Nielsen's 'Brand New Beggar'

James Brown and the JBs

A.L. Nielsen, A Brand New Beggar (Steerage Press, 2013), 99 pp—Among the academics he circulates as a peripatetic conference participant, Aldon Nielsen is probably best known for his literary criticism and cultural studies work. He is, after all, the author of one of the most significant books on African American poetry, Black Chant. However, he has been writing and publishing poetry all along, and it seems that in recent years he has ratcheted up the production. His most recent collection is his most fully realized book yet. In these typically pun- and wordplay-filled poems and titles (including the title of the book itself), Nielsen holds up a mirror to everything he is other than the sartorially suave professor so many have come to know. Still, anyone who knows him will not be surprised by the subjects here — scholar Anna Everett (his wife), photography (has anyone actually seen him without a camera slung around his neck?), and music. Framed by train poems, the quientessential blues metaphor of solitude and stoicism, A Brand New Beggar paints a picture of an itinerant, long-distance spouse reveling in the consolations of memory and imagination (“To think her on the fly”), in the supple powers of poetry (“It is a poem that conceals its leanings / As it reveals itself / There against the darkness / Of a turned shoulder”) and in photography (“Some nights I run through these slides / Try to animate by rushing the least / Flickering show of you … ”). For readers of Nielsen’s past books of poetry, the “love poems” reveal a more intimate, more romantic, man, but this collection also includes Nielsen’s more typical snappy homages to blues, jazz and r & b music and musicians. For example, in the section “from Kansas,” Nielsen imagines early jazz as a response to the call of its geographical matrix: “Kansas’s hawk riffing / With the wind / The roar in wings / When Jay’s hawk answers.” True to Nielsen’s wide-ranging tastes, there are, in this section, homages to, and putdowns of, Frank Zappa (“It was / For them / An invention”) and Gertrude Stein (“There’s no / Their there”), as well as Stan Brakhage and Gil Scott-Heron. A Brand New Beggar is Nielsen’s most personal, warmest, collection of poems yet. Worth checking out.