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Pictures of the Afterlife
November 2002


Dead Reckoning

Jude Nutter

ISBN: 978-1-912561-89-6

Page Count: 94

Publication Date: Saturday, May 01, 2021

Cover Artwork: Photograph of Cliodhna Cussen's sculpture 'Saint Brendan the Navigator' at Brandon Creek, County Kerry, Ireland


About this Book

Dead reckoning—used by navigators to calculate their position using a record of speed, drift, and the direction travelled relative to a last known location—is the metaphor at the heart of Jude Nutter’s fourth collection, where poems are constantly plotting new positions of departure as they reach back into both human and geological history.  Deeply philosophical, the sustained, complex narratives of Dead Reckoning stay grounded in (and through) the body, and reach outward from various locations in time and space as they contemplate fossils and cave art, the landscapes of Europe haunted by war, the feral world of loss, and those points in childhood when “Eden” was ruptured by an awareness of sexuality and history.  Following the literal and metaphorical reverberations of these journeys, this collection, which is both a record and a guide, asks us to contemplate how we locate ourselves in, and lay claim to, our own lives. 


Dead Reckoning is a collection of high and beautiful seriousness, containing work of exceptional ambition and achievement. Philosophical, unafraid of the big questions (‘And yet why am I here, / father, if I cannot enter?’), Jude Nutter is a poet both well-travelled and well read.  Here are poems of collapse and Holocaust, of young love in the Eighties and of love at the end of its long human cycle, all written with an exceptional, cosmopolitan command of language and material.  It is part of the very precise genius of this work that Nutter explains how we are each given a body, a buthker, a box, by which we may test and measure our being-in-the-world. In one stunning poem, ‘The Shipping Forecast,’  this generalised box is metamorphised into a specific love-box from which her father removes a ring to place upon the finger of his comatose and dying wife.  All of Nutter’s work, no matter how seemingly well-travelled, returns to that inner human circle of love, family memoir and attachment.  ‘How is it we can be loved / so well and remain so famished still?’ she asks in ‘Disco Jesus and the Wavering Virgins in Berlin, 2011.’ This collection, elegant in thought and technique, attempts to answer that question. Jude Nutter has created a work of great beauty, one of the loveliest collections of the poetry year.   
Thomas McCarthy author of Prophecy, Pandemonium and eight other collections


In Dead Reckoning, Jude Nutter has given us a book of revelation, poems that press wisdom through language, extracting language itself from the dark earth of the body.  Beginning in elegy, and ranging across Europe, she unflinchingly opens doors of our deep mortality: natural history and the fossils that move us and human histories of cave paintings, of the Romans, and especially of World War II and the dead of Bergen-Belsen, where the child-poet once lived.  By images at once corporeal and luminous, Nutter’s reckonings render narrative, reflection, and beauty as inseparable.  This gorgeous collection becomes a guide for how to love the dead beyond memory, a book to be returned to again and again.
Christina Hutchins author of Tender the Maker and The Stranger Dissolves


There are lines of surpassing beauty in every one of these poems. Jude Nutter manages the exacting task of writing long while never losing focus on the parts that minutely build up the texture of the whole.  She is at once deeply psychological and physical, wielding a naturalist’s vocabulary for our common world made strange by our attention to it.  When she describes "the quick veer, the glint-thrill, the solid, flexed silm" of a caught trout, we know we are hearing a master of sound.  Underneath the elegies in this book is a frighteningly percipient, alert young girl who does not forget the cruelties of private and public history.  Dead Reckoning is a stunning reclamation of that girl and her capacity for love.
Thomas R. Smith author of The Glory and Windy Day at Kabekona


Author Biography

Jude Nutter was born in North Yorkshire, England, and grew up near Hannover, in northern Germany.  She studied printmaking at Winchester School of Art (UK) and received her MFA in poetry from the University of Oregon.  Her poems have appeared in numerous national and international journals and have received over forty awards and grants, including two McKnight Fellowships, The Moth International Poetry Prize, The Larry Levis Prize, The William Matthews Prize, The Joy Harjo Poetry Award, and grants from the Elizabeth George Foundation and the National Science Foundation’s Writers and Artists Program in Antarctica. Her first book-length collection, Pictures of the Afterlife (Salmon Poetry), winner of the Irish Listowel Prize, was published in 2002.  The Curator of Silence (University of Notre Dame Press), her second collection, won the Ernest Sandeen Prize and was awarded the 2007 Minnesota Book Award in poetry.  A third collection, I Wish I Had a Heart Like Yours, Walt Whitman (University of Notre Dame Press), was awarded the 2010 Minnesota Book Award in poetry and voted Poetry Book of the Year by Foreword Review, New York.  She currently teaches in Minneapolis and divides her time between Minnesota and Dingle, Ireland, where she has a family home.




Read a sample from this book

Dead Drift

Water shelving off into darkness and the mind,
which accepts the river’s depth, is perplexed
by the eyes’ denial.  Flat as shadow 

on grass you lie, watching the mouth
of the net held close to the bank, waiting 
for a wide-open, astonished eye, for a wedge
of head to cohere out of silt and present
itself, as all beings born into time
do, with defiance and out of matter
both moving and held
motionless in suspension.  Then the quick

veer, the glint-thrill, the solid, flexed silm 
of a body at the surface as it turns.  After that, 
the backwash, a sluggish roil, the vane of a tail
 
receding.  Where was I, you think, before I
was suddenly here—cleaved cell, a gyre 

of code unlocked?  In the net’s uneasy 
alchemy each brown trout 
rests, finning in place, nose to the current, 
until your father, who caught each fish and slipped 
each hook and holds the net, submerges

its rim and decants each life back 
into the flow of the river—not a fish, not a trout, no
nameable shape—just a finned smear, a flare
of copper.  Then nothing but your own reflection
restored to the water’s surface as the water
restores its mirror.  Early evening, a sudden 

coolness filming the skin and, as if 
some marvelous army has placed its shield wall 
to rest, canted sunlight falling

in blazons on the water.  Here, for a while, before 
humping north to face the tribes
of Caledonia, a small and weary detachment  
from the Ninth Legion of Rome did 
place their shields and their weapons down,
right here, on the banks of the Wharfe, 
and named their settlement Calcaria, meaning 
lime.  The pale blocks of empire quarried, right here, 
by slaves, on territory stolen from the Celtic tribes,
on the great north road to Eboracum.
But before all this—before the Brigantes 

and Romans and Vikings and French, before flints
and axes and spear-blades; before the age 
of long barrows and dolmens; before the first
brattle of war and occupation and every 
advance and obliteration of history, there was stone 
and the stone’s own story of molluscs and forams 
and corals.  Evidence of oceans, of time’s 
crushing indifference.  Out in that river, 

in chest-high waders, your father is loading
his rod for the cast; the loop of the line unfurls 
and the fly—a Pale Evening Dun—settles 
on a seam where two currents meet and 

dead drifts to where eddies mark a trout 
sipping mayfly from the surface.  Not once 
have you asked your father why, when he crimps 
the barbs flat against the shank of every hook and files
them smooth and then releases 
every fish he fights and fatigues and plays

into the net, he even fishes at all.  Perhaps
it has something to do with how the fly
presents itself perfectly on the water; or the line,

a filament of sky come loose, unfurling.  No, not the fly, 
or the line, but his arm casting.  No, not that: not 

the casting, but the arm lifting, suddenly, 
to set the hook.  No not even the arm,
but the whole body reacting.  A river
is a closed door that opens everywhere 
and always and only into itself and in the long, 
continuous lick of its current is a man 
standing motionless, braced 

for the strike.  And before there was pigment,
before the first flute, before fire; and until all the hands
silhouetted in ochre, until the aurochs and ibex
and spotted horses walked out of the mind as the mind
unhooked itself from darkness, 
there was this: the whole body reacting—animal,
instinctive.  And after?  Not the reaction,

but the seconds it took—not many, but one; no,
not even one, not the seconds at all, 
but that fraction of unmeasurable time in which

whatever was about to be done
remained undone. 



Ianua: My Father’s Rhythm Strip

To you, line unforeseen or always known.
Rafael Alberti

I
To Lórien Knoll from Rockall Bank
and on, then, to Isengard Ridge, to Thulean Rise, 
to Orphan Basin and the Flemish Cap: 

the route you’d plot, when asked, 
to Newfoundland from the coast of Éire
on profile maps of the Atlantic 

floor, those maps you’d loved—all ridges 
and valleys and abyssal plains. 
Running all through my life, this chain
 
of names.  The longest range 
of mountains in the world, you’d said, right
there beneath the ocean’s indifferent preening; 

guyots and seamounts, and trenches
five miles deep.  A darkness, you’d said, that is
not simply an absence 

of light, but an element even older perhaps 
than light—the black vice of matter
before time.  But the beauty of those names:
 
who could fail to fall in love with darkness 
when it held such sounds.

II
Imagine a man 
strolling through the smell of smoke 
and horses and the loose gutted bodies

of the morning catch to board a ship
that departs with the ebb under a chorus
of sails; a man who climbs the ladder to ride

the yaw in the crow’s nest.  How long,
on observing some small change 
coming over the curve of the Earth—land
 
scrolling towards him, needle of a mast, hand 
of a sail—would that man 
have remained silent, unwilling to relinquish
 
his uniqueness; secluded and alone
in his discovery?  Even after 
your death something kept coming into being

along the paper.  But it was only a machine
revealing that your blood had fallen finally
quiet inside the walls of its prison.  

It was after all, then, a single moment—
your death: not a place 
of continual arrival; not

the apparent juncture of sky and water.

III
Think of that flare deep in the gut—love’s
visceral engine—when our lines match up 
with the shapes of our longing.  

Because love exists 
before logic or language.  Why else 
would the painters of the caves, aware perhaps
 
of the mind’s growing sharpness, hide 
their animals in darkness.  
Think of the lines we have drawn between stars 

so the emptiness they outline 
might be, for a while, diminished; so the darkness 
we inherit is familiar.  And what of the daughter 

of Butades the potter, in love 
with a boy from Corinth, a boy who would vanish
into the extremis of war; how she traced 

on the wall his shadow’s outline as he 
lay sleeping on the slender catafalque 
of her bed.  There are several versions:
 
that his shadow was cast 
by a candle, by a lantern, by moonlight 
reflecting off the Gulf of Corinth.  It makes no difference.

IV
Every boundary, every outline, even 
when given its name, contains 
its emptiness to the end: auroch, lion, 

bison, deer; The Net, The Archer, 
the beloved’s body.  As a child 
I drew nothing but horses—in outline, 

in profile; on test papers, in notebooks, 
in a novel’s margins: chin groove, throat latch 
and the mass of the gaskin, the slope

of a hoof’s front wall for which there is
still no name.  I drew them life-size 
in dirt, in mud; I wanted an open solitude, another life, 

a body I could step into and inhabit.
Which I did.                 I have eighteen feet of paper—
a narrow strip.  I choose a circle.  I join

each end with tape.  A corral 
large enough to enter.  Which I will.  I could even
lie down and sleep and safely

dream inside the final moments 
of your life.  And I will.  Yet what 
are dreams if not memory at work

inside the body, which is flesh
and knows only the moment.  When I wake 
there will be nothing but the mouth
of each empty doorway; each empty 
doorway’s line of threshold.  And the flimsy
paper circle of your absence.  

And what is emptiness in the end
if not a form of waiting: think of all 
the words there must be, even now, 

waiting for a language; of a lake’s mirror 
ready for birds and cloud; of how 
we empty ourselves of ourselves

in the hope that our dead  
will enter and discover evidence
of their own existence.  Of the solid quiet

of a field in summer 
emptied of cattle, who have followed each other 
into the cool stillness of the milk barn: the lure 

of a pasture, briefly abandoned, light 
still burning in its one green window; the temptation

of a gate standing fully open.

 

All Poems Copyright © Jude Nutter 2021


Reviews

Review:  Tristram Saunders reviews Dead Reckoning for The Telegraph newspaper, UK, July 2021:

The best poetry books of 2021 so far
Dead Reckoning by Jude Nutter ★★★★☆

Let’s start with the fish. As you might guess from the title, “Disco Jesus and the Wavering Virgins, Berlin, 2011” is not a poem about fish. Filling eight pages of Jude Nutter’s fourth collection Dead Reckoning, it is a poem about desire, about innocence and experience, how “every time/ we lie down to assuage our loneliness,/ we find the flesh already there,/ waiting”. And as of June – having ploughed through more than a hundred collections published since January – it is the best new poem I’ve read this year.

In “Disco Jesus…”, we find the insomniac poet half-watching TV, “flicking through the god channels” in a Berlin hotel room, while her mind revisits the scenes of her early sexual experiences: a Youth Club disco, a hot summer working on a farm. In a bed across the hall from her sleeps “a man/ whose body becomes, during sex,/ one long wound”.

So where are the fish? In a tank in the hotel, just garnish to the scene. Another writer wouldn’t have put them in – this teeming poem is full enough already. But Nutter does, and through her gaze they are made wondrous: they “weave/ their Mobius strip through the wet fire/ of the only world they know”. Pages later those neon tetras catch her eye again, and become another symbol of life trapped by desire, when a “single tetra forms perfect/ circles on the water simply by drifting/ to the surface and kissing what imprisons it”.

Nutter’s poetry is like this: it lingers on incidental details with delicious accuracy. The 23 poems of Dead Reckoning are at once languorous and urgent. They flood and sprawl. “Still Life with Hand Grenades and Tulips” begins with a waitress gesturing to the Somme battlefields. It takes her five lines to speak five words. 

I have family, she says, flailing
her arm in an arc, shunting the vambrace of bangles
on her lean suntanned forearm
towards a dry, metallic music and taking in
the whole of Picardy, out there. 

When an arm points, Nutter watches the arm, not where it’s pointing.

That contrast – the living body in the foreground, the silent dead somewhere beyond – is at the heart of the book. One poem shows us the poet as a young girl playing in the house in Germany where she grew up, a house that was once part of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. In another poem, she watches oblivious lovers strolling hand-in-hand through its grounds.

Not all the dead are so distant. Four poems called “Ianua” (meaning threshold) are elegies for her father; three others mourn her mother. Her dying mother’s hand shivers like the “Pale flag/ of an overrun country”. Nutter has a rare gift for visual metaphor – she throws them out like penny-sweets, almost always in the same formulation (“the [x] of [y]”), a syntactic tic that would become frustratingly repetitive, if it weren't for the freshness of the metaphors themselves. At times, Nutter's exuberant visual imagination sits oddly with the emotion of the scene, as when, in passing, she compares her father’s coffin to a “silk-frilled mollusc”.

Nutter’s elegies are affecting, but the best poems here are about the living body, looking back to a time “when the mind, housed/ like the seed of a berry in the flesh/ and oblivious to the flesh,/ had not yet invented the body as a problem”. The title poem is an almost pastoral childhood memory of making a collage from a discarded porn mag, found “beneath a shifting/ helm of bird and leaf fret”. Nutter combines sexual nostalgia with closely observed nature writing in a way that recalls Fiona Benson and Sean Hewitt. Like those writers, she strives for a kind of quietly traditional lyric beauty. This can occasionally lead her to become too self-consciously poetic in her diction (I’d be happy never to see “liminal” in another poem). But Nutter is generally self-aware enough to avoid that trap, and saved from solipsism by her 20/20 peripheral vision, her keen attentiveness to the margins of the scene. 

For instance, the marvellous “Fossil Hunting at John Lennon Airport” begins with a close-up of a fossil (“sliced so cleanly/ open, exposing the dark/ undulations of the septa, like curtains”), before panning out to reveal it's embedded in the floor of the ladies' loos on Level One: “I am thinking/ about harm and vulnerability when the door/ to the stall next to mine bursts open...” She might pretend she wants to focus on fossils, but can't help eavesdropping on a phone-call happening in another cubicle – and the poem is better for it.

Though her books have so far been published only in France and Ireland, the Yorkshire-born Nutter deserves a wider audience in this country. Immersed in the pleasure and pain of life, she writes with “a fluent, blunt hunger for the world”. TFS

Dead Reckoning is published by Salmon Poetry at £11

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