Nick Laird’s new poetry collection, Feel Free, shares a title with his wife Zadie Smith’s January-released essay collection, and while Laird deserves a closer look, outside of his wife’s enormous shadow, their shared title provides a useful lens through which to identify each writer’s concerns. While Smith’s version of this freedom comes across in her cool yet ravenously wide-ranging observations of reality, Laird focuses instead on that easily-ignored verb, feel. Laird’s poems, in a variety of ways, fix their sights on constrictions: formal poetry, the finite nature of language, the limitations that inevitably come with parenthood and domesticity, and the inevitability of aging, sickness and death. He acknowledges these unchangeable limits, but evokes and explores the sensations of freedom available in spite of, and in some cases because of, the experience of confinement. In the collection’s titular poem, a delightfully varied and leaping three-parter, Laird writes, “I also like to feel a kind of neutral buoyancy/ and to that end I set aside a day a week, Shabbat,/to not act.” Formal constraint here operates in a way akin to religious ritual, offering “buoyancy” within its limits.
Few contemporary poets can make old poetic forms feel natural and lyrical the way Laird can. “Parenthesis” is one of the collection’s more extreme examples. The softly twisting poem is a pantoum; that is to say, a form in which the second and fourth lines of each quatrain are repeated as the first and third of the following. Laird uses this form to evoke the experience of waking up early in the morning beside one’s children and taking a dizzying mental walk through a trinity of unreconcilable and inextricable roles — poet, father, and son. In this sense Laird takes hold of a restricted situation—a brief and silent moment—and lets us “feel free” within its confines. He goes further within the same poem, using punctuation as an extended metaphor for family (“Asleep between us, the children, our hyphens…). Thus the poem approaches the paradox of language, wherein limited numbers of words and punctuation marks produce infinite meanings. It describes, too, a corollary: one situation, subject to infinite variations in descriptive language, can yield an infinite number of interpretations and emotions.
Laird’s interest in restriction also operates on a larger scale. Primarily known as a poet, he has written three novels as well, and has a certain novelistic vision for the collection’s arrangement. In each of three numbered sections of the book, we encounter an enigmatic multipart meditation entitled “The Good Son.” “La Méditerranée,” in section two, begins with the line, “In the midst of our lifelike life,” while “The Folding,” in section three, echoes it by beginning “In the midst of this lifelike grief”. Across the collection Laird scatters pieces of a story about a son losing his mother, including the memorable repeated image of a sick mother coughing up black liquid, which offers a visceral companion to Laird’s more cerebral setups Thus, across each of these formally playful moments, we wash up against the collection’s driving concern—is it possible to feel free when hemmed in by mortality? Laird’s poetry offers a tentative “yes” by way of skillful fluidity in the face of captivity.
By Eleanor Stern