North of Order by Nicholas Gulig (A Review)

 North of Order
123 pages | $16

North of Order lets loose an overarching imagination, one that is freed of borders and delimitations, and one to which Nicholas Gulig’s own geographical detours have most probably contributed – he was born in Wisconsin but studied in Montana, Iowa, Thailand, and now Colorado. Here is a mind which has been unfettered and transplanted, several times, and grown acutely aware of space as something beyond the confines of our daily experiences.

Gulig’s poetry is slippery, eluding our most careful efforts to pinpoint it; yet it also has an edge to it, each sparse line gliding along the page like the finest blade, almost shivering with the intensity of the language and images surging through (“I thread a violence through you”). We’re forced to readjust even the way we breathe when reading these lines that bristle with both a sense of contained violence and a yearning to cast aside that which weighs us down. ‘I’ and ‘you’ are very much present, but stripped of their circumstantial, temporal aspects. They do not crowd the page, do not overwhelm us with idle chatter of the speaker’s feelings – rather, they let the emptiness reel us in – and they intersect in this fractured body that is never wholly real or unreal:

troubled into
sentiment // a blank material, the un-

real sky
within the body

vaguely human
(the here inside the I inside the am

Particular attention is paid to the margins: we’re heading after all north of order (and it’s good to mention here that Gulig already has a chapbook under his belt, aptly entitled West of Center). Center is order, is the familiar – and as always, the magic happens in the margins, forcing us to go deep into unfamiliar territory. Or should we say, more accurately, defamiliarized territory, where what we thought we knew is cast in a stranger light, perceived through new prisms, reflected in distorting mirrors? North is a reference point for compasses, but here it serves to sidetrack us, turn our bearings upside-down. (“In you a landscape // collapses through me”) North is where entropy resides and shakes up our old ways of seeing.

And seeing is another paradigm that gets reassessed through these poems. The book’s epigraph is a line from Paul Celan – “…here I can see // you” – which holds the key to the poetics at work here: a grammar predicated on fault lines, highlighting how ambivalent the relationship between subject, verb, and object can be. “See” is both a transitive and intransitive action verb, meaning it can take on or not an object. The double slash between verb and object here creates a visual rupture, a minute hesitation – I can see, and I can see you. Which one is it? Both at once? Perhaps most importantly is the fact that sight is indeed possible – in a certain location at least, under certain conditions. In a world where the modernist and post-modernist heritages have irrevocably altered our faith as artists in clear-sightedness, North of Order sheds some light (pardon the facile metaphor) on how we have learned to see.

We generally think we can only see when there’s light around us. Our own language amplifies our need for clarity. Light as a means of revelation. But we forget that light can literally blind us, prevent us from seeing, and that obscurity can bring about new ways of seeing – literature and mythology teem with blind seers who exemplify the distinction between sight as it’s traditionally understood – the ability to physically see – and sight-as-vision, sight as peering into the recesses of our outer and inner worlds and grasping the infinitesimal connections hidden from common perception. One poem is most revealing, that shares its title with the book but expands on it: “north of order // north of light” – we must seek what lies away from the light, in an attempt to sharpen our own vision.

Let us take a moment here to linger on that double slash, constantly present throughout the collection: either grammatical fracture or parallel sign (or both), it draws our attention to the way everything is in oscillation. From the very first lines (“We couldn’t place it, couldn’t call it past the black hills, the white hills”) to the very last ones (“I did & didn’t love you. // We fall away.”), we feel as though as we are shuttling back and forth between multiple layers of meaning and modes of perception, multiple realities even. We are “bound &/or embodied” in constant hesitation. The text always seems to be retracing its own steps, revisiting its obsessions – the field and the sea, the forest and the sky, the number nine, the color red, the hunger and the light – as well as revising and recreating itself. Uncertainty is its core modus operandi, which the experimental presentation of the text magnifies – though let’s make it clear, the layout and the punctuation here are no gimmicks.

Words and word clusters constellate the pages of North of Order as if to chart the skies of our minds, performing what is called in French l’appel du vide – that inexplicable pull one may get when standing atop a high place, the muffled desire to leap clear off the ledge. A siren song of sorts, that translates into a yearning to steer away from order and sound the empty spaces in between the words. In this tremendous and eerily beautiful collection, quiet sparseness hides unfathomable depths – “For you I’ve stopped my diving”.


AK Afferez is a French-American writer, translator, grad student, avid traveler, and sporadic blogger, with a fondness for aliases, lists, and good tapas.

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