NEA Literature Fellowships

Matthew Nienow

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(2011 - Poetry)

The End of the Folded Map

There's a certain sadness to this water, caught
in the muddy nook of the freeway's clover,
a hundred geese honking at the passing cars

and for a reason I can't explain, I think
to follow the clover back, to see again,
after three unnecessary turns, the living

things in the arms of the freeway,
listening as the GPS tells me turn
here now and, having passed the turn,

is recalculating my mistake.  The flat screen
is a lens that can make of the planet
a cat's-eye marble or a cartoon of this journey,

but I prefer the old maps that didn't talk,
a map's deep creases & worn fibers,
soft as skin and with a smell of a body.  

How the map held a legend in quadrants, a key,
how it asked that you look up at the land
to see what was around you and there was a work

of translation as the map's flat features
spider-webbed in the mind--the world
made the map real, not the other way around.

I drive the clover over and over,
forgiving myself this strange meditation--
I turn off the voice.  Feel the gravity of each turn

pull me to the outside edge of myself,
the steady rhythm of narrowing in on one thing.
I want to know what the geese know

and all others who keep the map in their bodies.

Matthew Nienow was born in Los Angeles in 1983. He is the author of three chapbooks: The End of the Folded Map (Codhill Press, 2011), The Smallest Working Pieces (Toadlily Press, 2009), and Two Sides of the Same Thing (Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2007). His poems have appeared in Best New Poets, Indiana Review, New England Review, Prairie Schooner, and Willow Springs. His work has been recognized with support from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Foundation, and Seattle's leading arts organization, 4Culture. He holds an MFA from the University of Washington and is currently attending the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding in preparation for opening his own boat shop.

Photo by Peter Bonde Becker Nelson

Author's Statement

As a young poet, I feel especially amazed and honored to be included in the stunning company of the other fellows, past and present. What does it mean to receive such a gift at this point in my career? It means I have a career. It means that I don't have to doubt, quite so much, the value of my work. It means that other people expect me to keep going. 

I've stolen a lot of time from other obligations to write. At times I've leaned heavily on my wife's generosity and her willingness to work jobs she hasn't loved. We also became parents last year, which has added to the pressure to be a little more practical. I had dangled the possibility of such grants out in front of her as evidence that the sacrifices would be worth it, but I don't think that either of us really believed it would happen so soon. So, of course, the money side of this fellowship has lifted some worries from our shoulders, and it has certainly made me a credible dreamer.

And yet, when it really comes down to it, the money is the small side of this honor.  

The greatest capital is the faith the NEA and the panelists have placed on me to continue to do good work in the world through my words. I feel endowed with a great sense that I belong to something larger than myself and my immediate interests as a writer. This is a gift of confidence that will carry me through my career.