Stanley Nelson, Poet of Brooklyn
by Guy Gauthier

          On July 4th, 2015, as fireworks were lighting up the sky, Stanley Nelson passed away in his sleep. He was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where he used to walk his dogs in the morning. It was my privilege to know him over a period of some forty years. We met for lunch every week and talked about writing. Stanley liked to smoke a good cigar, and I can still see him blowing out the smoke, as he talked about poetry.

          Stanley Nelson was born in 1933 in Brooklyn, which would always remain the center of his world. He went to college in Burlington, Vermont, majoring in American poetry. Back in New York, he earned a living by writing medical articles. Once when I asked him how he managed to write those articles, he smiled and said, “I can write anything.”

          Stanley had a lifelong fascination with Egypt. Once, after one of our lunches, he spoke of Krishnamurti, the Indian sage who said, “Have no center.” Stanley told me he had no center when he was in Egypt. He had no self. I wish I had recorded what he said, it was pure poetry; he went down the Nile in a felucca, and the river was unreal, it was like a dream; I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, he said, sipping his coffee. This trip to Egypt had a lasting influence on his work. The image of the sun can be found throughout his poetry. The title poem of City of the Sun, published by Presa Press in 2008, is one of his best poems. The City of the Sun is a magical place where anything can happen; a Saturnalia of playful reversals of the real world. It is both a funny, comical place, and the ideal, perfect city. It is a world in which there is no fear, since “wolverines claw at jaguars” and “jaguars snarl at cheetahs, unafraid of the spotted beasts”; a world in which you find “knights in Bermuda shorts” and “dinosaurs twirling hula hoops.” In the city of light, “mobsters become lobsters” and “boasters become toasters.” Here we can see Nelson’s verbal exuberance and his sheer delight in sound. And as for his description of the walls of the Temple: you’ve got to read it to believe it. It’s like a jazz solo by Charlie Parker. Stanley evokes the love affair of sun and earth with a quiet lyricism:

                                                    At the center of the Earth,
                                                    At its very core,
                                                    There is an insidious pulling
                                                    (or attraction) as Sun
                                                    Penetrates to the very last ism
                                                    Of the core of Earth
                                                    And Earth opens and rises up
                                                    To receive the penetration.

Then, a few pages later, the theme returns like a haunting echo:

                                                    In the very depths of the Sun
                                                    In its very womb
                                                    It yearns for the moisture
                                                    Of earth, its waterfalls
                                                    And watersheds
                                                    Its lakes, seas,
                                                    And rivers...

          At the heart of his poetry is a radical experiment in form. His first book of poems, The Passion of Tammuz, was published in Florence in 1959. It’s symbolist poetry, like that of Rilke. The images resonate with symbolic overtones. This first book shows us where he was coming from. His starting point was the fre-verse tradition of Walt Whitman. But it’s only in The Brooklyn Book of the Dead that we find, for the first time, that unmistakable Nelson look. He puts a lot of space between his words, breaking up his lines, and spreading them all over the page. 

38. one/no
                      one          chooses          choose          and

39. no less,
                                                        without effort or distance as if you
                                                        belonged and felt as much at ease
      as a phoenix sailing up to
                                                                                        and to do this, mind, to do

40. this in the morning
                                                    when no one is watching
                                                                                                                all alone
in a city                               in a place where sometimes
                                                                                                       you can be alone, this, be-

41. lieve me, is the hardest part
                                                                                   once done
                                                                                                           once               once

42. It can be simply
                                                                to sit on this bench here                here

      in this world
                                              in this garden
                                                                                      in a winter of non-

43.                                                                                                     Childhood
              in a light that moves                                                           and see

44.                          so clearly in the wind                                            so light                 so clear

45.         a lake
                               of fire where
                                                                     dog-headed apes                              bathe
              or, wise
                                    as only dog-headed apes
                                                                                                             can be wise, gaze
              in the direction of the sun
                                                                                 with folded forearms, or see a

46.                         lake of fire

47.         shaped with male and female

          The Brooklyn Book of the Dead is one of the best poems written in the 20th century. To me, it stands with The Waste Land and The Idea of Order in Key West

          Then, in Driftin’ on a Nightriff, and in the magnificent Edges of Sound series, he broke up the words themselves, putting space between the syllables. He called this technique “splitting words.” Stanley’s poetry is like the expanding universe. The words are moving away from each other like galaxies in space. But then, in his Pre-Socratic Points, he goes even farther. He not only breaks up his words, but often the syllables as well, isolating single letters by themselves. He splits words with a surgical precision; yet the overall effect is one of total freedom. This is a kind of poetic Big Bang. The text has blown up, and bits and pieces of it are flying away from each other.



                                                      er en


                             ment                                        fire                                      ev

                                         er out

                                                                            ward    man                          i


                              mult                                                                                                              i


                                                                           ful pur

est                                                                                     ma                                                   trix



          There are many ways to read Pre-Socratic Points. I like to put the words back together in my mind—though Stanley said that wasn’t really necessary—because when the broken pieces come back together, the words glow with a new life; they have a freshness, an intensity they wouldn’t otherwise have had. Pre-Socratic Points is the most far-out stuff I’ve ever read. It’s the most radical opening up of poetic form since Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. But a few years later, after rereading the Pre-Socratic Points, he said, “perhaps I went too far.” After this climactic work, Stanley felt the need to use tighter forms, such as we find in Egypt Nights, his final tribute to the land of the Pharaohs. In this poem, Stanley looks at the world through Egyptian eyes, and his poetic evocation of Aton, the god of all gods, is seen from the eyes of a true believer. Suddenly, in this world of darkness and night, comes “the flaming glory of the Sun,” as the light of Aton dispels “the dark night of Egypt.” And the poem ends with these remarkable lines:

                        This is a heritage of Akhenaton and the Aton
                          And it can never be erased

          When I told Stanley he was the most important poet of our time, he would laugh and say, oh, come on! as if he didn’t quite believe it. When I told him the literary landscape would look very different when they finally factored him into it, he just laughed and shrugged it off. But that is my honest assessment.

          For those who are interested in knowing more about Stanley Nelson, he was the featured poet in Pedestal 54, in which you will find his poem, The Twelve Limbos, and an interview conducted by JoSelle Vanderhooft (

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