Pattern Exhaustion by Nate Pritts
smoking glue gun, 2014; 44 pp
Reviewed by JoAnna Novak
Clouds, leaves, sun, seasons, Google, Google Maps, email after email, afternoon coffee, surplus root vegetables, snow—this is the world depicted in Pattern Exhaustion, a new, chapbook-length poem by Nate Pritts. Pritts, founder of H_NGM_N and author of six volumes of poetry, has written a slim chronicle of anhedonia in the abyss of higher education.
“Between classes I spend/twenty minutes looking/at photographs online//high resolution American hush,” writes Pritts on the second page of the poem. Throughout Pattern Exhaustion, the speaker searches for that high resolution American hush, trying to locate some specificity or spark in his life, only to discover no such spark exists.
When I began reading this book (“I forget myself,” Pritts writes), I didn’t expect to identify; as someone who’s migrated from graduate assistant to adjunct, however, I saw too clearly the drabbery of rote routine. I felt sad for the speaker, whose very tongue is impoverished by his world. In this poem, language is ambiguous and so is the diction. Consider:
It’s so hard to be brave//when there’s so much we don’t know
I have to guess at the right words//to email a student to explain/that she’s failing
I have a feeling & I don’t know/what to call it
I see so many new people/I didn’t even know existed
Perhaps some of my own identification is sublimated into a kind of resistance. Though the speaker in this poem seems to be struggling to exist as both an artist and a teacher—identities not foreign to this writer—I longed for more of the dazzle the speaker exhibits when considering the natural world:
Restless gray stratus/ mostly filling the horizon/a few cirrus wisps near/where the sun burned/a hazy gap
Stratus, cirrus; cirrus, wisps; gray stratus, hazy gaps—Pritts’ attention to sound by way of assonance, alliteration, and even meter emerges in response to his speaker’s environs beyond the classroom.
“Each word is a physical thing/I tell my students,” Pritts writes, and this poem—with its assemblage of simple (subject [often “I”] + verb) sentences performs the exhaustion that results from an artist or creator exerting constant didactic effort.
Beyond the constraints of academic life, the speaker’s romantic life, too, seems to be a source of puzzlement. “I am too distracted/to kiss you right,” writes Pritts, then later: “I really am happiest/when imagining.” I wondered about this you, who is only addressed intermittently; is the speaker calling out to a lost lover, a crushed crush, a vision of the past—when leaching adult life held less sway?
“I try hard/ to say something new & sometimes I do/but mostly I settle for saying the same thing/in a different way.” In Pattern Exhaustion, Nate Pritts portrays teacherly burnout somewhere in Syracuse. “Think for five minutes/about whether repetition suggests emphasis/or mania,” he writes. Repetition may be words, daydreams, the creation and performance of the self, quizzes, assignments, scenarios, students—those people who repopulate every fifteen weeks. This is a poem, however, hungry for the emphatic or the manic, an exploration of what we gave away when we give of ourselves.