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Dead Reckoning / Jude Nutter

Dead Reckoning

By: Jude Nutter

Named as a Finalist in the 34th annual Minnesota Book Awards Dead reckoning—used by navigators to calculate their position using a record of speed, drift, and the direction travelled relative to a last known location—is the metaphor at the heart of Jude Nutter’s fourth collection, where poems are constantly plotting new positions of departure as they reach back into both human and geological history.  Deeply...
ISBN 978-1-912561-89-6
Pub Date Saturday, May 01, 2021
Cover Image Photograph of Cliodhna Cussen's sculpture 'Saint Brendan the Navigator' at Brandon Creek, County Kerry, Ireland
Page Count 94
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Named as a Finalist in the 34th annual Minnesota Book Awards

Dead reckoning—used by navigators to calculate their position using a record of speed, drift, and the direction travelled relative to a last known location—is the metaphor at the heart of Jude Nutter’s fourth collection, where poems are constantly plotting new positions of departure as they reach back into both human and geological history.  Deeply philosophical, the sustained, complex narratives of Dead Reckoning stay grounded in (and through) the body, and reach outward from various locations in time and space as they contemplate fossils and cave art, the landscapes of Europe haunted by war, the feral world of loss, and those points in childhood when “Eden” was ruptured by an awareness of sexuality and history.  Following the literal and metaphorical reverberations of these journeys, this collection, which is both a record and a guide, asks us to contemplate how we locate ourselves in, and lay claim to, our own lives. 

Dead Reckoning is a collection of high and beautiful seriousness, containing work of exceptional ambition and achievement. Philosophical, unafraid of the big questions (‘And yet why am I here, / father, if I cannot enter?’), Jude Nutter is a poet both well-travelled and well read.  Here are poems of collapse and Holocaust, of young love in the Eighties and of love at the end of its long human cycle, all written with an exceptional, cosmopolitan command of language and material.  It is part of the very precise genius of this work that Nutter explains how we are each given a body, a buthker, a box, by which we may test and measure our being-in-the-world. In one stunning poem, ‘The Shipping Forecast,’  this generalised box is metamorphised into a specific love-box from which her father removes a ring to place upon the finger of his comatose and dying wife.  All of Nutter’s work, no matter how seemingly well-travelled, returns to that inner human circle of love, family memoir and attachment.  ‘How is it we can be loved / so well and remain so famished still?’ she asks in ‘Disco Jesus and the Wavering Virgins in Berlin, 2011.’ This collection, elegant in thought and technique, attempts to answer that question. Jude Nutter has created a work of great beauty, one of the loveliest collections of the poetry year.   
Thomas McCarthy author of Prophecy, Pandemonium and eight other collections

In Dead Reckoning, Jude Nutter has given us a book of revelation, poems that press wisdom through language, extracting language itself from the dark earth of the body.  Beginning in elegy, and ranging across Europe, she unflinchingly opens doors of our deep mortality: natural history and the fossils that move us and human histories of cave paintings, of the Romans, and especially of World War II and the dead of Bergen-Belsen, where the child-poet once lived.  By images at once corporeal and luminous, Nutter’s reckonings render narrative, reflection, and beauty as inseparable.  This gorgeous collection becomes a guide for how to love the dead beyond memory, a book to be returned to again and again.
Christina Hutchins author of Tender the Maker and The Stranger Dissolves

There are lines of surpassing beauty in every one of these poems. Jude Nutter manages the exacting task of writing long while never losing focus on the parts that minutely build up the texture of the whole.  She is at once deeply psychological and physical, wielding a naturalist’s vocabulary for our common world made strange by our attention to it.  When she describes "the quick veer, the glint-thrill, the solid, flexed silm" of a caught trout, we know we are hearing a master of sound.  Underneath the elegies in this book is a frighteningly percipient, alert young girl who does not forget the cruelties of private and public history.  Dead Reckoning is a stunning reclamation of that girl and her capacity for love.
Thomas R. Smith author of The Glory and Windy Day at Kabekona

Jude Nutter

Jude Nutter was born in North Yorkshire, England, and grew up near Hannover, in northern Germany.  She studied printmaking at Winchester School of Art (UK) and received her MFA in poetry from the University of Oregon.  Her poems have appeared in numerous national and international journals and have received over forty awards and grants, including two McKnight Fellowships, The Moth International Poetry Prize, The Larry Levis Prize, The William Matthews Prize, The Joy Harjo Poetry Award, and grants from the Elizabeth George Foundation and the National Science Foundation’s Writers and Artists Program in Antarctica. Her first book-length collection, Pictures of the Afterlife (Salmon Poetry), winner of the Irish Listowel Prize, was published in 2002.  The Curator of Silence (University of Notre Dame Press), her second collection, won the Ernest Sandeen Prize and was awarded the 2007 Minnesota Book Award in poetry.  A third collection, I Wish I Had a Heart Like Yours, Walt Whitman (University of Notre Dame Press), was awarded the 2010 Minnesota Book Award in poetry and voted Poetry Book of the Year by Foreword Review, New York.  She currently teaches in Minneapolis and divides her time between Minnesota and Dingle, Ireland, where she has a family home.

Dead Drift

Water shelving off into darkness and the mind,
which accepts the river’s depth, is perplexed
by the eyes’ denial.  Flat as shadow 

on grass you lie, watching the mouth
of the net held close to the bank, waiting 
for a wide-open, astonished eye, for a wedge
of head to cohere out of silt and present
itself, as all beings born into time
do, with defiance and out of matter
both moving and held
motionless in suspension.  Then the quick

veer, the glint-thrill, the solid, flexed silm 
of a body at the surface as it turns.  After that, 
the backwash, a sluggish roil, the vane of a tail
receding.  Where was I, you think, before I
was suddenly here—cleaved cell, a gyre 

of code unlocked?  In the net’s uneasy 
alchemy each brown trout 
rests, finning in place, nose to the current, 
until your father, who caught each fish and slipped 
each hook and holds the net, submerges

its rim and decants each life back 
into the flow of the river—not a fish, not a trout, no
nameable shape—just a finned smear, a flare
of copper.  Then nothing but your own reflection
restored to the water’s surface as the water
restores its mirror.  Early evening, a sudden 

coolness filming the skin and, as if 
some marvelous army has placed its shield wall 
to rest, canted sunlight falling

in blazons on the water.  Here, for a while, before 
humping north to face the tribes
of Caledonia, a small and weary detachment  
from the Ninth Legion of Rome did 
place their shields and their weapons down,
right here, on the banks of the Wharfe, 
and named their settlement Calcaria, meaning 
lime.  The pale blocks of empire quarried, right here, 
by slaves, on territory stolen from the Celtic tribes,
on the great north road to Eboracum.
But before all this—before the Brigantes 

and Romans and Vikings and French, before flints
and axes and spear-blades; before the age 
of long barrows and dolmens; before the first
brattle of war and occupation and every 
advance and obliteration of history, there was stone 
and the stone’s own story of molluscs and forams 
and corals.  Evidence of oceans, of time’s 
crushing indifference.  Out in that river, 

in chest-high waders, your father is loading
his rod for the cast; the loop of the line unfurls 
and the fly—a Pale Evening Dun—settles 
on a seam where two currents meet and 

dead drifts to where eddies mark a trout 
sipping mayfly from the surface.  Not once 
have you asked your father why, when he crimps 
the barbs flat against the shank of every hook and files
them smooth and then releases 
every fish he fights and fatigues and plays

into the net, he even fishes at all.  Perhaps
it has something to do with how the fly
presents itself perfectly on the water; or the line,

a filament of sky come loose, unfurling.  No, not the fly, 
or the line, but his arm casting.  No, not that: not 

the casting, but the arm lifting, suddenly, 
to set the hook.  No not even the arm,
but the whole body reacting.  A river
is a closed door that opens everywhere 
and always and only into itself and in the long, 
continuous lick of its current is a man 
standing motionless, braced 

for the strike.  And before there was pigment,
before the first flute, before fire; and until all the hands
silhouetted in ochre, until the aurochs and ibex
and spotted horses walked out of the mind as the mind
unhooked itself from darkness, 
there was this: the whole body reacting—animal,
instinctive.  And after?  Not the reaction,

but the seconds it took—not many, but one; no,
not even one, not the seconds at all, 
but that fraction of unmeasurable time in which

whatever was about to be done
remained undone. 

Ianua: My Father’s Rhythm Strip

To you, line unforeseen or always known.
Rafael Alberti

To Lórien Knoll from Rockall Bank
and on, then, to Isengard Ridge, to Thulean Rise, 
to Orphan Basin and the Flemish Cap: 

the route you’d plot, when asked, 
to Newfoundland from the coast of Éire
on profile maps of the Atlantic 

floor, those maps you’d loved—all ridges 
and valleys and abyssal plains. 
Running all through my life, this chain
of names.  The longest range 
of mountains in the world, you’d said, right
there beneath the ocean’s indifferent preening; 

guyots and seamounts, and trenches
five miles deep.  A darkness, you’d said, that is
not simply an absence 

of light, but an element even older perhaps 
than light—the black vice of matter
before time.  But the beauty of those names:
who could fail to fall in love with darkness 
when it held such sounds.

Imagine a man 
strolling through the smell of smoke 
and horses and the loose gutted bodies

of the morning catch to board a ship
that departs with the ebb under a chorus
of sails; a man who climbs the ladder to ride

the yaw in the crow’s nest.  How long,
on observing some small change 
coming over the curve of the Earth—land
scrolling towards him, needle of a mast, hand 
of a sail—would that man 
have remained silent, unwilling to relinquish
his uniqueness; secluded and alone
in his discovery?  Even after 
your death something kept coming into being

along the paper.  But it was only a machine
revealing that your blood had fallen finally
quiet inside the walls of its prison.  

It was after all, then, a single moment—
your death: not a place 
of continual arrival; not

the apparent juncture of sky and water.

Think of that flare deep in the gut—love’s
visceral engine—when our lines match up 
with the shapes of our longing.  

Because love exists 
before logic or language.  Why else 
would the painters of the caves, aware perhaps
of the mind’s growing sharpness, hide 
their animals in darkness.  
Think of the lines we have drawn between stars 

so the emptiness they outline 
might be, for a while, diminished; so the darkness 
we inherit is familiar.  And what of the daughter 

of Butades the potter, in love 
with a boy from Corinth, a boy who would vanish
into the extremis of war; how she traced 

on the wall his shadow’s outline as he 
lay sleeping on the slender catafalque 
of her bed.  There are several versions:
that his shadow was cast 
by a candle, by a lantern, by moonlight 
reflecting off the Gulf of Corinth.  It makes no difference.

Every boundary, every outline, even 
when given its name, contains 
its emptiness to the end: auroch, lion, 

bison, deer; The Net, The Archer, 
the beloved’s body.  As a child 
I drew nothing but horses—in outline, 

in profile; on test papers, in notebooks, 
in a novel’s margins: chin groove, throat latch 
and the mass of the gaskin, the slope

of a hoof’s front wall for which there is
still no name.  I drew them life-size 
in dirt, in mud; I wanted an open solitude, another life, 

a body I could step into and inhabit.
Which I did.                 I have eighteen feet of paper—
a narrow strip.  I choose a circle.  I join

each end with tape.  A corral 
large enough to enter.  Which I will.  I could even
lie down and sleep and safely

dream inside the final moments 
of your life.  And I will.  Yet what 
are dreams if not memory at work

inside the body, which is flesh
and knows only the moment.  When I wake 
there will be nothing but the mouth
of each empty doorway; each empty 
doorway’s line of threshold.  And the flimsy
paper circle of your absence.  

And what is emptiness in the end
if not a form of waiting: think of all 
the words there must be, even now, 

waiting for a language; of a lake’s mirror 
ready for birds and cloud; of how 
we empty ourselves of ourselves

in the hope that our dead  
will enter and discover evidence
of their own existence.  Of the solid quiet

of a field in summer 
emptied of cattle, who have followed each other 
into the cool stillness of the milk barn: the lure 

of a pasture, briefly abandoned, light 
still burning in its one green window; the temptation

of a gate standing fully open.


All Poems Copyright © Jude Nutter 2021
Review: Frank Beck reviews Dead Reckoning for The Manhattan Review (2022)

            Jude Nutter’s “Disco Jesus and the Wavering Virgins in Berlin, 2011” is a poem I wanted to read again as soon as I reached the last line. I wanted to see how a poem with such a mundane beginning – the speaker sits in the dark, on a rainy night in Berlin, watching TV evangelists – could accumulate so much imaginative force over the next seven pages. The evangelist evokes a world in which we are all “assailed by carnality”:

                                                 . . . Let us pray, he says, 
for the wavering virgins. Now I say 
it is the poet’s duty to wait, 
to wait in the dark, to wait in the dark  

at the world’s mercy 
for moments such as this. In the beginning
is the word. And the word 
is sex. In the beginning is the kiss

that gives rise to the myth of Eden – that bright
landscape unfettered by history . . .  (p. 18) 

            As a strobe light flashes across a life-sized Jesus, the speaker is back in the German Youth Club discos of her youth and then to the beginning of her sexual life. Working on a farm to earn money for college, she and the farmer’s thirty-something son have sex on Sunday mornings – when the man’s parents are, of course, in church. Suddenly “. . . the world/is just as it was, only more so,” and she learns “that the body/is its own reward.”

            Up to this point, the poem has followed a familiar trajectory: a moment in time opens up on a long-ago landscape. But then we are back on Linienstrasse in Berlin: “A great city/and its troubled history under rain./The whole of Europe under the same rain.” And the speaker remembers reading that a waver is a young tree left standing when a piece of wooded land is cleared. An image of rain drumming on rows of trees brings more etymologies: human from the Latin, meaning earth, and flesh from the Greek, meaning earthly. And so:

                                                                      . . . Every word
for what we are brings us back to the dirt. So yes, I say,  

let us pray. Let there be buttons
abandoning their buttonholes. Let tongues unbuckle,
let watches, let belts. May small change fallen
from pockets be forgotten, never found. 

And shy flags of hair swing loose. Storms 
inside strokes of wind. The world is full 
of alchemy, so let there be questions 
and demands. Small talk, dirty talk, language 

in all denominations. Let keys drop and fingers find
every latch and lock and legs peel free
from the sheer, long throats of stockings. Let hearts
be up to their necks in longing. (p. 22) 

            Do you hear an echo of “turbulent, fleshy, sensual” Walt Whitman, in Part XXIV of “Song of Myself”? (“Unscrew the locks from the doors!/Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!”) That connection would not be lost on Nutter: her 2009 collection from Notre Dame Press was entitled, I Wish I Had a Heart Like Yours, Walt Whitman. (The recent poem, “Still Life with Hand Grenades and Tulips,” continues that volume’s meditations on the unthinkable dimensions of the last century’s wars: much of an entire generation slaughtered in the name of colonial greed and national pride.)

            Nutter’s work is new to me, but she has been publishing poetry collections since 2002, and her poetry has won numerous awards; this is her fourth book of poems. Born in North Yorkshire in 1960, Nutter grew up near Hanover, in northern Germany. She studied printmaking at Britain’s Winchester School of Art and then earned an MFA in poetry at the University of Oregon and now lives and works in the twin cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota. 

            Several poems in this new collection describe scenes from Nutter’s childhood; the most striking is “64 Unbekannte Tote: Photograph, Germany 1970” (Unbekannte Tote means “unidentified dead” in German.) As a child, Nutter lived in a building on the NATO military base that had been a hospital for the 60,000 people interred at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

            The poem describes a photograph taken of Nutter as a girl, standing next to a snowman she has made and squinting into the winter sun. She does not know that beneath her feet are the bones of 64 people, whose remains will not be found until nearly 50 years later and whose identity is still unknown. They are believed to be men, women and children from Bergen-Belsen, who died there or at the wartime hospital:

 But for now she is a child

so in love with the world: ground beetle,
copper, clouded apollo; wood wasp, fritillary,
alpine argus. And she does not know it yet,
of course, but this girl will one day become 
your most valuable lost possession: this girl
bludgeoned by sunlight, with a heart 

like a beetle under bark, in a world
where death has not yet connected the dream
and the dwelling place. (p. 66) 

            Here the influences I detect are Robert Lowell and Seamus Heaney: the loving care with which the butterfly varieties (“copper, clouded apollo; fritillary/alpine argus”) are named, and a diction in which the intimate and the elevated are intertwined.

            The most memorable poems in this book are the ones about Nutter’s parents, to whom this collection is dedicated. (The book’s title appears to refer both to her attempt to come to grips with their deaths and to the literal meaning of the term, dead reckoning: navigation by calculating one’s position based on the direction of travel and elapsed time.) In “The Shipping Forecast,” the speaker moves back and forth effortlessly between memories of listening to the BBC’s legendary nightly report of coastal weather with her mother and the last days of her mother’s life. When the speaker was a child, her mother would remind the family that worse things happen at sea, and the speaker would relish her snug place at home:

Sheeted and safely tucked in to the dark’s

back pocket, I would dream of great trawlers 
moving, inevitably, into fearsome weather.
The chewed edge of a bow wave,

and a handful of following gulls cuffed
back and forth through night’s black wall
into the reach of the running lights . . . (pp. 29-30) 

             But the speaker’s mother is no longer safe in her life on land: “She is a few days out/from death. We know it. Without knowing/we know it.” Confined to bed, she struggles in the only way she now can – with her hands. Her husband tries to calm her; the speaker tries to calm her, by combing her hair. But her hands are “determined, insistent, like the muscled heave/of water, like a wave . . .”

until they can struggle no longer:

I shall remember how I was grateful  

for every hour death kept us waiting.
I shall remember how when her hand fell still
I missed its movement. Pale flag  

of an overrun country. How even my father’s hands
could not calm her.  How I did not brush
the fine waves of my mother’s hair enough. (p. 33)


            This poem is followed  by “Ianua: Day Zero plus Three,” a companion-piece about her father’s death, composed in the same three-line stanzas and written with the same bravery and tenderness. (Ianua is a Latin word meaning “passageway”; it derives from Ianus, the name of the Romans’ two-faced god. Throughout the book, Nutter associates the word with the passageway from life to death.)

            Other poems here that I will go back to include “Fossil Hunting at John Lennon Airport, Liverpool,” a narrative that moves with the assurance of a good short story; “Field Notes: Watching the Crew of Atlantis Renovating the Hubble Telescope,” which juxtaposes astronauts floating weightlessly and Nutter and her father as they hover around her mother’s sick-bed; and “The Lions of Chauvet,” which also juxtaposes two realities: children fascinated by a lion at the zoo with the Paleolithic paintings of lions and other animals recently discovered on the walls of a cave in the Ardèche region of southern France. (These are the artworks shown in Werner Herzog’s 2010 documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams.)

            Many kinds of poetry are flourishing in the United States today; if anyone wonders whether the nation’s formalist tradition, including the work of Bishop, Lowell, and Wilbur, is still robust and relevant, they should read this book. If any young writers aspire to add to that tradition, here’s a master class.

            In the latter half of “The Lions of Chauvet,” Nutter focuses on the hand of one of the artists: the hand with a little kink in one finger, so that now we can follow its handprints through the cave, some 30 millennia later. She believes that the hand “was our very first symbol/for that need felt inside the body/for something beyond the body.” That brings her to the single, flowing line of ochre running above the contour of striding lion and lioness on the cave’s wall:

         . . . I say  

this line is evidence of love
in its purest form: the heart teaching the hand 
what to put in, what to leave out: I say

someone witnessed, and understood, the third
animal these lions dragged into the world

in the wake of their affection. Because these lions
have been abstracted into life by the prayer
of attention. Their bodies are touching as they walk. (pp. 60-61)  

—Reviewer Frank Beck and Raleigh Whitinger recently published Anneliese's House, their translation of Lou Andreas-Salomé's 1921 novel, with Camden House Books (USA)

Review:  Tristram Saunders reviews Dead Reckoning for The Telegraph newspaper, UK, July 2021:

The best poetry books of 2021 so far
Dead Reckoning by Jude Nutter ★★★★☆

Let’s start with the fish. As you might guess from the title, “Disco Jesus and the Wavering Virgins, Berlin, 2011” is not a poem about fish. Filling eight pages of Jude Nutter’s fourth collection Dead Reckoning, it is a poem about desire, about innocence and experience, how “every time/ we lie down to assuage our loneliness,/ we find the flesh already there,/ waiting”. And as of June – having ploughed through more than a hundred collections published since January – it is the best new poem I’ve read this year.

In “Disco Jesus…”, we find the insomniac poet half-watching TV, “flicking through the god channels” in a Berlin hotel room, while her mind revisits the scenes of her early sexual experiences: a Youth Club disco, a hot summer working on a farm. In a bed across the hall from her sleeps “a man/ whose body becomes, during sex,/ one long wound”.

So where are the fish? In a tank in the hotel, just garnish to the scene. Another writer wouldn’t have put them in – this teeming poem is full enough already. But Nutter does, and through her gaze they are made wondrous: they “weave/ their Mobius strip through the wet fire/ of the only world they know”. Pages later those neon tetras catch her eye again, and become another symbol of life trapped by desire, when a “single tetra forms perfect/ circles on the water simply by drifting/ to the surface and kissing what imprisons it”.

Nutter’s poetry is like this: it lingers on incidental details with delicious accuracy. The 23 poems of Dead Reckoning are at once languorous and urgent. They flood and sprawl. “Still Life with Hand Grenades and Tulips” begins with a waitress gesturing to the Somme battlefields. It takes her five lines to speak five words. 

I have family, she says, flailing
her arm in an arc, shunting the vambrace of bangles
on her lean suntanned forearm
towards a dry, metallic music and taking in
the whole of Picardy, out there. 

When an arm points, Nutter watches the arm, not where it’s pointing.

That contrast – the living body in the foreground, the silent dead somewhere beyond – is at the heart of the book. One poem shows us the poet as a young girl playing in the house in Germany where she grew up, a house that was once part of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. In another poem, she watches oblivious lovers strolling hand-in-hand through its grounds.

Not all the dead are so distant. Four poems called “Ianua” (meaning threshold) are elegies for her father; three others mourn her mother. Her dying mother’s hand shivers like the “Pale flag/ of an overrun country”. Nutter has a rare gift for visual metaphor – she throws them out like penny-sweets, almost always in the same formulation (“the [x] of [y]”), a syntactic tic that would become frustratingly repetitive, if it weren't for the freshness of the metaphors themselves. At times, Nutter's exuberant visual imagination sits oddly with the emotion of the scene, as when, in passing, she compares her father’s coffin to a “silk-frilled mollusc”.

Nutter’s elegies are affecting, but the best poems here are about the living body, looking back to a time “when the mind, housed/ like the seed of a berry in the flesh/ and oblivious to the flesh,/ had not yet invented the body as a problem”. The title poem is an almost pastoral childhood memory of making a collage from a discarded porn mag, found “beneath a shifting/ helm of bird and leaf fret”. Nutter combines sexual nostalgia with closely observed nature writing in a way that recalls Fiona Benson and Sean Hewitt. Like those writers, she strives for a kind of quietly traditional lyric beauty. This can occasionally lead her to become too self-consciously poetic in her diction (I’d be happy never to see “liminal” in another poem). But Nutter is generally self-aware enough to avoid that trap, and saved from solipsism by her 20/20 peripheral vision, her keen attentiveness to the margins of the scene. 

For instance, the marvellous “Fossil Hunting at John Lennon Airport” begins with a close-up of a fossil (“sliced so cleanly/ open, exposing the dark/ undulations of the septa, like curtains”), before panning out to reveal it's embedded in the floor of the ladies' loos on Level One: “I am thinking/ about harm and vulnerability when the door/ to the stall next to mine bursts open...” She might pretend she wants to focus on fossils, but can't help eavesdropping on a phone-call happening in another cubicle – and the poem is better for it.

Though her books have so far been published only in France and Ireland, the Yorkshire-born Nutter deserves a wider audience in this country. Immersed in the pleasure and pain of life, she writes with “a fluent, blunt hunger for the world”. TFS

Dead Reckoning is published by Salmon Poetry at £11

Other Titles from Jude Nutter

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