twists and turns they contain. In about the middle of her reading, listen how the poem quick-steps from the mundane (“reading glasses found / under a bag of potato chips”) to deeper desires (“tell me tell me tell / me tell me something / I can hold onto for a week / or two”) to humorous (“we are going to get serious / about project management”). Note too how the first line of the first poem, and the last line of the final poem, are identical, and how words such as sky, roof, fuchsia, and pink get repeated within and/or between some of the poems, thus giving this particular set of poems a kaleidoscopic feel. These are, in the hearing, a riveting set of poems, very well-made, nutritious and delicious.

In the video embedded here, Nichols begins to read at the 1:30 mark. You can let it play until then (the first reader is Rod Smith), or, if you please, start the video and fast-forward to 1:30 for Nichols. Enjoy!

Mel Nichols
(five Day Poems)


An audio recording of Nichols reading, including about a dozen poems from Catalytic Exteriorization Phenomenon, is available via PennSound (click here to listen). The poems from Catalytic are read during the last approximately one-third of the reading, and most are slightly different (though perhaps that makes them completely different, yes?) from the poems as published in the book. The reading is well worth a listen, as it again shows the poetic intensity Nichols’ work.



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