Reading Jim Nason’s latest poetry collection, Self-Portrait Embracing a Fabulous Beast, is like taking a masterclass in poetics. The economy and precision of words show effortlessly what makes a poem works. The subjects are noteworthy as well, ranging from ephemeral emotions through carnal sex to portraits of artists whose work is embedded in our cultural roadmap.

The book is divided in four sections: This Tree is a Rabbit, Honey and Salt, Rilke’s Tree, and Self-Portrait Embracing a Fabulous Beast. All but Rilke’s Tree, which is comprised of a single work, is a mini-collection on its own.

This Tree is a Rabbit takes us through the grind of daily life in a contemporary urban setting. Moonwalk Through January describes the drab reality of winter in the city, instantly recognizable to anyone who has endured the season, culminating with a snapping-down finality: “We’ve been through this month before.”.

Covid Homeless brings a starker reality to bear with a gut-wrenching lurch (“he died/with a glass pipe in his hand”), more visceral than any newspaper article or photo, taking us right down to the lifeless body lying on the ground and leaving us to wonder: Who is responsible? Did I do enough to help?

Honey and Salt is a bestiary of carnality, including a wraparound snake, crying fish, domesticated camel, and a spiteful parrot among others. In these war-tinged stanzas, the poet grapples with his appetite for love: “I was driven to snakes/by the venom of our fights”, he reveals in Wind Stormed in With the Rain. In the emotionally ambivalent “Hump Day”, he describes “handfeeding memory’s camel,” trading a landscape of snow for one of sand, sadness for a temporary kind of redemption.

The longer work, Rilke’s Tree, opens with an indelible window on time as the narrator/poet contemplates a book entitled You Must Change Your Life, which details the friendship between writer Rainer Maria Rilke and sculptor Auguste Rodin. The poem is further populated by Nijinsky and Rodin’s mistress, Camille Claudel, among others, hinting at the fabled milieu of early-20th century Paris.

Self-Portrait Embracing a Fabulous Beast, inspired by a pencil drawing of the same name by Federico García-Lorca, describes the struggles each of us faces in coming to terms with the darker parts of our intimate selves, in so far as they are knowable. In Envy, the poet confesses how he covets the work of American writer Carl Phillips (“I wanted a line like that, just one”), while in the title poem his lust turns him into a creature with “prancing … hooves” and “fiery loins”.

The section concludes with the aptly titled Soul (a rewriting of Seoul), and the poet’s empathy with diver Greg Louganis, who achieved a special kind of notoriety when he bled at the Seoul Olympics and then failed to disclose his HIV status: “Which leap/loosens fear heavy as a dead man/slung over your back?”.

At times heavy but at others notably light-hearted, these are the works of a poet who has mastered his craft, his words lighting up the sky like a display of northern lights.

Self-Portrait Embracing a Fabulous Beast is available from Frontenac House.

Jim Nason is the author of seven previous volumes of poetry, a short story collection and three novels. He was a finalist for the CBC Literary Award for both fiction and poetry. His poetry book Rooster, Dog, Crow was shortlisted for the 2019 Raymond Souster Award.

About the Author

Jeffrey Round is an award-winning author, filmmaker, and songwriter. His breakout novel, A CAGE OF BONES, was listed on AfterElton’s 50 Best Gay Books. LAKE ON THE MOUNTAIN, the first of seven Dan Sharp mysteries, won a Lambda Award in 2013. His latest book is the poetry collection THREADS from Beautiful Dreamer Press. His fifteenth novel, THE SULPHUR SPRINGS CURE, will be published by Cormorant books in 2024.