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     |    C O N T E N T S    |    H O M E P A G E    |    J A C K E T   #   N I N E    |    O C T O B E R   1 9 9 9


Mark Wallace

reviews Carl Thayler,
Poems from Naltsus Bichidin
Skanky Possum Press, 2925 Higgins St., Austin, TX 78722

You can read five poems from this book in this issue of Jacket.



THIS FIRST full-length publication from Skanky Possum Press is a unique pleasure, with a particularity of detail and exactness of context that little contemporary poetry can match. According to the book's foreword, Naltsus Bichidin was the nickname of one John Bourke, chronologist of the United States' Sierra Madre campaign against Geronimo, and Bichidin becomes the focal point for a set of poems informed as thoroughly by historical matters as they are by present day concerns.

These are in no simple sense historical poems, if one means by that poems designed to explore and reveal some time-bound historical context; instead, the characters and situations in the book range freely between times and places in an unashamedly anachronistic way. Thayler's book concerns the interrelatedness of various histories to each other and to his own history as a man and a poet, and the world of the past resonates both violently and intriguingly in the present. History here has been refigured into myth, into an epic story of what has mattered and why, while at the same time real histories retain remarkable specificity.


Poems from Naltsus Bichidin overflows with historical figures, as if Thayler couldn't keep them out even if he tried. Rimbaud meets Billy the Kid; Buddy Holly, Chet Baker and other musicians proliferate; details of 19th century American wars and affairs, public and private, collide into twentieth century international modernism. Context, Thayler implies, not only makes but overwhelms us; each of us is more, and our contexts are more, than any of us can bear. A dry irony runs through these poems and reflects on possibilities gained and lost, on tragedies as well as pleasures.

Most astonishing, though, is the book's detail. One can read any poem and be amazed by precision, as in the listing of clothing, weaponry and other goods from "Miss Lilly and Miss Audrey Work the Bones":


the D-18 Martin Guitar with pearl inlay and case, the Gibson S.J. Guitar and case, the Martin D-28 Guitar and case, the nickel plated Colt .45 Frontier revolver with stag handles, the nickel plated .44 Colt with stag handles, the nickel plated Smith and Wesson .45 revolver with pearl handles... (55)


And so on, in a way intended to overwhelm the reader with a specificity become outrageous excess.

The main shortcoming of Poems from Naltsus Bichidan may be that under the weight of this sprawling but always exact detail, in a few places the poems sag in their energy, as if the burden of the past has become too much for the poet to get across. But such places are thankfully few. Most of the book crackles with a mad and messy history filled with humor and rage.

Thayler is a poet who has seen a great deal, and has seen a great deal disappear, his own life included. In the book's penultimate poem he writes:


Ah, prairie fires, the rains of Paris
drown your straw hearts, my joys go the way
of the buffalo, the peyote clans,
my dreams, my dear little rancheria. (85)


Still, Poems from Naltsus Bichidin, Thayler's extended ode to a past packed with more than he or anyone else bargained for, illuminates the details of that forgotten joy, and in so doing immerses the reader in the sprawling spectacle of the modern.



Carl Thayler, 1971
Poems from Naltsus Bichidin is Carl Thayler's first book of poems since The Providings (Sumac Press, 1971). He was born in 1933 and grew up in Southern California. During the 1950s, Carl acted in B movies and on stage in New York city. He studied philosophy at the University of Wisconsin and received a Ph.D. from Bowling Green State. He currently lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
Photo of Carl Thayler from the cover of The Providings (Sumac Press, 1971).

Mark Wallace is the author of a number of books and chapbooks of poetry, including NOTHING HAPPENED AND BESIDES I WASN'T THERE (Edge Books) and SONNETS OF A PENNY-A-LINER (Buck Downs Books). His collection TEMPORARY WORKER RIDES A SUBWAY won the 1998 New American Poetry Award and is forthcoming from Sun and Moon Press. He was the co-editor of A POETICS OF CRITICISM, a collection of poetics essays in non-standard formats. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he co-edits the poetry magazine SITUATION and runs the Ruthless Grip Experimental Poetry Series. He has received grants from the Erie County Arts Council and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanties.


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