Poet Nick Twemlow employs short lines and long poems to explore his past and the possibilities of language in “Attributed to the Harrow Painter.” The collection, published by the University of Iowa Press, is self-referential, experimental, and never less than engaging. Indeed, readers are asked to engage with both the subject matter and the unexpected ways in which the poet bends language to his artistic purpose.
Twemlow, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who teaches at Coe College, explores his relationship with his father and with his young son, offering up reflections and memories that are sometimes crystalline and sometimes opaque. The poems refer to one another, offer concepts from other art forms and artists — at one point a website address is included in the text of the poem to highlight an artist — and veer sharply in new directions at unexpected moments. Twemlow is skilled at allowing a phrase to morph from one meaning to another as the lines pile up and the momentum of a poem builds.
The title poem, which closes the collection, considers the notion of a minor artist, using as an example a painter of Greek vases — the “harrow painter” of the title. It also recounts a troubling relationship and its aftermath, good and ill. The poem manages to be both sprawling and tightly controlled, the poet’s narrative voice strong and expansive.
While it is possible to lose one’s way in Twemlow’s work, the poems’ surprises are pleasing and the rhythms of the language carry the reader along until firmer footing can be found.
“Attributed to the Harrow Painter” is highly recommended.