A review of

Isa the Truck Named Isadore

by Amanda Nadelberg

Central question: Is every name a secret poem?
Format: 94 pp., paperback; Size: 5.5" x 8.5"; Price: $14.95; Publisher: Slope; Editors: Ethan Paquin, Christopher Janke, Cecily Iddings; Print run: 1,000; Book design: Linda S. Koutsky; Typeface: Iowan Old Style; Online journals in which Nadelberg has published poems: Conduit, No, Octopus, Tarpaulin Sky, Typo, Unpleasant Event Schedule; Good Advice: “remove outerwear / to become comfortable / in living rooms”; Bad advice: “Give them words for their / birthdays”; Representative stanza: “A thunderstorm you wanted / for your birthday and I’m / sorry my Aunt said no. / How about some berries?”

It looks like a cutesy gimmick: all sixty-three poems in Nadelberg’s debut take uncommon given names for titles, from “Adelaide” and “Blodwen” to “Tadhg” (Irish) and “Yseult” (a form of Isolde). In fact, these disarming, funny, rampantly quotable poems more than justify their titling. They greet the inquiring reader almost as you might greet, by name, a friend of a friend, someone you might want to get to know. As they mock (gently) whole sectors of ordinary experience—travel, youth, aging, Americanness, and consumerism—they seem to refresh, by renaming, tired parts of our world.

These poems practically beg us to read them aloud—they have the virtues, not of short stories, but of out-loud, audience-conscious storytelling. “Quinton” begins, “The queen isn’t / the real queen. / The real queen / is a man held / up in a room.” If Nadelberg’s poems dare us to call them trivial, they dare us to call other people trivial as well: who decides what matters, whose life has worth? They charm us, but they also work as charms, in the sense of “magical phrases meant for repetition.” They also function as good advice: “make / a thing you / like a thing for / another,” counsels “Oded,” “say, / thank you thing / I like for this.”

For Nadelberg, to give things names is to decide what they mean, something she can cast herself as reluctant to do. In “Ella,” the poet sends her reader a kitten, by mail, saying, “I didn’t name her—I / thought I’d let you do it.” The pretense that given names can tell us about the person who bears them (a tradition, or superstition, in many cultures) looks to Nadelberg no more absurd that the hope (or pretense?) that we can really come to know one another. In fact, her poems suggest, we depend for everything we think we know on other, unexamined, networks of assumptions, acquaintances, and familiarities. The poems back up that suggestion by pointing repeatedly to one another: “Rhonwen” implores, “Read Carwyn. Read / it so hard you can / read it backwards.” “Carwyn,” in turn, offers related but more disturbing advice: “Take water / and sand separately into your / mouth. Read them more / times than you really wish to.”

Nadelberg’s self-confident and quirky system suggests Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (“Myrtle will be married / and green and warm”). Her backpedaling humilities and the acoustics of her short free-verse lines, with so many anticlimaxes and charming stumbles, share much with the poetry of James Schuyler. Yet where Schuyler’s first-person lyrics chronicled things that happened to him, Nadelberg’s poems designate emotions or events that might happen to you. “Runa,” for example, “is / currently having a / small rebellion against / the sheer amount of / world.” Some readers will recognize embedded in-jokes (about Lorca, Stevens, O’Hara, Gogol, etc.), but people who don’t read much modern poetry should also have fun with the heady party conjured by the collocation of “Nan” and “Pancrazio.” Newcomers won’t feel lost at all.

No book in recent memory has sounded as waifish, as faux-naïf, as given to winks and moues and shrugs; no recent poet has made those qualities into such virtues. The clearest and simplest of Nadelberg’s poems, which tend to be the longest, can sound just like shaggy-dog stories, or even knock-knock jokes (“Orange who. / Orange you going / to come in”). The densest, strangest, and best, with their quotable epigrams and their flirtatious wisdom, both sound like and accomplish much, much more.

—Stephen Burt

Stephen Burt’s new books of poems are Parallel Play (Graywolf Press) and Shot Clocks: Poems and an Essay for the WNBA (Harry Tankoos).

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