Writing good minimalist poetry is hard to do, so when you find poets who can do it you just want to savour their work as much as possible. This was certainly the case when I read Nelson Ball’s new collection In This Thin Rain, a book that contains the kind of brief, meditative observations that deserve a slow and—in my case, at least—out-loud reading. Ball has honed his talent for minimalist verse across more than two dozen poetry books since the 1960s, and his latest shows his abilities at their full strength.
A lot of the power and momentum behind these pieces arise from Ball’s uncanny skill with line breaks. He understands not only how to leave space for poems to breathe but also how to leave space for our brains to breathe. The rhythm of these poems are tailored to the way the contemplative mind works, how it mulls over notions or images in a microsecond before moving on, craving reinforcement or paradox. Take for example the deceptively simple poem “Obituaries”:
I’ve been reading obituaries
The genius is in that incredible “don’t quite/know why” enjambment. A lesser poet might have written the simpler “don’t know why” and done it as one line, but here Ball is wise enough to understand the staccato nature of human rumination. The repeated “always” is just the right amount of closing emphasis on an idea about bleakness and inevitability. It’s amazing how much verve Ball can squeeze into just 14 words.
Or take the piece “Walking”, where the line breaks and careful word choices create a wonderful verisimilitude of ambulation:
at The Ponds
enough to make
Again, line breaks add momentum and punch, and here they work in congress with a carefully chosen simile (trees as restless as the poet). And do I need to I need to point out the quiet genius of those one-word lines that end the poem?
Another strength of In This Thin Rain is the way that Ball is able to work in reoccurring tropes and images without making them feel heavy handed. The collection is full of windmills, of houseflies in their death throes, of rain and pine needles floating on water. In true minimalist fashion, the poems don’t force us to make connections between these repetitions or see some greater significance in their use. Rather, Ball presents these as what they are—quotidian observations that do what true observations do: crop up again and again.
The book’s acknowledgements page points out that Ball lost both his wife and his mother inside of 18 months during the writing of this collection. This fact lends an unmistakable (and unsettling) tension to the book upon rereading. The passage of time and the slow accumulation of images build not so much to a climax as to a searing realization: that grief can come fast and hard, and cannot be skirted. But also this: that grief is, in the end, just another part of the natural experience of living and can, if you are wise and attuned to the heart's honest voice, be expressed briefly through a poem. Briefly, and with truth.