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AyeAyeA: On Stephen Nelson’s YesYesY

05/07/2013

The first thing to say about Stephen Nelson’s new chapbook from the little red leaves textile series is simply how gorgeous an object it is. In this era of the mass produced, something so beautifully handmade — using old bedsheets and remnant fabric to construct the cover — is a rare joy indeed.

This pamphlet is roughly the size of your average post-it note. Size matters because, in this publication, Nelson is working in the minimalist vein. If the M word turns you off, I beg you to reconsider. Although it would be possible to go through YesYesY in 5 or 10 min flat, you would be missing much.  Minimalism is not the minimisation of meaning, but the creation of meaning with the smallest possible resources. In other words, it is the maximisation of meaning. As such, it could be argued to be the ultimate form of poetry.

Poetry calls for attention. It calls us to our attention. Each line aspires to be the focus of attention, as does each stanza, each poem. The tiny pieces in Stephen Nelson’s chapbook take that further by calling attention to the shape of the letters on the page, the spaces between letters and words, the form of the punctuation and to the emotional and spiritual effect that these have on the reader.

We can see this even in the title of the booklet. It is entirely exuberant and affirmative. The lack of space between the first “Yes” and the second reinforces this, and the open top of the Y suddenly appears like a person throwing his or her arms open to the sky. This is why the terminal Y, rather than being an abrupt ending — a cutting off — feels like a spilling over or a  looping round such that this affirmation never ends. It creates a triune eternity in seven letters, seven being the biblical number of perfection.

A somewhat similar effect is produced using the same letter but an opposite technique in the first poem:

LITTLE FL
Y GOD IS WITH TH
Y WINGS

Here, divorcing the vowel from its consonants gives the sense not so much of a severance but that the Y — and the fly — is flying onwards in its exuberance and with the wind of God behind it. At the same time, there may be an undertone of a question, but it is a playful one.

Minimalism is also not a case of restricting oneself to a single technique. In the 17 pages of this publication, we encounter puns, pwoermds, blends, deliberate typos and subtle transformations. There is questioning and quiet affirmation. There is, above all — even in the closing piece, “PENITENTRANCE” — a calm sense of joy uncommon in contemporary poetry.

Simone Weil said that “absolute attention is prayer”. This is what one feels reading YesYesY. This is the attitude it enacts and invites. I nearly said “demands”, but Nelson is far too openhanded to bring the fist of his writing down so hard. If it all sounds dull, I must not have communicated to you the fact that Nelson manages all this with a grin on his face and consistently puts a smile on mine.

This tiny little clothbound book has been a companion of mine for several weeks now and will remain one for much longer. I invite you to allow its stillness and focus into your own reading life.

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