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Review of Richard Nester’s Buffalo Laughter by Kathryn A. Kopple

Let us begin at the beginning: with the title poem of Richard Nester’s collection Buffalo Laughter (Kelsay Books, 2014). In Nester’s poem, the buffalo reappear not as the bison that once thrived on the plains of North America but buffoons—“a bunch of old actors.”  Nester draws repeatedly on popular tropes and themes throughout his book, and in this poem he references the low-budget, but immensely successful, Hollywood westerns of the 1950s.  

“Every year the buffalo get

together like a bunch of old actors.

There are only enough of them

left to make a movie.”

In this compact mis-en-scene (the poem is thirteen lines long) all the conventions of hack movie-making are put into play.  There is no carefully choreographed script but a formula that coincides with business-as-usual Hollywood stereotypes. A hapless director stands by, allowing the action to proceed as convention dictates. The actors do what is expected of them: chewing their cud, brawling, and breaking up the furniture.  Farcical. What emerges is a gap that results in the displacement of a historical tragedy by means of escapism.  The poem ends with the following: “Later, there is a bill for the busted chairs.”  But who pays this bill? Sardonic, but never merely sarcastic, the poet reminds us that there is a debt here that cannot, in all reality, be repaid.  The buffalo are gone.  And those who saw the great herds of buffalo are also gone.  The laughing buffalo is a figment. Eco-systems and cultures—in this case those of the indigenous people of North America—once destroyed can only be reassembled as remnants, impoverished symbols, and fleeting reminders.

Nester is a populist. His technique, while deft, does not distract from the message. The poet as messenger of hardship and loss may strike us as heavy-handed but, as the reader may intuit from “Buffalo Laughter,” Nester is clearly self-aware.  His concern for those individuals whose lives are adversely affected by the machinations of power causes him to delve deep into his own history.  The reader discovers that he does not suffer hypocrites, liars, double-dealers lightly.  The poem “My Congressman Introduces the World” unfolds as a political coming-of-age story and an indictment of the Cold War.  

He shook my hand, I shook his back,

Not knowing then that I was shaking hands

With Nixon, Khrushchev, Mao Tse-Tung, Patrice Lumumba…

Think of it.

The act of hand-shaking constitutes a chain in which the fate of individuals and nations are compromised by the handy-work of the architects and victims of harsh political stratagems.  

We would like to pretend there are parts

of the body that will not lie; but hands will lie

as tongues will.

Hand as lie shows Nester at his imaginative best, making use of metonymy in unexpected and revealing ways. The Congressman has no equal when it comes to the art of the lie. He is the master of trickery, greasing palms, blood pacts, and washing his hands of those who are no longer of use to him. A hand-shake implies good will but comes to signify quite the opposite when employed for pure political advantage.

Unable to turn a blind eye, Nester protests: “Who could have known… I would end up a poet and pacifist?” It is a decision that costs him. Brought up to be a good Republican, a good southerner, he rebels. The schisms that divide American society disrupt his closest relationships, setting son against father, as one generation would be set against another.

Narrative poet that he is, Nester proves himself to be an accomplished story-teller. In “Three Sides of Narrative,” one of his more ambitious poems, he invokes a kindred spirit, Philip Levine. Levine dedicated much of his poetry to the labor class, addressing social issues in a language that has been described as earthy and matter-of-fact.  Nestor shares the same poetic temperament.  His verse is free in the sense that he makes conspicuous use of enjambment, acoustic patterning, and phrasing to give shape to his poetry.  Exceptions would be “The Problem of Evil,” along with “William Harrison Slusher” and “The Rescue,” which are written in unrhymed tercets.    

In “Three Sides of Narrative,” the narrator drives while listening to a recording of Levine reciting a poem in which the poet mentions a dead raccoon. Nester writes: “Just then/we pass one in the breakdown lane/lying on its side.” How to interpret this collision of verse and carnage? Nester offers the following interpretation: “It’s what we call coincidence,/two raccoons—word/and flesh…”  Another phrase, “disappearing into narrative,” also causes pause; it too has a mythic air about it. Narrative is how we, as human beings, make sense of the world.  We are our stories, Nester implies—narrative animals.  

Indeed, Richard Nester’s debut collection, Buffalo Laughter, is the work of a poet, whose maturity, observant nature and intelligence leaves little doubt of his gifts.  In poems such as “First Work,” he writes of being set the task of pulling nails to find that, with enough verve, he can produce “smoke and spark”  It is there, in the heat produced by grit and words, survival and syntax, lived experience and metaphor that Nester turns anecdote into art. The tone of the poems range, as do the landscapes, and the various vernaculars heard across America condense great distances into succinct images, recollections, and meditations. I was genuinely moved by Nester’s poetry, its artistry and humanity.

Robert Nester’s poetry has appeared in numerous journals, including Ploughshares, Callaloo, Tikkun, and Floyd Country Moonshine. His work has also been anthologized in Cape Discovery, a publication of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where he has twice been a fellow. His essays on social justice have appeared in the Catholic Agitator.

Richard Nester

Featured Author Issue 7.2 Summer 2015

In “The Study of Poetry,” Matthew Arnold uses the term “touchstone” to refer to moments in the poetry of masters that make a fundamental difference in the emotional and intellectual life of humankind. Individual poets can have “touchstones” as well, passages that they return to again and again, to set their minds and hearts in motion. There is no better way to get to know poets quickly than to know what their touchstones are.

My list is long, but here are just a few. They range from Wallace Stevens’ address to a fictive listener in “The Idea of Order at Key West”—“oh blessed rage for order, pale Ramon / the maker’s rage to order words of the sea”—to Dylan Thomas’ uncharacteristically dry assertion that “hands have no tears to flow” as he concludes his assessment of human government in “The Hand that Signed the Paper.” My heart stirs when Stevens claims that he “placed a jar in Tennessee” or Dickinson tutors us in how to tell the truth—“slant.” I am deeply stirred when Sasson illustrates “grace under pressure” in his sonnet from Counter-attack—“I am banished from the patient men who fight,” and I love the exquisite reasoning that lies behind Auden’s contention “like love we often weep / like love we seldom keep” from “Law Like Love.” Even this small list of treasures tells you something about me that the details of my literary biography can’t capture.

Thanks to Moonshine for letting me introduce myself through my poems. Two other special individuals that I want to thank are Ruth Hallman, my senior year English teacher at Floyd County High, who endorsed my immature, but intense, passion for language and Richard Dillard, the creator of the Hollins College writing program, who instructed me in tools—principally the craft of revision—that I would need to enter poetry’s grand conversation at a more mature level.

Now, for a more conventional biography, the one that appears in my book, Buffalo Laughter.

Born in the shadow of Buffalo Mountain in rural southwestern Virginia, Richard Nester has lived and worked on both coasts. Numerous journals, including Ploughshares, Callaloo, Tikkun, and Floyd County Moonshine have published his poems, and his work has been anthologized in Cape Discovery, a publication of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where he has twice been a fellow. His essays on social justice have appeared in the Catholic Agitator.

He taught at the University of California, Irvine, for 32 years, working extensively with students from Humanities Core Course. He is married to the poet, Robbi Nester. They have a treasured son, Jeremy.

Among his other accomplishments are that he has crossed the American continent seven times, three times each by car and train, and once by bus—no covered wagon. Plane trips, of course, don’t count. The modern airplane trip is merely a mode of transport, not travel.