Intimations of Mortality: An Interview with Christopher Nelson by Sherif Abdelkarim

Now … These Memories … —KoЯn, “Kill You” (1996)

Christopher Nelson is the author of Blood Aria (University of Wisconsin Press, 2021) and three chapbooks, including Blue House, recipient of a New American Poets Fellowship from the Poetry Society of America. He is the founder and editor of the journal Under a Warm Green Linden and Green Linden Press, a nonprofit publisher dedicated to poetic excellence and reforestation. He edited the anthology Essential Voices: Poetry of Iran and Its Diaspora (Green Linden Press, 2021), which was named by Entropy Magazine as one of the best poetry books of 2020–21. His poems have appeared in the Best New Poets, Boston Review, Image, The Missouri Review, New Ohio Review, RHINO, Salamander, Sixth Finch, and elsewhere. For more information visit

 Sherif Abdelkarim: congrats on your first edited volume, Essential Voices. I’m excited to read it. I didn’t know your interests included the Iranian diaspora—how’d you crash this scene?

Christopher Nelson: In the Great Realignment, I quit teaching and began editing full time, which allowed me to focus on a large project. I had wanted to edit an anthology for years, and I’ve carried around various ideas for subjects and themes. But it was the intersection of two realities that made me commit to an anthology of Iranian and Iranian diaspora poetry. It won’t be difficult for readers to recall 2020, the double nightmare of the Trump presidency and the pandemic. The U.S. assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and the heightened hostility toward Iran during recent years created an urgency for a clearer view, one in which our shared humanity is foregrounded, not our political animosities and strained history. I don’t have illusions that a poetry book can accomplish that, but I do believe it can be one voice in a chorus that sings for positive change. Second, during those “current events” I was looking for translations into English of the great Iranian modernist Nima Yushij, and I found very little. It turns out that he hasn’t been translated thoroughly, which astonished me. Nima—that’s how he’s known—is arguably the most significant figure in Iranian poetry in the past 100 years, sort of an Iranian Whitman. “How is it possible,” I wondered, “that he hasn’t been repeatedly translated, like Rilke or Neruda?” So that galvanized my resolve. And I think that Essential Voices: Poetry of Iran and Its Diaspora is a book the world needs. It’s been well received—in its second printing already, I’m happy to say. Editorially, I took the unique position that Iranian and Iranian diaspora poetry should share the same space; the conflation reminds that cultural identity transcends nationality. Since the 1979 revolution, four million Iranians have left Iran, and by far the largest number have made lives in the U.S. The anthology includes 130 poets and translators from ten countries writing in seven languages. I wanted to convey that it is a global diaspora.

SA: Wonderful–can’t wait to explore these works. Essential Voices is certainly a weighty volume, I mean physically. Though Blood Aria appears appropriately slim in keeping with single-author poetry volumes, it took me some time to read it, at least on my first go. Frankly, its meditative voice daunted me: poised and indifferent at once, the narrator refrains from screaming but builds up so many tensions you almost hear it beyond horrific silences. The nature you sing terrifies me in a Kantian way. It’s much larger than any of us. And you subject us to this Sublime from the child’s perspective, your haunting witnesses. Your adults by contrast loom over your speakers to cast long shadows over the poems’ lighter tones, which took me second and third readings to appreciate. The fathers of that first reading though reminded me of this leering Ron Mueck sculpture I saw as a teenager. Likewise your landscapes—your frozen lake, its echoless ducks—invoked the stuff of Andrew Wyeth.

Reading these poems now, what do they evoke to you?

CN: I’m glad they resonate and connect in your mind and memory to other works. I think the poems are atmospheric, in the sense that one of their primary aims is to evoke feelings. While I don’t paint or draw with any regularity, I am a trained visual artist, so image, setting / “landscape,” and atmosphere are dominant interests of mine. But more to your point, I think that the poems reflect—re-present—a world that is overwhelming, in its terrors, sublimities, and desires. Sometimes I feel that life is a crucible, a refiner’s fire, and like it or not, we’re being re-alchemized by experiences. I’m tempted to say, we’re here to be transformed.

SA: Agreed. Transformed and reconfigured by endless elements—an endless unfolding. So with your poems. For the telos-minded, they read quite well in concert insofar as they leave an impression of a sustained becoming. Their disquisitions on the tricks of time and oblique interlocutions with trauma, guised as child-rapists or school shooters, to mention a couple, result in a fixed eye on the question of the memory—I mean aftershocks—of pain in relation to poetry. It’s funny. Maybe it’s because I study and teach medieval European culture, but to my mind Blood Aria as I read it the first time made a strong case for the redemptive function of the Christian faith. No less viable and quite compatible is an argument for the restorative power of art as a commemoration of human suffering. In Adorno’s formulation, the content of art, suffering, sublimates pain into something beautiful. An aesthetic consolation.

Initially I brought all that to your aria, but it conjured different tracks entirely, tunes I forgot I had in me. Korn rushed to mind. I don’t know if you listened to them back in the day, but growing up, I loved the band. Their drums and bass were sublime. What Davis and Head did with their vocals especially moved me—it was so emotionally rich. Thing is, their early albums were especially heavy, content-wise. You could say they’ve specialized in trauma, amassing a catalogue of wrongs over the decades that includes incest, rape, hate crimes, and the numerous issues that proceed from such abuse—antisocial behavior, depression, mental illness, suicidal ideation, extreme violence, you get the idea. But it made such powerful—and to my mind beautiful—music.

CN: I really like your paraphrase of Adorno. To make beauty from lived experience, even the dark and traumatic, is a powerful potential of art. I hope that these poems rise to the occasion. As far as the subjects go, I don’t think anything is off limits in poetry, yet I hope that by reading about school shootings or sexual violence people don’t come away feeling harmed. Poetry is a way to make sense of the chaos of the world and the complexities of the human experience. Violence is part of that experience.

SA: As I worked through Blood Aria the first time, the collection impressed upon me the idea of a sinner with a future, a narrator (let’s call him Cristobal) who will have converted somewhere along the course of the poems—“Little Ochre Flame,” section 9? Certainly by “Hart & Sword”—to a personal Christianity. He knows joy after long suffering, a joy that softens (I won’t say explains, or justifies, but somehow redeems) past trauma on account of faith—call it faith in a divine plan.

CN: Joy after long suffering—yes. A convert to Christianity—no—at least not in my personal life; I do think that the speaker of the poems comes across that way. I mean, why else think so much about God? To do so assumes a validity even necessity to the concept of divinity. The relationship between sexuality / sex —our creative force—and God, the prime creator, even as a concept, is endlessly interesting to me. “Cock Fight” is probably the best example, or most overt example.

SA: Yes, though for all that energetic becoming you don’t show us in “Cock Fight” the final form. Sexually, the speaker fails to achieve the desired disembodiment that the mystics of “Love Song for the New World” experience, though in the latter example these experiences are far removed from the speaker’s own, much differently enchanted world.

The irony of “Cock Fight” lies in its Christian whispers—the highly confessional tone, suggestions of sin (“My wrong turn led me there, where I watched”), and of course the bloodletting itself. The consolation that a Christian reading would provide to “Cock Fight,” “This Time Thistles,” and the sort, is its capacity to transmute pleasure out of pain, or salvation from sin—a perfect passion. With the former I imagine a plain of morally real values (Good, Evil, Right, Wrong), even if we can’t quite discern them ourselves. “Cock Fight” and others leave us mired in pleasurepain, one and the same. Does trauma preserve innocence in time rather than marring it? Children live inside your adult speakers.

CN: They do. I think with time we become increasingly complex gestalts—a fractal that fractals, if you’ll forgive my layering metaphors. Your question about trauma—I don’t know. While there are shared traits and experiences of those who’ve lived through—and with—trauma, I suspect that there is also a good deal of subjectivity, like with any human experience. These lines in “This Time Thistles” gets at that subjectivity: after the sexual violence “the vault door / slammed trapping a panic a lust a panic / that’s never gone away.” What is it we’re left with? What is it that’s been done to us? How much of what we are is a conscious choice, how much automatic response?

SA: A fractal gestalt would seem inevitable if we cannot answer such a question. In a Sublime world we’re left wondering to the very end, then always it’s an abrupt surprise of an end, as though the end were never inevitable. But we’re promised answers with explanations. Meanwhile, I never enjoyed trying to figure out subjectivity, to balance free will with fate or destiny or determinism.

I’d like to think I can take flight in aesthetic consolations, but you suggest that the creative drive itself may proceed from instinct. Like, if in your world pain, pleasure, violence, and art collapse into a layered experience, how are readers to orient their valuation of the nature of conception? You characterize the sexual act as a “personal violence” (“Speculations on My Conception”). As a reader of these poems, what do you yourself make of their valuation of violence as a natural fact, as an inevitability at once personal and impersonal? Can violence so pervasive, governed by a “God, who emerged from / some first darkness then invented for us an experience that begins / with an emergence into blood, noise, hunger, and pain,” possess a moral logic outside of a theistic system that allows for human agency, natural laws affixed to morally real vices and virtues, and spiritual accountability for life’s consequences in the form of divine judgment (“Little Ochre Flame” 8)?

CN: It’s an astute reading of the themes of these poems, and I appreciate your perceptivity. I don’t know if I can answer the question or these questions though. I subscribe to the notion that a poem should ask difficult questions, whether or not it can answer them. The energy, the “juice,” the lifeforce is in the inquiry, right? Answers risk statis. That being said, I do think that violence is an irrefutable force of the universe. As I ponder in “Little Ochre Flame,” everything that eats depends on violence to survive. And I don’t exempt vegetarians or vegans here; plants are alive; they reproduce, they feel pain, they get sick, they heal, they communicate, they live and die. The ways in which plants are like animals far outweigh the ways they are different. Vegetarians and vegans who are convinced their lives don’t cause harm are deluded. So, if there’s a God in the Abrahamic sense, God is responsible for that paradigm. God set forth life in a model that is based on predation. Where’s that conversation in the canon?

SA: Fair enough. I guess we justify the roles we play while we play them by simply identifying with—internalizing—them. Incidentally, you play a lot with identity. Your work wonderfully impersonates divergent characters—from abused children to school shooters—and gathers them, sometimes in the same person (I think here of “Hallucination with Four Fathers”).

CN: I can’t speak for others, but I suspect most internalization of roles is unconscious. Poetry for me has a spiritual—psychic—valence because it is a path upon which one tries to understand the mystery of the self—at least poetry is that for me. There are lots of poetries; it is fluid enough to be almost anything. I agree with Whitman: we do contain multitudes. And yet—here’s the paradox—it is almost impossible to escape the self.

SA: True. You do seem to escape the self, however momentarily, by carefully observing your surroundings and taking in their inhabitants, even getting into their heads. I love how, in “Love Song for the New World,” you move through the cathedral, its visitors, and the worlds of the artifacts, its saints and martyrs, or likewise how you cast the four personae of “The Borrowed World,” into the same boat then let us watch it sink or float. Two particular impulses strike me. First is the now-familiar impulse of extension beyond embodiment—even your lines intend this: often enough they enjamb mid-sentence into a lowercased stanza.

The second impulse builds on the first and fascinates me more. It is the identification with these divergent characters. Your poems furnish space for all the unfortunate bedfellows, abuser and abused alike, similar if not identical from crucial lenses.

CN: Identity is a problem. I mean, what are we? What’s an I? Is there an essence behind the amalgam of socialization and agreements that formed—continue to form and reform—Christopher Nelson? Identity is a kind of subscription in which a concept is continually reiterated and renewed. One of my favorite poems that addresses this is Rilke’s “Sometimes a Man Stands Up During Supper”; the translation is Robert Bly’s:

Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.

And another man, who remains inside his own house,
dies there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.

SA: Maybe the common ground becomes existence itself. As with the problem of embodiment, I see many deictic tensions in your work that stand as spiritual ones. You observe, in “Hart & Sword,” that “[b]eing here or there is a condition unique / to embodiment” with words as themselves embodied ideas, desires, emotions, and the rest. The body, characterized in one poem as “frail architecture” (“Imbloc”), in another as “incarceration in a body” (“To A Future Self”), another yet as “Inside of time. / Bound by identity. Bound by body” (“Blood Aria”), the “shard[s] of God” locked within identity, whence stem selves most penurious (“Möbius Strip”). Is what the speaker craves available here and now?

CN: I love this question. I think we’re here—alive on earth—to have the human experience: to know the limitless verve of childhood, to transform, to be constricted by time, to have desire and perhaps the means to experience the wished-for things. Yet I do think that there is a celestial or divine or transcendent longing that is unassailable and unquenchable. The drop of venom on the banquet. The passing glance from which one never recovers. The three words that weren’t said seventy years ago. And how around those deeply felt kernels entire personal theologies grow. An earlier title of the manuscript, which is a line in “To a Future Self,” was “to orbit before the obituary eye of the lover.” We probably shouldn’t ask for more.

SA: Actually, “Winterseed,” your final poem, goes one step further than echoing this hunger for reconciliation with creation and the Creator. It promises new life, it reassures its patient reader that despite the waste of life, the troubled hierarchy of life-value you see around you, you are chosen, accepted, protected. What do you think?

CN: I think that’s a perfect reading of the poem. It’s one of my favorites in the book. For the past several years I’ve been reconstructing a prairie from an old horse pasture. I marvel at how each fall and winter it looks like a gray, brittle waste, but in that is limitless potential. Seeds abound, and without effort an unstoppable resurrection happens, like clockwork. Not even the plants themselves can stop it. They’re programmed, if you will, to resurrect. I like that metaphor, not necessarily a Christian resurrection; that’s too tainted by ideology and dogma. But a prairie, electric green in spring, vibrating with life and what is to come—that’s the thing.

SA: Would it be fair to set up an attitude toward the divine along the lines of the speaker’s relationship to the father who appears in several of the poems? (Impenetrable, dreadful, perfectly merciless toward everything around you, yet ever-watchful, silently all-loving?)

CN: I do think that a case can be made for this relationship in the poems—the divine and the father. The poem “Blood Aria” plays with this: how in the Inuit myth, the father is the one who takes away the light, makes night. In “Geminga” and “The House Where Father Has Gone to Die,” the father is sort of deified. I want to say that I hope the relationship is implied more than explicit, but I’m curious to see the connections you’ve made.

SA: I suppose Christ the “first stigmatic, father of a new kind of blood (“Love Song for the New World” 3) offers a facile handhold. More importantly than longstanding symbols is the abstract yearning for being held in the father’s/Father’s arms, rarely uttered (“‘you never came to me in the night’” (“Elegy for a River”)), but uttered still, perhaps most forcefully here, at the Catedral de Sevilla, before the Altar de Plata:

Kneel with me
in the aftershock of history, at the little ancient fence
that keeps us from touching
the symbols we’ve come thousands of miles to know. Kneel with me
beneath the crown unwearable, the candles unlit, surveillance
cameras and dustless shepherds’ crooks. Kneel with me
and bring it forth from inside you—from all that is seen and
unseen—the silence. (“Love Song for the New World” 9)

SA: Here’s another place that takes us back to the issue of divine tension: In “Little Ochre Flame” You ask: “Aren’t we all impeccable in essence,” and, “When will the world end? When will we be with You in paradise? / The afterlife was yesterday; the beforelife, tomorrow”; you ask: “It is possible, is it not, God, that I matter?”; “And what am I doing alone in this place called by so many forsaken, where I walk accompanied by a self-doubt, unlike one training to see God?” The speaker appears to crave divine intimacy but simultaneously shrinks away from it, not knowing or trusting what this would entail; he glimpses the Sublime but freezes, or can’t proceed. Perhaps I’ve made a mental leap between that and the looming father of the “strong, silent type.” Am I onto something?

CN: I think that’s fair. There’s certainly a rumination on (if not obsession with) Father and God, as concepts, as lived and possible realities. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the two are conflated, but intimacy with both is sought. “Little Ochre Flame” was an important poem for me to write. As the opening section states, I had a cognitive collapse—a breakdown—what to call it? I don’t want to glorify or romanticize it; I don’t want to medicalize it; I don’t want to dismiss it—it was one of the most significant experiences of my life, and it lasted over two years. I had resigned to never returning to normal, which was terrifying. That poem was written as the world began to coalesce again, as it became possible to imagine a future. In my mind, a winter was ending. Those religious and philosophical questions you quoted—the poem doesn’t exactly try to answer them. Maybe that’s the “shrinking away” you sense. For me, at least in that poem, asking difficult questions was a way into my own lived experience and mindscape; what mattered for me at that time was to simply keep my thoughts moving. It was dangerous to dwell in one place too long. And, of course, it’s a poem, so any answers it might provide come faceted through image, like “When you approach the horizon, it will not recede, / but you will / never reach it— / and that too is a metaphor for God.”

SA: Staying with “Little Ochre Flame,” it offers a vivid first-hand account of a near-death experience—a severe car crash, and ends with conception. The trauma of almost dying (or of grieving the death of another) may be the closest we come to, what, disembodiment? It’s funny. Certain mystics advocate a figurative dying to the world before physically dying as a way toward spiritual enlightenment. Might this provide a viable compromise to the limits of embodiment? Because—and it took me a while to appreciate this—your poems actually brim with hope, they celebrate life, for all its painful love and precarity. Like Thy life’s a miracle but more, as, when the dust settles on the heels of the crisis, still you find yourself here! and now! Sure footing if ever there was?

CN: It can be sure footing, but that isn’t a given. Sometimes there is no footing: you’re sitting at your desk or you’re at the grocery or you’re lying in bed—whatever—and it’s a freefall. But more to the point: thank you for seeing the hope and celebration in these poems. I appreciate that. I think of the lines from “Childhood”: “your girlfriend wears her summer / dress and the music / is loud and you don’t care about the bruises / because this is being alive.” To celebrate being alive amid the darkness and loss—that’s a theme of these poems.

SA: That’s not just a theme, but a prescription!

All right. Let’s end with “Dedication,” your first poem of the volume. As I did, readers might read Blood Aria as a conversion out of profane time and into a sacred procession toward a life beyond death. In this light, “Dedication” does not pronounce an evening’s retirement but a full turn away from the world. Call this renunciation. Call this the flight from cupidity. Meanwhile, it manages a retrocausal perspective, out of step with linear time, keyed to a distant future but operating on the past yet voiced from a still more distant past. Like if it’s 2022, it sounds as though you wrote it for readers in 2050, or something.

CN: The first lines of the book are “To you of the unimaginable / tomorrow, we loved as you will love.” The poem highlights the book’s themes of mortality and fugacity. I orbit childhood and my father’s death—subjective experiences that mean little to the world but everything to the individual. That’s an irony that I hope the poems don’t allow us to forget. The opening poem acknowledges many of the people I’ve lost, some close, some incidental, but all memorable for me. Some lost to suicide, some lost by way of failed love, some to disease, some to political circumstances. If the book is indeed an aria, I like to think I’m singing to both those who’ve gone on and those who’ve yet to come. It’s a ghost book in that regard.

SA: Blood Aria crystallizes nearly a decade of poetry. Has it gotten the medium out of your system? Any new media you’d like to try out, or do you have new poetic projects on the horizon, or in your system?

CN: I’ve been writing poetry for twenty-five years. I don’t think it’s possible to get it out of my system. Poetry is part of how I make sense of my experiences, my self, my hopes and fears, my world—what it is, isn’t, and what it might become. I have a book-length manuscript that draws inspiration, in part, from my experience reconstructing an old, one-acre horse pasture into prairie. The grasses and flowers are so tall—it’s been amazing to spend day after day wading through the flora pulling weeds and gathering seeds and just watching the life everywhere: every square inch is full of life. It’s inspiring, and in dark times it has given me hope—or reminded me that hope is a human thing, that outside of our minds the grand engine of nature whirls and works, and beauty and self-perpetuating life results.

I’ve also been taken by visual poetry lately—poetry that emphasizes the appearance of the text before the meaning of the words. I have an art degree as well as writing degrees; I find the visual arts endlessly interesting and attractive. About one-fifth of the poems in my new manuscript are visual poems. I hope to continue finding harmony between my traditional lyric themes and surprising, divergent visual forms.

Sherif Abdelkarim teaches literature at Grinnell College. His work has appeared in Postmedieval, New Literary History, and PMLA.

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