Available now in bookshops nationwide.
Bill Nelson’s Memorandum of Understanding is a surreal collection of poetry that weaves in and out through moments of life. In his opening poem, Nelson sneaks into the life of John Coltrane, a strange but beautifully described experience where the narrator literally unzips Coltrane’s skin.
And so, Nelson breathes through a series of various personas. In his poem Vocal, Nelson encapsulates a beautiful kind of bliss when the narrator proudly sings the wrong words; his focus seems to be on the sensation of feeling free, to the point of being unapologetic. In a flurry of feeling, the persona lets the song grow “because I’m singing and it sounds good and the song is in my head, and inside my head”. Through this narrator, Nelson seems to be saying, over and over again: this is how I feel, this is how I feel, and what I feel is valid.
Nelson speaks of experience in an honest and focused way. Pattern #176 was one of my favourite poems for this reason. It was also a poem that proved that Nelson is an expert at noticing. He examines everyday life in subtle and different ways, talking of ‘the way my arm unravels / over the small of your back / over the tattoo / you see only in reflection’. Pattern #176 was also formatted in a quirky arrangement that used slashes instead of line breaks. The piece that shares the title of the collection, Memorandum of Understanding, was also written in this format. It affirms the same unapologetic tone of Vocal by stating facts without shying away: “Understand that we will be walking together… Understand, that I love you”.
I especially loved the sequence of mini-poems in How to do just about anything. The universal “you” referred to in these pieces became a character who grew with each new setting. From getting arrested to garage sales and income tax audits, it was wonderful to see the strange and different ways Nelson used these experiences to mark moments in life. It also explored the uncertainty of the world where “everything happens by accident”, and how these accidents get accommodated into our lives.
Near the end of this sequence of poetry, Nelson’s writing starts to slow too: “You are winding down… you are feeling sleepy”. By the time I was at the final mini-poem The whys and Zs—a title that also made me smile—it felt like I’d read through a whole history. This final poem describes a man at rest, his arms crossed over his chest “like an X”, marking the spot of someone who was once filled with the emotions and thoughts that Nelson so wonderfully spins together in his poetry.
Memorandum of Understanding is thick with the connections and emotions that we make in our lives, from the simple breaths we take to the more complicated regrets we keep. Although decisions in life cannot be as fixed or organised as a business document like an actual memorandum of understanding, all our relationships and emotions, no matter how messy, are true and valid experiences.
Reviewed by Emma Shi
Memorandum of Understanding
by Bill Nelson
Published by VUP