In Cinema Vernacular, playwright and screenwriter Peter Nickowitz treads precarious ground: poetry’s consistent flirtation with film. One is tempted to catalog the dilettantes of contemporary poetry who have handled the subject with all the subtlety of an atom bomb. It would be wasted space, considering Nickowitz has written a lush yet taut collection of poetry that affirms cinema as the collective crutch for trauma avoidance and self-scrutiny.
Much like Nicholas, the narrator in the unfurling first part of Cinema Vernacular, we go to the movies to escape and depart once the credits roll, having incidentally gleaned some truth about ourselves or at least human nature. Nickowitz details a summer of his narrator’s life into a four-part poetic screenplay: stanzas of scenes that jump cut or fade into the next, the imagined camera following him from New York to Paris and back. Cinema enchants and confounds Nicholas. He perceives it to be superior to the written word in transmuting everyday experience, but this perception handicaps his ambition of becoming a writer. Erotic encounters with other men only serve as fodder for Nicholas to cinematically sculpt. Film becomes a proxy for feeling, a platform for remote viewing of the self. He is reminiscent of the narrator in Delmore Schwartz’s Screeno, yelling at the screen because he is frustrated by his inability to change its outcome and ultimately the trajectory of his now-listless personal life.
Film is dream-like, but so is great poetry. The screenplay notations begin to fall away as subsequent poems easily rival the motion picture’s ability to conjure evocative, retina-searing imagery. Nickowitz’s elegant economy of line condenses the sprawling first work while retaining its languid and intimate qualities. The poem that shares its name with the book’s title oscillates between tender scenes of the narrator’s terminally-ill mother and those of fumbled, ineffectual cruising. Sanctuary finds the speaker coming out to his father, who is unyielding as the “day-darkened stones” of Notre Dame. The frequent theme of inaccessibility of the father and grandfather in Nickowitz’s collection hints at a familiar queer ontology: the flight to same-sex relationships as distraction from or reconciliation of this parental lack. Lines like “Sassy Spanish girls fold & flirt / staccato teeth & air” infuse his poetry with an electric mis-en-scene more aligned with cinema than the brooding Noir or New Wave archetype a poet is tempted to employ. Nothing about Cinema Vernacular is shorthand or emulative; it is as visceral as our lives’ most exhilarating moments, those spent outside of the theater.