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Reviewed Book: A Thing With Feathers, by J. John Nordstrom, independently published, 2021

by Andrew Benson Brown

A Thing With Feathers is the debut novel of J. John Nordstrom (the pen name of Joseph J. Jablonski, Jr.). A mixture of prose and poetry—something one does not see very often these days—it was a finalist in the 2021 National Indie Excellence Awards and is a current contender for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The title references one of Emily Dickinson’s most famous poems, the first stanza of which reads:

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Hope is the thing with feathers,
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.

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Although the novel is not technically about Emily Dickinson per se, she is one of two personas who thoroughly permeate the work, lurk in the walls like friendly ghosts, and “speak” as if resurrected in the 21st century through the author, as it were. The opening pages introduce us to one Jonah Q. Cincinnatuski, Jr., Esq., a forty-year-old aspiring writer and erudite devotee of literature—particularly the work of Edgar Allan Poe, the novel’s other ubiquitous persona. Jonah’s interest in Poe, in fact, goes well beyond the realm of literary admiration to an obsession—almost preternatural but surely mystical—that raises the question whether Jonah is in fact a reincarnation of Poe. In this sense, Nordstrom explores a theme, of which Poe himself was very fond, “the reanimation of the dead.”

Jonah resembles Poe in sensibility (the former is, like the latter, an “athletic bookworm”), appearance (they have the same blue-gray eyes), and even biographical details (they share the same birthday and were both born in the literary-rich state of Massachusetts). When we first meet Jonah, he is drinking what he himself believes to be Poe’s favorite alcoholic beverage (a mix of Amontillado sherry, whiskey, and moonshine). He is contemplating suicide and seeking “annulment” from his utterly corrupt “legal mistress,” the Law, after ten years of practicing this profession in Washington D.C. September 27, 2005, the date the novel begins, recalls the date on which Poe is reputed to have begun a long journey home to the Bronx from Richmond, Virginia, September 27, 1849. Poe’s whereabouts between the time he gets on a boat in Richmond until he surfaces in Baltimore on October 3, are unknown. The presence of Poe is everywhere in A Thing With Feathers, from allusions to his work in the text to chapter titles, to Poe’s “Amity Street” address in Baltimore, and there is even a (clean-shaven) portrait of Poe in the law library where Jonah works.

Jonah is also, to an equal extent, fascinated with Emily Dickinson. As is the case with Poe, his admiration takes on the form of a mystical obsession that has been with him since childhood. Jonah has always believed that the characters and personalities of Poe and Dickinson were well suited for one another, “soulmates” as Nordstrom calls it, and that if they had met in life, they would have been able to be ideal marriage and literary partners and to fulfill in each other what each lacked individually.

A Thing With Feathers explores the ideal of soulmate love as—against the maniacal quest for material wealth—the highest happiness human beings are capable of. The novel begins with a prose poem that is supposed to have been written by a young Jonah years before the events of the story unfold. Significantly, Jonah imitates Poe’s practice of writing verse to (and for) dead women he adored. The Young Jonah, romantically infatuated with the late Emily Dickinson, dedicates a poem to her that wins a high school poetry competition. Since that time he has written no poetry, but feels that out there somewhere exists his real life “muse,” who will be able to reignite the poetic spark lying dormant in him. This hypothetical muse, of course, is none other than a modern reincarnation of Emily Dickinson.
At several points throughout the novel, Jonah converses with both Poe and Dickinson in his dreams and seeks romantic advice from them. Poe’s famous poem “A Dream within a Dream” (1849) comes to mind. In one of the scenes in Nordstrom’s novel, set in the Bronx’s Old Dutch Cemetery, where his wife Virginia had been put to rest initially, Poe tells Jonah à la reverie: “The mysterious and inexplicable connection of the poet’s own being to that of a beloved, brings about the wonder of poetic enlightenment. This is the secret of poetry.” Jonah is always on the lookout for his muse and uses Dickinson as a gauge for summing up every potential soulmate he meets.

The first hundred pages are sprinkled with humor as Jonah encounters women who simply cannot measure up to his ideal. He sorts through his hitherto failed existence as a writer and comes to realize that his dire financial circumstances compel him to try what his tenant Phyllida, who is employed as an Assistant Law Librarian at the Ithaca County Public Law Library, recommends: that he work with her in the same library as a reference law librarian, given his educational background. But there is one catch: he must pretend to be an effeminate gay man. After initial repugnance to the thought of disguising his sexuality, he accepts employment on these bizarre terms. The main conflict in the novel involves Jonah’s rivalry with his misandrist bosses, who scheme either to find ways to legitimately fire him or to encourage him to quit after he drops the gay act.

Most of the characters in the novel are lawyers, and despite this (or because of it), it takes an extremely critical attitude towards them: lawyers are “power-hungry money-grubbing con-artists par excellence (p. 131)”; D.C. is a hotbed of “hypocrisy, lying, backstabbing, cronyism, nepotism, unethicality, gamesmanship, and criminality (p. 4)”; and although “evil was not the exclusive preserve of either gender,” Jonah found through experience that female lawyers could be “even more ruthless and diabolical in their methods” than male ones, given their greater share of psychological intuition (p. 17). Jonah himself is an exception to this trend, and offsets the vice-ridden qualities of those around him by performing virtuous deeds for the people, some suicidally desperate, who come to the law library seeking legal aid. Although he is explicitly told by his superiors not to give legal counsel to lay patrons in order to prevent possible lawsuits, he secretly does so, providing down-and-out people who have been abused by the system with vital information to win their cases, and, in some cases, against all odds.

One cannot help but draw comparisons here with Frank Capra’s classic film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Whether intentionally or not, A Thing With Feathers has several features of the classic “Capra formula:” a fundamentally decent, pure-of-heart protagonist who is surrounded by venal, corrupt bureaucrats, sycophants, and phonies out to destroy him; and a woman the protagonist falls in love with and who represents his potential salvation but is herself torn between the loyalties of her tender heart and the purse fattened by manipulative promises of promotion and financial security from the protagonist’s workplace enemies.

Enter “his Emily” in the name of Julia Briseis Gottlieb. Hired secretly to be the supervisor of the more experienced Jonah, she turns out to embody, quite perfectly, all the qualities Jonah is searching for. To the dismay of Jonah’s evil bosses, he and Julia form an immediate spiritual connection, discussing literature at length—particularly Poe and Dickinson—and the reader is presented with a poignant (and occasionally humorous) case of soulmate love as their relationship develops despite professional and personal barriers. Julia is hired not only to act as a foil against Jonah to get him to quit, but also because the main antagonist of the novel, Joanne Crawford, called ‘Queen Bee’ by her subordinates behind her back—a genuinely despicable character that the reader loves to hate—is a sexual parasite who likes taking advantage of younger females. Given that Nordstrom himself describes the novel as “fictional autobiography” that draws upon experiences over his lifetime, one suspects that he is engaging in an exposé of sorts regarding misandrist women whom he really knew and worked for, much as Dante placed his political enemies in Hell—a safer and more lasting form of revenge that allows one to publicize malevolent deeds and immortalize real-life scumbags in the most unflattering way possible.

In the hands of a lesser writer, a story about soulmate love risks devolving into crass sentimentality. Nordstrom, however, is able to balance everything nicely, mixing melancholy with humor through the lyricism of his imagistic prose. The metaphors run thick, and are consistently of a high quality: a friend’s hair is described as looking like “ruffled feathers of a mother bird after feeding too many starving little birds” (p. 27); a young man is described as “a studious monk slumping from chanting fatigue” (p. 55); the belief that Jonah’s Emily is somewhere in the world was “perched now in his heart like a stubborn pigeon refusing to move for an errant motorist” (p. 106); ominous dark clouds are imagined to be “Hannibal’s war elephants” (p. 296). Images are arrayed and marshalled by Nordstrom elegantly and powerfully, sometimes even more than once within the same sentence:

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Jonah’s mind imagined that her innermost fears and anxieties, like irritating pebbles lodged in the shell of an oyster, had up to this point found expression in the pearls of her private reserve of poetry, slowly aging in her bedroom bureau’s cedar-lined drawers like the best cigars (p. 149).

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Many of the best similes are extended comparisons that approach the ‘epic’ simile in character—a sort of imagery that one rarely encounters in fiction these days. Sometimes Nordstrom’s similes contain an additional layer of symbolism by alluding to the biographies of Poe and Dickinson themselves, their habits and traits, their suffering, or something they wrote. Seconds after meeting Julia, we are given this description of Jonah’s feelings:

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His heart now fell towards her, as if he were an orchid hunter and she the last specimen of a presumed-extinct type of Lady Slipper, blooming under the protective boughs of several pine trees in a virgin grove, hidden from all civilization in Amherst (p. 109).

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Dickinson is known to have enjoyed walking over the forested hills in Amherst, picking pink Lady Slippers and other types of wildflowers. Another simile, significant not only to characterization but also to the plot and theme of the novel, is the following: “They giggled simultaneously, like two happy fools having both made it through the pearly gates in the same instant, without ever having to suffer a moment grieving the other’s death (p. 115).” This is a reference to an early Poe tale entitled ‘The Assignation,’ in which a Byronic character, seen through the eyes of a spectator, commits suicide at the same time as his lover for the purpose of realizing the goal described in the above simile. The novel itself presents an interesting twist on this theme (which I will not spoil).

So much for the prose. But what of the poetry? After meeting, Jonah and Julia are each inspired to take up the practice of writing verse for each other. In a novel of 362 pages, there are thirteen original poems—eleven by Jonah, two by Julia. The poetry of Dickinson and Poe is also quoted in the text as well to help make Nordstrom’s point. One might have hoped for more poems, given their overall quality, but the small body presented here is enough to serve the novel’s story. In addition, the thirteen poems in the novel are quite sufficient to distinguish Nordstrom as a poet from much of the poetry written nowadays.

The poems themselves vary in form: although there is at least an irregular iambic rhythm present, some are closer to prose poems, while others have a fixed meter and/or rhyme scheme. Julia herself expresses a preference for “prose that reads like poetry,” and Jonah tries to fulfill this prescription in his writing verse for her: both to show his deep love for her and to convince her of his being the real deal after her heart has been poisoned against him by ‘Queen Bee;’ that is, much like as only Odysseus could pull his own bow back upon his return to Penelope in Ithaca, so Jonah proves to Julia that he is her soulmate lover by meeting in his own work Julia’s own preference for “prose that reads like poetry.” The first poem, “Ode to a Thing With Feathers,” is directly pertinent to the plot, as it is supposed to have been written years before the opening of the novel when Jonah was a teenager. In its style it blends the classical and the contemporary, as evident in the first stanza:

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When time’s sands inter us in mysterious oblivion,
In lengthening sable shade under a weeping willow,
These instant words of endearment will yet remain—
Impregnable against all adversity—
Enduring even beyond the last hourglass
Granules of the universe itself trickling into the void—
Reminding all of what could never end,
That is, my love for you, dear Emily—
Pure as the sunlight venerating your tuft of auburn-tinted chestnut hair,
Gentle as slowly falling snow in silent Amherst woods.

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There is a mixture here of Poe’s dark romanticism with the modernism characteristic of Eliot or Yeats, and as in much of Dickinson’s work, Latinate abstractions interweave with concrete imagery. In his essay ‘The Philosophy of Composition,’ Poe famously maintains that the death of a beautiful woman is “the most poetical topic in the world,” and so it is fittingly “Poetic” that the opening lines of the novel are dedicated to a dead poetess.

All of Nordstrom’s poetry contained within this volume, in fact, fares well when analyzed in terms of the dictums outlined in Poe’s essay, ‘The Poetic Principle.’ The poems are, first, all relatively short. Poe himself was of the opinion that “a long poem…is a flat contradiction in terms.” Long poems lack unity, as they cannot be read at a single sitting, and in their uneven breadth they alternate between passages of true poetry and passages filled with platitudes. Poe—a savage critic who was always prejudiced in favor of the sort of thing he himself does—even goes so far to say that “…the absolute effect of even the best epic under the sun, is a nullity…”

Second, although Poe himself employed a strict meter and rhyme scheme in all his poetry, Nordstrom does not “pause to maintain the absolute essentiality” of the musical aspects of rhyme and meter that are involved in “the Rhythmical Creation of Beauty.” This would seem to indicate that “immortal instinct, deep within the spirit of man,” that is “plainly, a sense of the Beautiful,” can be achieved through the irregular rhythms that Nordstrom employs in the opening poem excerpted above. At other times, Nordstrom also shows his capability in writing formal verse, as in the poems (ostensibly written by Jonah for Julia) “Julia Lee” and ”When Moonlight Strikes the Darkness Scarce”:

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When winter lunar light dares fall upon your face,
I see your portrait framed in sterling silver lace,
When the ivory globe steals a beam into our cell,
You appear as an angel ringing heaven’s bell,
But when moonlight strikes the darkness scarce,
An’ I view a path at midnight through heavy snow,
I think of your eyes, all bright, lively, and aglow,
For from them comes the only light able to end
This interminable night of loneliness in my soul.

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In form, the meter is iambic, but without a consistently fixed number of feet. It succeeds in capturing the melancholy longing that is characteristic of Poe’s best work, i.e., “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee.” According to Poe, one achieves a sense of the Beautiful by citing “the manifold forms, and sounds, and odors, and sentiments” which are a “source of delight,” and sensuous imagery abounds in the descriptions in “When Moonlight Strikes the Darkness Scarce” of the “ivory globe” of the moon, and the “angel ringing heaven’s bell.” Such Poesque descriptive choices by Nordstrom, while out of fashion in many contemporary poetry circles these days, should not be dismissed out of hand, as they participate in “The Beautiful” which all human beings have access to, and because his verse is particularly apropos to the story he is telling in A Thing With Feathers.

One thing that characterizes a good deal of modern free verse is the trend towards discarding classical imagery in favor of mundane, jarring, and even ugly metaphors. Nordstrom’s work does not fall into this dry well. In sharp contrast to Nordstrom, for example, Allan Ginsberg, in his “masterpiece” “Howl,” employs raw and obscene language that reflects only the confusion and outrage of his generation. In some modern poetry a concrete minimalism that reflects the materialistic worldview of the poet is favored over expansive abstractions of soulmate love and literary beauty that one might find at the level of metaphysical sensibility: similes and metaphors seldom run on for more than a line, and most are just a word or two. Missouri’s current poet laureate, Maryfrances Wagner, in her poem ”When I am in My Kitchen,” draws the parallel that knives are “dependable as good clocks”—a humdrum, rather banal, simile and the only explicit comparison in a seventeen-line piece that is mostly mundane catalogue of ingredients and baking procedures. Although turning a recipe into a poem may be considered sufficiently original these days to be named the poet laureate of a state, nobody who actually lives in that state will ever want to read it for non-gastronomic purposes.

Another thing that separates Nordstrom’s verse from certain award-winning “poets” of our time—who mostly fall short even of the standards of decent prose—is the mood of his poems. Free-verse writers today tend to be too angry and thus unable to reach a silver lining of any sort in their work. So the national Poet Laureate Joy Harjo ends her celebrated poem ‘American Sunrise’ with these lines:

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I argued with a Pueblo as I filled the jukebox with dimes in June,
forty years later and we still want justice. We are still America. We
know the rumors of our demise. We spit them out. They die
soon.

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In a passage devoid of any imagery whatsoever (other than the dead metaphors invoked in the verbs ‘spit’ and ‘die’), Harjo’s frustration and bitterness are right on the surface; she does not even bother to cloak her modernistic rambling in a veneer of redeeming symbolism. Though one can empathize with the despair and alcoholism one finds on a contemporary Native American reservation, and think her feelings justified regarding the hardships and injustices her people have faced both in the past and the present, ‘American Sunrise’ is neither good art nor worthy of her people’s long suffering, precisely because it both fails to point out the beautiful and the noble in that suffering and to use that beauty and nobility as something which the people can use toward reaching a higher level of being for her people collectively.

The stark aesthetic practices of Harjo and others like her could not be more at odds with another of Poe’s dictums: that the beauty reflected in a poem is itself “a wild effort to reach the Beauty above.” In ‘The Poetic Principle,’ he further states that, “Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of the glories beyond the grave, we struggle, by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of Time, to attain a portion of that Loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain to eternity alone.” We may, he continues, attain “brief and indeterminate glimpses” of eternity through poetry.

Nordstrom’s poetry exhibits neither the modern tendencies of commonplace or gratuitous vulgar imagery, nor does it founder on either of the empty shoals of excessive rage or of nihilistic materialism. The sadness in his poems is balanced by a celebration of spiritual or “soulmate” love, which, expressed through an abundance of nature imagery, makes the tragedy in the novel palatable, and even charming or sublime. In this sense, Nordstrom has taken lessons from both Poe and Dickinson, whose best verse, while often despairing, has a magical quality that is totally lacking in the unhinged and, in some cases, destructive pessimism of today’s most applauded poets. In Poe’s case, he achieves his effects through hypnotic rhythms and repetitions; in Dickinson’s, through describing existential states and primal feelings in terms of domesticated images, as when Death becomes a carriage ride. Nordstrom captures something of this quality in his poem, “My Orchard Bijou,” in which Jonah cycles through a series of bucolic images, none of which by itself is quite sufficient to capture his love for Julia: an endangered honeybee, a monarch butterfly, the dawn’s dew, the wind, the warm sun, a “bushy-tailed squirrel,” and ardor itself. In ”She Is The Moon,” the entire poem is an extended simile comparing the effects Julia’s soul has on his soul to the lunar pull on the ocean tides, making her the moon controlling the undercurrents of Jonah’s being. In Julia’s poem “Profession,” Nordstrom employs desert imagery in iambic tetrameter to describe her long, hitherto profitless search for love that leads her by poem’s end to a palpable feeling of suicide, with appropriate references to Sylvia Plath (another poet the two main characters both greatly admire). While love poems revolving around gardens, moons, and deserts can easily fall into being cliché, the specificity and uniqueness of Nordstrom’s imagery again saves this from occurring.

In a small point of technical criticism, one aspect of the poems some would consider a flaw is that they occasionally employ contractions when using prepositions. While this gives the pieces an archaic quality and a feeling that one is wading in tradition (“Shades of the Romantic Era,” as Julia says after reading one of them), certain readers might find this to jar against their modernist preferences and predilections. In the past, poets like Poe and Dickinson used contractions in order to fit the metrical scheme, but in poems lacking regular meter there is no clear need for the practice other than to lend an air of romantic antiquarianism, which might be less conspicuously achieved through other effects.

All in all, though, whether in poetry or in lyrical prose, Nordstrom’s A Thing With Feathers admirably encapsulates Edgar Allan Poe’s maxim that the poetic principle always manifest itself “in an elevating excitement of the Soul.” In this sense, one gets the distinct feeling, spine-tingling in places, that Nordstrom really might be Poe’s reincarnation. Indeed, Nordstrom provides the reader who has been wandering in the desert of 21st century American culture an oasis to rehydrate his thirsty soul. The literary connoisseur cannot help but hope that the Pulitzer Prize board will place a primacy on literary talent and original style, in awarding the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction to what is clearly one of the best American novels, if not the best American novel, written this year of 2021.

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Andrew Benson Brown was a graduate student at George Mason University before taking too many classes outside his discipline coincided with the reality of Debt. He now works as a children’s caseworker in rural Missouri. In his spare time he reads obscure classics, writes things of little market value, and exercises far more than is befitting for a modern intellectual.


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2 Responses

  1. The Mindflayer

    This review is outstanding! I have read A Thing With Feathers and even though Romance is not my usual genre I found myself utterly captivated by it. Your analysis confirms why I enjoyed it so much: the balance heartbreak and humour, of lyricism with all-too-real observations on modern life, it’s a truly unique work. This incredibly thorough and insightful review really places it in the literary canon!

    Reply

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