Dave Nelson’s Surrealism: On Aeries or Just Airy?
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/24/01

Dave's poems 

  Dave Nelson has been a UPG attendee since 1996. In his personalized ‘bio’ sent to me Dave claims that it was 1997 or 1998. The or is important for it forms the tack of this whole essay. That being that Nelson is an odd sort to be hobnobbing around artistic types. I mean he has a sort of mild weirdness. But, it’s like calling a celibate a pervert- while technically true, it’s not what we usually think of as a pervert. Dave is a talented fellow who writes both poetry & plays. He is a member of a local organization called the Playwrights Center & had a play reading there of his fine comedy The Dreams Of A Philosopher- a wee bit more on that later.
  Aside from dealing with Dave’s work in this essay, I also want to detail a bit more of the dynamics that occur within the UPG. I will use Dave as the entrée to such. But let’s deal with the biographical nonsense. Dave was born 7/21/57 in Fort Huachuca, Arizona. This explains his annual sojourn back to the desert. He has been in Minnesota since 1965. Dave worked a typical middle-class man’s life till 1994 when he got in to landlording. Unlike the typical artist, & even unlike the typical Minnesotan, Dave has none of the obvious insecurities that plague such persons. He seems to exude an inner serenity. On the UPG page of Cosmoetica I ½-jokingly labeled him the group’s Beautiful Dreamer. But much of that is true. In his poetry, especially, Dave is wont to infusing his verse with Classical themes & imagery. Sometimes this has led to Art Durkee’s regurgitation of Edna St. Vincent Millay accusations; other times it has led to a dozen or so outstanding sonnets. Dave is almost as devoted to his sonneteering as Bruce Ario is to his arios. Dave has always been sort of a buffer person in the group- while I am always relied on to exhaustively break down a poem technically, & Bruce Ario is relied on for effusions of uplift, & Art Durkee has cornered the spiritual, & Greg Degerstrom the mumbled cryptic non-sequitur, Dave is probably the least predictable critic- at least, in terms of quality of criticism. Now, while someone may not know how I will take on a poem, with Dave it’s different. Sometimes he’s given very precise critiques analogized with comparisons to some writer or philosopher that’s stuck in his noggin’, while at other times he has been known to give opinions as off the wall as Degerstrom, often invoking dropped jaws, & a belated, quizzical ‘Was it something I said?’ look from others. In fact, on these occasions it has been known that several copies of the returned & criticized poems will have comments to the effect: ‘Ignore Nelson’s comments!’, ‘Nelson’s on something!’, or things similar. Like all UPG regulars, Dave takes such disagreements in stride. I can tell you, without doubt- & having attended a few dozen poetry groups organized by individuals & massive orgs like The Loft & the 92nd Street Y, no poetry group has ever been as helpful & straightforward as the UPG. Yet Dave has a feathery, almost airy, approach to criticism that comes from all angles. Sometimes he will contradict himself in the course of 3 or 4 sentences. This is why I emphasized his lack of knowledge of his 1st attending the UPG. Yet, underneath that moptop of brown lurks an intelligent discerner of words- at times.             
  On to the poems:

Bugaboo Bugaloo of the Bagabos

Ideas of the Hairy Ainus or
the Bagabos of Mindanao-oh
like the poor bastards we put down for fools,
amused by their absurdly sloping chins,
their noses crooked in comical contortion,
eyes that bug out or skew about their sockets,
so you just can't keep a straight face, but smirk,
suppress a snicker that escapes in splutters,
snort-downright chortle-pointing at the rubes-
rolling with uncontrollable hilarity
-only to look up after hours of laughter
to see the clowns are laughing too; in fact
that they surround us like Tibetan Yogis
in levitation to a chant of chuckling.

  This is an outstanding unrhymed sonnet. Before I briefly explicate, let me ask you this: isn’t this poem alot more surreal than almost every Surrealist poem by a Surrealist poet that you’ve ever read? Why? Because unlike most surrealist poems, which cop out & merely throw up images disjointedly & exhibit some typographic play, this poem actually has a thread that takes you into things that have not been detailed before. Let’s go chronologically, starting with the title. A bugaboo is a bugbear, or something that causes fright & distress, yet that leads directly into bugaloo- which can be a jaunt or any light-hearted caper or adventure. This seeming non-sequitur refers to what we soon find out are a tribe of people in an exotic locale- an island of the Philippines. Thus this alliterative title really echoes Westerners fear & fascination with aboriginal/primitive cultures. Yet the poem, itself, starts off with only the ideas of this- the concepts, not the things. In the very 1st word of the poem the reader is put off balance. The seemingly superfluous –oh after Mindanao gives an aural component to the fear/fascination theme rendered by Cultured mispronunciation of other (read- Uncultured) peoples’ languages. We then seem to switch from a description of the aboriginals to the lower classes in our own society- vagrants, hoboes, homeless, drug users, street kids, etc. We then get laughter & an inversion where the speaker is now the observed by a very visceral symbol of fear/fascination: the clown. Yet the poem does not end on this note- where most poets might- No, we get a further final comparison to a person both aboriginal, yet highly cultured: the Tibetan Yogi. Then the poem ends rising in the laughter. This is a supremely surreal poem- line-by-line you are cluesless as to what may be coming next. But, at end it all ties together smoothly. This is when surrealism- &, in fact, all good poetry- is manifestly working. Yet, the poem is no real stretch for those of us with more than a passing familiarity with his poetry. This seems to be a classic Nelsonian mind-trip. The seemingly poor line break after line 1 really isn’t since it is in tune with the ‘What’s coming next?’ tack of the whole poem.
  Here’s another sonnet- this 1 is untitled:


It seemed too obvious to question, but -  
well, you know what those hanging buts imply.  
Like the phrase 'your ass hanging in the wind,'
it was a little obvious at that,
and yet -- well, let me set the scene for you.
There was a carnival in town that day,
and the great carousel was all lit up
and playing music like a marching band
with women on the undulating horses
and children laughing and a fireworks show
almost exploding from its rolling top
and -- well, you had to take a helium
balloon or two and drift into the sky -  
it was quite obvious until they popped.


  We get a rhetorical query that leads in to an abruption. We are then led through a brief kaleidoscope of eerie circus imagery, ballooning, & a final rhetorical twist that brings us back to the internalized start of the poem. The imagery of a carnival/circus is very aptly chosen for this narrative trope. The popping of the balloon is an apt metaphor for the break from revery. Look at the italicized had in line 12- is this a red herring or a key? Regardless, the poem’s multiple feints & parries give it a playfulness that, with the imagery & last line, make this sonnet so memorable. Yet, look how simply it’s written & stated. Yet this is, again, far more surreal than any surreal poem or poet you could name. Surrealism works best when you are slowly led & feinted into it, not with merely apoplectic typography & imagistic distorts.
  Here are 2 more of Nelson’s poems- this time non-sonnets. I will basically let them stand for themselves. However, take great note at the almost unnoticed musicality underneath these words, as well how the narrative leads you to where you have never been before, all the while not discomfiting the reader with pyrotechnical bravado.


I Don’t Hate Roger Rolligen


You know how oddly this all came about?
There was the broken window,  
the delicate frame (with paint peeling),
the dusty light inside.
Were it possible to be sure, I would not have been,  
but Roger Rolligen has a distinctive silhouette,
and I could not believe he had his fingers on-yes-
on the Heffenweisser Bodhisattva.
And that wisp of blonde hair  
just near enough the window not to be seen.


When I consider how closely I came  
to walking in and saying, "Surprise, I'm home,"
though the Runninghams hadn't seen me in years
(and though, what with the change in weight and facial hair,
would hardly have known me anyway),  
what a good joke that would have been:
Roger? and...Juliette?
What exactly are you doing in the Runningham's bedroom,
and them...dead?
And the Heffenweisser Bodhisattva!
Good heavens, what are you doing?


You see, I would have dreaded the
"Isn't that kinda obvious, Deacon?"
the way he says it so airily
you figure you've just called Shakespeare 'The Bard of Cleveland'
or something.
And then what do you do?
Take a monkey wrench and try disconnecting the plumbing-
by conking him on the head?
Then, just because she's your ex-wife, it looks suspicious.


But maybe it would have been totally different.
You know, Roger Rolligen wasn't all that given
to bouts of manslaughter.
Once or twice, maybe. Or probably never.
What if, when I wasn't looking,  
he had made great friends with the Runninghams,  
and when some villain broke in
and swiped the Heffenweisser Bodhisattva,  
had charged off on an indefatigable spree  
of Rounding up the Hoodlum
and now, just happened to be basking in their gratitude
at the very moment it would be least gracious  
to bash his skull in?


You wouldn't think, after all these years,
the memory of his silhouette would linger so,
but there's something Roger Rolligen never knew:  
I cheated him at cards once
and snickered about it to myself for days afterwards.


The Wild, Wild Ungk-de-Skude


He had a gun.  
(I think he had taken it from the mantelpiece
where it had lodged since the Revolutionary War.)  
The way was obvious,
but there was, unfortunately, a wire or two in the way.


-But it wasn't in this manner that the Ungk-de-Skude was tamed.
No, the custodian of the wire told us these were only stage tricks.  
His brother, however, was concerned
now the marionette wouldn't dance.
Coonskin hats, eagle feathers...
"The Struggle", as they so grandiosely titled it,
was monomaniacal.
Like a tug of war, wires were being pulled all over,
and the blinds kept going up and down.


Is this why light was whirling around the room like a police cherry?


I was confused at the amber of the lights:  
the equivocal nature of optics,  
mixed with the general illusion obtaining in the theater  
led me to swing from a chandelier
-which had the regrettable effect of drawing the curtain open  
half an hour before ii s scheduled time,  
when the argument between the lovers had not developed,
and they were still in a lascivious act of union.


I cannot think the powder had gotten damp,
but for some reason the struggle was inhibited,
and without a shot being fired, the Ungk-de-Skude  
shrank like a shadow into the corners,
and the tittering was silenced in the seats.


And so the story goes.  
I don't regret anything, particularly, but...  
well, the vision may be slightly skewed.


  Look at how easily the word choices flow, yet how complex the narrative arc is. Look at how things oppose 1 another briefly, logically, & then cohere. These 2 poems are excellent examples of Surrealism at its height. But poetry is not the only arena for Nelson’s bents to unbend. The Dreams Of A Philosopher is a play Dave wrote a few years ago. It follows the interactions of 5 major characters described in the play’s introduction as Mr. Martin Poppinjay- About 40.  Considered by some “sanity-challenged”; Mr Horatio Block- Past 50.  A gentleman philosopher; Whippersnipper Impersimper- A high school football player, likes Supplelipple; Mrs. Gertrude Haggybaggy- About 50, repressed, yet kindly, yet domineering; & Supplelipple Sweetfeat- A charming girl in love with Whippersnipper. 3 acts pass yet nothing really happens to these characters- who are really archetypes, as their names suggest- save that they end up in a mirror universe millions of years later only to do the same things & argue amongst each other again. The play is very much of the Absurdist bent, although is there much of a difference between Dramatic Absurdism & Surrealism in the other arts?
  Let me end this piece with these comments: as with others who have graced the UPG Dave Nelson seems to understand the value of trying to move beyond the familiar. He will fail, yet the important aspect is the attempt & those times he succeeds. Reread the poems I chose to display here, & also go to the UPG page of Cosmoetica & see how to get a hold of the 1st Act of his play. His writing can be very top notch. & is well worth the effort to obtain & read- even if Dave is oblivious to that fact.

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