CUTBANK REVIEWS: Pattern Exhaustion by Nate Pritts

Pattern Exhaustion by Nate Pritts
Reviewed by Davy Knittle

Nate Pritts’ chapbook-length poem, Pattern Exhaustion, opens, “I forget myself/ but I remember the morning / radio news.” The poem is the ghost of one workday, commencing with the remembered “morning / radio news” and closing with “fifteen minutes at the drycleaners.” Minutes are the poem’s prime scale. Pritts’ speaker notes, “I spend forty minutes / imagining what it would be like / to stand in the rain” or “Think for five minutes / about whether repetition suggests emphasis / or mania” or “I lay on the couch for fifteen minutes / & feel guilty about it.”

Outside of these tightly temporal frames, the present in Pattern Exhaustion shifts on itself. The poem’s short, declarative sentences that make up its present may belong to one moment or to a general condition. Pritts’ speaker says: “I try to name every cloud / in a crowded sky.” Does he do it once? Many times? Other versions of the present take more time. Pritts writes, “I forget everything / I ever knew about / summer.” Others are quite clearly single moments, distinguished by an outside actor. For instance, “I watch the light from three planes / blink past my window.” The present shifts between these forms.

In moments where the poem is rigorous about recording the duration-in-minutes of its speaker’s activities, it feels like a kind of therapy tool, recording how time is used as a way of mapping its slippage. While Pritts’ poem is a fall poem, it’s fall in Upstate New York. It snows in the poem. It’s cold. It echoes A. R. Ammons’ Tape for the Turn of the Year (1965), another cold weather long poem that situates its speaker largely in his house, anxiously waiting for the letter that confirms his employment at Cornell. Ammons’ speaker, like Pritts’, looks out his window and around his house, chronicling the torsion of his anxiety, and trying to use the poem to adhere him to what he sees, to add up his object world to a presence great enough to make him feel able to be still and to be in the room all the way. Like Ammons’ poem, which is separated into sections by date, earlier versions of Pattern Exhaustion appeared as individual poems with date-titles.  

Like Pritts, Ammons often returns to clouds as a referential frame, an element of outside that’s available in the house, from which he can double back on his own life:

the cloud patterns
must have been fine,
dark roils
hidden by rain:

I wonder what all did

Other people, in Tape, are specters on the edges of Ammons’ attempts to hold his own attention steady. They serve a similar purpose for Pritts, for whom minutes correspond to an interest in the miniature, to a condensed frame that’s clearest when focused on others. The strongest moments in the poem are those where the speaker loses himself in detail:

I watch this one girl              gently
press the back of her hand
to her forehead

& do the same thing

Recording elements of his life in the poem is Pritts’ primary means of subverting the anxiety about whether or not he is remembering, and about what he will remember. Sometimes Pritts scales down to the unit of the minute, and sometimes he scales up, trying to reach at everything and give it a sequence. Gestures like “I will dismantle the center of the world” feel and are meant to feel empty, and speak to the failure of frame that occasions the restless, busy exhaustion that speeds the poem along. The poem is always aware of the fact that years on this planet may not have aggregated. That the skill you think you’re building may be harder to maintain than it was to acquire. There may be no record of our lives. Even the poems we write may be far away from what we lived and what we wanted those poems to hold. 

At his most removed, Pritts’ speaker ventures outside time, to a metaexperience of his life, where he devotes so much time to thinking about what his life is like that it’s hard for him to experience his life directly. Pritts writes, “I never know what to say next / since I spend so much time / narrating my life.” Pritts’ speaker’s unrest feels both quotidian and traumatic. It’s almost fixable. It’s almost okay. The speaker is interested in a solution, but the poem itself shores up the split between seeing the visible world and narrating his movement through it, until that division is inescapable. It’s the way he knows how to be alive.

“Pattern Exhaustion” feels like a shorthand, an inexact or partial name for the feeling of living in moments deprived of defining characteristics. It’s a desire to account for what the days add up to, and to assess what kind of record there might be when all of the days are gone. The state of pattern exhaustion is most trumped by moments that need the involvement of others, however cursorily. The poem reads as an animation of the struggle to stay in any version of the present. As it is for Jennifer Moxley’s speaker in The Open Secret, a book contemporaneous with Pattern Exhaustion, “the present is resistance.”

It’s not that Pritts’ speaker has a quotidian existence that bores him. It’s that he has the expansive days of an academic’s schedule, where he’s at home, often, while the public sphere is abstractly busy and turning away from him on its own plane. It’s not because he teaches at a university, though. It’s because of something he does not and cannot name. While it takes a contemporary form, checking his email, nosing around on Google Earth, it’s an anxiety he shares with Ammons, who in the mid- 1960s does none of those things, but has the same feeling. It’s an inability to offer his own days a shape that has meaning. It’s an inability to pair his thoughts to his object world. It’s the false math of making himself choose between what he thinks and what he sees. It’s knowing what would help and not being able to do any of it. It’s having a need not dire enough to occasion change. It’s the desire for austerity, and the competing desire to subvert it. He needs it, though. He says himself, “I only hear myself in simple time.” 

About the Author:
Nate Pritts is the Director and Founding Editor of H_NGM_N (2001), an independent publishing house that started as a mimeograph ‘zine and which has grown to encompass an annual online journal, an occasional digital chapbook series, a continuing series of single-author books and sporadic limited edition/low-fi projects. He is also the author of seven books of poetry, most recently Right Now More Than Ever (2013) and Post Human (2016). Pritts is Associate Professor at Ashford University where he serves as Curriculum Lead and Administrative head of the Film program.

About the Reviewer:
Davy Knittle's reviews and poems have appeared recently or are forthcoming in Fence, Jacket2, Denver Quarterly, and Iowa Review. His first chapbook, cyclorama, was released by The Operating System in April. He lives in Philadelphia, where he is a PhD candidate in English at Penn.