REVIEW OF SETH ABRAMSON’S NORTHERNERS
Northerners by Seth Abramson is a tricky book to pin down. Topically, the book engages everything from the hardships of a lawyer living in a small city to a contemporary retelling of Genesis. The poems flutter between meditation and narrative, some surreal, some mythological. But while the locale, period, and person of each page may vary, what one comes away with are the stark and methodical etchings of a visceral landscape. And though the emotional drive of individual poems remains, at times, hard to penetrate precisely, Abramson’s singularly adept winding of language and syntax comes together to create a striking work painted by a hand whose steadiness in the tradition is impressive.
Unlike much contemporary work, Northerners does not swerve away from direct examinations of topics of traditional poetic exploration: love, sex, deity, death. The book opens with a heavy topic by any estimation (and a recurrent theme): ruin:
Forward go long sleeves, a longitude,
What is herding them
you are. All over the world, curtains drew
and obscured lush portages
the world over, and there were some sighs
but mostly it was better than continuing
to want better.
In Abramson’s vision, ruin becomes the herder, driving the reluctant back to the garden, which reappears at the beginning of the book’s final section. And though ruin may carry a weighty connotation, in Northerners the ruinations that culminate in this glad exodus from existence are starkly ordinary. In “Elm and Vine,” the voice elaborates:
the small-city prostitutes dream of being
big-city prostitutes. Sometimes
it’s only the utility
bill that matters—
Part of the charm of Notherners is how unabashedly it tackles nebulous concepts like ruin with an intricate and exhaustive logic.
One could classify much of the book as a series of pastorals. However, each of the pastorals focuses on a wholly different landscape—Nebraska, Warsaw, Boston. The landscapes are not always so flattering to their subjects either. In “Show Me State,” to consider one example, Abramson doesn’t shy away from the sordid details of Missouri pig farming:
Few animals in the yard have never tasted
their own waste,
and been surprised in an animal way
at how little
it defiled them.
The characters in the book are treated with an equal dose of candor—the ragman in Boston, a virgin lawyer in the barbershop. At times, some of the poems seem nearly confessional in style. One of the Northerner’s most compelling poems opens:
On another street tomorrow
we could be whores
in this dark,
bodies like tramped-down city wheat—
In considering Abramson’s influences, it would be easy to look to Peter Gizzi or Donald Revell. However, in my opinion, the poet his work most closely resembles is actually James Galvin. Galvin’s work frequently explores the pastoral landscape (though he usually sticks to the west) and contemporary masculinity utilizing a lyric voice whose tonal twists make the poems vibrant and complex. The same could easily be said of Abramson, minus the fixed locale. Specifically, in terms of style, Abramson is similarly a master of anaphora and inner-line repetition:
He was a systems man
with a system, but a system is not a belief
One of my favorite poems of the book, “A Man and Boy or Two Boys or a Horseman” closes with a repetition that leaves the reader wondering, “is the voice emphatic, prophetic, or just desperately insistent?”
the man said to the boy,
you don’t see—
and putting his face so close
their two faces were almost one
he said, I am your horse. I am
your horse. I am your horse.
I believe first books are often about revealing oneself as a substantial voice in the world. It isn’t until the second book that many poets are ready to begin to divulge their inner-lives to the audience. In his second book, Abramson maintains the same winding and intricately dense line structure one finds in The Suburban Ecstasies. However, what most intrigues me about Northerners are those moments when Abramson unmistakably invites his reader to experience his former life as a public defender and the hardships of that existence, those moments where the voice reveals characters flush with anxiety, longing, and pride. Without a doubt, Northerners is a work of sterling craft and intelligence that isn’t afraid to lower its guard out of wisdom or even to draws its reader to an end with a prayer as simple and forthright as:
let us be good to one another