EC native’s book-length poem defies categorization
About 20 years ago, I was a student at Memorial High School sitting in Mary Mickel’s English class. On the day in question, we were presenting some kind of speech, possibly based on a personal experience or some such – I don’t really remember.
But what I do remember is my friend, Nick Gulig, ambling up to the front of the class in his tattered punk-rock regalia: Clothes literally held together with pins, magic, hasty stitches, body odor, and Trucker’s Union patches. There was a Thelonious Monk T-shirt he wore (seemingly every day) until it essentially died.
And Gulig himself, who could not have weighed 115 pounds, with his long black hair, and a demeanor that swung between sullenness and frisky coltishness, up there in the front of the class, and his speech was unlike anything I’d ever heard before:
There was talk of a trip to a Mexican desert, of accidentally staying in a terrifying bordello, and of a “Tom Waits pinprick sky”… What Gulig was expressing, was a way of life that I was only really reading about in the Kerouac books I checked out from the library, in the Ginsberg poetry I encountered through other friends, and in the Rimbaud poetry I wasn’t ready to understand.
There was this rootless American wonder to his observations that I felt deeply in awe of, and slightly jealous of. Gulig is a fearless person; I believe that. To be truly passionate about your art, you have to be fearless.
And now, 20 years later, after graduating from the University of Montana and the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, after receiving the prestigious Fulbright grant and living in Thailand, there is a book of poetry as testament to this life I’ve been fortunate enough to observe as friend and fellow writer.
North of Order is a single book-length poem that defies facile categorization. Gulig’s poetry is somehow equally spare and ornate, and toils with the impossibility of clear emotional communication – essentially our human condition.
In lines like, “the glass through which I wanted / what I wanted. I placed my arms around you, waited. / You said to me, we’re fine.” Gulig is reporting from both within and without his own heart, his own life. He is unafraid to report back home that we are forever unable to speak clearly, to hear correctly, to love evenly.
Some artists forge ahead of their own volition; they have a vision, an identity, a commitment to their art that needs no validation. Others of us (me) need a path, some kind of roadmap or mentor – something to guide us towards our goals.
In my own life, I can say that two Eau Claire artists acted as role models for my career as a novelist (though neither of them were aware of it, and neither were novelists themselves). The first, is Justin Vernon. The second, is Nicholas Gulig.
I remember sitting at The Joynt one night, almost nine years ago, when Gulig told me he had been admitted to the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. My first reaction was pride. But a lesser impulse was there too, something like jealousy, envy, competition. I thought, if Gulig can do it, so can I.
I am confident that after reading this haunting book of poetry, Gulig may inspire other Chippewa Valley artists to follow him into a life of letters, into delving into that mystery that is our hearts.
North of Order is available from YesYesBooks.com. Gulig will read from his book at 7pm Thursday, May 7, at The Volume One Gallery, 205 N. Dewey St., where he will be joined by Nickolas Butler, author of the forthcoming short story collection, Beneath the Bonfire.