KIRKUS REVIEW - January 26, 2018
THE BOOK OF CLAY
A debut collection of narrative poetry.
In this story in verse, set in Oklahoma during the Great Depression, farmer Clay witnesses the decay of the farmlands that have so long made up the landscape of his life. In the first poem, “Yes, I’m A Farmer,” he explains that all the profits of his labor get sent off “to an invisible man.” Immediately, he embodies the classic character-model of the working man: Clay’s world is quickly falling apart and he realizes, as he watches the land dry out and his strengths weaken, that all he has left is his mind, in spite of the many years of hard work behind him. It’s “Just me, speaking what I’m thinking, / working the muddy, the rutted road, / back and forth between head and heart.” Nelson does a fantastic job of painting a portrait of a person on the cusp of losing everything, and the poems’ language is equipped with appropriate heaviness: “Men who grow up watching / fathers and uncles and brothers grow up / into men who work hard to make, / or fake, a living on a farm. Men / who wake up every day / just to swear, ‘Next year!’ / Farms grow men / who work themselves / in to the ground.” Such descriptions provide readers with context for Clay’s heritage; clearly, he comes from a long line of farmers, and it’s not just his livelihood that’s disappearing, but his identity. He also struggles with the death of his mother: “When I couldn’t face / her face in my mind, / saw her smile slip away, / soured on her sorrows over me, / me and my philandering sins, / I quit.” This work functions as a mixture of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, as well as the Book of Job, and it very rarely falls into the pedantry of its genre. A neatly packaged set of poems that shed light on the Dustbowl era.
"Powerful work and timely, given the gulf between rural and urban, artist and worker, that's become so toxic: It's healing work."