by Josiah Nelson
In 2018, Nick Laird and his partner Zadie Smith each released a book titled Feel Free. While his collection was comprised of poems, and hers of essays, the shared title seemed, if not intentional, then at least conspicuous. At their joint reading at Shakespeare and Company Bookshop in Paris—meant to launch Laird’s collection and promote Smith’s—Laird offered a simple, accidental explanation: he had titled a poem “Feel Free” in 2014, and Smith had liked it too much not to use it for herself.
The anecdote seems relevant because, despite its title, Laird’s collection explores the ways in which we’re tethered—to our environment, society, or in this case family—and the desire for freedom that might engender in us. In the collection’s first poem, “Glitch,” the speaker recovers from fainting, “risen of a sudden like a bubble / to the surface,” but longs for the reprieve of that liminal, unconscious space: “and all // particulars of my other life fled except the sense / that lasts for hours of being wanted somewhere else” (5).
But as much as freedom calls to Laird, so too do the demands of domestic and parental life. In “Fathers” he reassures one of his children: “There’s no use getting all het / up: I give you a bed for your tiredness: I give you / some bread I have toasted and buttered: I give you // a stretch of the earth” (8). The repeated short “e” vowel sound finds comfort in this routine of reassurance, but the enjambment, which breaks the line twice on “I give you,” perhaps betrays a sense of weariness.
Laird isn’t merely interested in exploring fatherhood, but also in his identity as a son. Feel Free is split into three sections, but each section features a poem titled, “The Good Son,” a triad thematically linked in their exploration of violence and obligation, featuring fathers who float above as ghost or memory. In “Silk Cut,” Laird recounts a childhood experience of reaching for his father’s hand and finding instead “the red end of a cigarette” (20). The poem then leaps forward, finding Laird and his father powerless and bereaved after the death of Laird’s mother. The poem, a single sentence spread across four breathless quatrains and absent of a final period, ends, “we are going home, waiting / at the turn for the traffic, when I find / I have to stop my hand from taking his” (20).
Despite Feel Free’s preoccupation with restrictions and familial obligations, its title shouldn’t be read as purely ironic; there’s a levity of language, voice, and form that buoys the collection’s tone and demonstrates Laird’s desire to follow his title’s directive. Both “Grenfell” and “Manners” invoke a corporate, bureaucratic voice to comic and a surprisingly earnest effect, while “The Vehicle and the Tenor,” “Parable of the Arrow,” and “Cinna the Poet” feel contemporary but esoteric, told by distant, almost oracular speakers.
Laird’s formal range is wide, too, playing with monostiches, couplets, tercets, quatrains, quintains, or, like “Watermelon Seed,” a half-page stanza to distill a domestic moment: “I like watching you at work: one dangles / from a tine, expelled and slickly black, / suspended by a tendril of thin pink pulp till / you flick it with your index finger / expertly at the sink. Plink” (37). The scene is acutely observed, but also conveys the speaker’s wonder with euphonic “e” and “l” sounds, and repeats a short “i” sound that finds a satisfying resolution in the poem’s rhymed ending.
And perhaps this scene is precisely what Feel Free is attempting to get at: the ways in which we’re tethered to others, and the sort of precious, ubiquitous moments we become privy to as a result. The titular poem ends with the speaker soothing his daughter to sleep and remembering loci of freedom, emphasizing the feel part of the title: “Tickling your back, Katherine, to get you to sleep, I like to lie here / with my eyes closed and think about my schoolfriends’ houses before / choosing one to walk through slowly, room by sunlit room” (15).
Laird’s collection beautifully captures the sense of claustrophobia that can attend a settled life, but ultimately celebrates it, suggesting that life is best lived in the messy, restrictive web of community and family—even if this might mean having to share the occasional title.
“Feel Free: Nick Laird & Zadie Smith,” 2018. Youtube, uploaded by Shakespeare and Company Bookshop, 19 July 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1dQ3fxFAdDg.
Laird, Nick. Feel Free: Poems. 1st American edition, W.W. Norton and Company, 2019.
Josiah Nelson is a second year MFA in Writing student at the University of Saskatchewan. He’s currently writing a collection of short stories exploring precarity, coming-of-age, and iconoclasm. His work has appeared in Exclaim!, the Culture Crush, spring magazine, Fractured Lit, and the Rumpus, among others. He lives in Saskatoon.