An American Prufrock: Shannon Nakai on Nick Courtright’s The Forgotten World

In her book Questions of Travel, Elizabeth Bishop muses:

... Oh, tourist,
is this how this country is going to answer you
and your immodest demands for a different world,
and a better life, and complete comprehension
of both at last ...?” (“Arrival at Santos, 7-11)

Nearly sixty years later, Nick Courtright responds with a tourist/traveler persona, a white western man who samples cultures and histories from ancient Maya to 21st-century Japan, all the while realizing his own negated sense of cultural self in bleak comparison. The opening poem, “Facing Mecca,” draws attention to “all I am not / my heritage like gum / on a Walmart parking lot” (2-4). An American Prufrock, he docilely travels from country to country, picking up whatever experiences and signs he can intercept without being rooted to or by anything or leaving a permanent mark. “Do I pray?” he asks timidly, realizing the answer is not that he does not dare, but that he is, in essence, spiritually anesthetized. In mosques, jungles, ziggurats, and museums, he is reveling in a sort of borrowed freedom enjoyed by tourists in a transient time and designated space, but the revelry is spoiled by the constant reminders that everything, from empires to individuals, not only ends, but ends up forgotten.

The first poem alludes to Szymborska’s “Two Monkeys” with the reference to his son’s future test scores and a monkey on a chain; later the speaker is similarly linked, wondering, “What difference / would it make if I am clipped / by a motorbike” (15-17). Here “clipped” does not only refer to wings, though he travels (by plane) to several continents, but also to the blindsiding reality that he is trying to decipher or escape:

If I gave in 

to what I want, what sort

of tiled mosaic would I be,

flattened against a world

I will soon cease to remember?

He observes that inside each body are bones; inside each historical event is antiquity; inside each monument, temple, or ruins is the pervading reminder that no civilization, alive or forgotten, can escape death. At one point the tourist notes that “To be the largest city in the world / in the 12th century / is to stay in the 12th century” (“$8 ‘Nikes,’” 1-3). Enjoying himself while snapping pictures, making love, or drinking café au lait, he eventually must reckon with the inevitable: when dealing with a forgotten world, one must also deal with a mortal one. In “Chapel,” he concludes, “the burial we will endure / is not as important as the belief that we are dead” (11-12). Everything passes, consigned to memory or oblivion. Among the zebras of Africa, the tourist laments that soon he will be back in America, the trip long over, and even the familiarities of his home, like the return of the chains (this time on the windows) “will be just a memory.” The deific icon that is Frida Kahlo, vaulted atop a pyramid of the sun, is not spared from the reality that “There’s no way to escape, no staring / into the eclipse the priests rightly predicted,” and the tourist realizes that even the colossal pyramids will fade and expire as did the people that built them. How, then, will we ourselves be remembered when ancient rocks and towers of fearsome gods are abandoned and forgotten with the passing of an age?

In some situations, he can only laugh about it. “American Idiot” canvasses the continent of South America attending to the event of a bumbling tourist whose “mere existence, too,  is comical” (5). Passports, binoculars–no tool or talisman can help him “in search of something I don’t know what,” recalling Bishop’s critique of trying to find oneself in the exotic. Indeed, the speaker is mindful of the collateral damage left behind by the colonizers of his race–“the role every white man in this world / is to shut up and take it / because so much of this bed you for yourself have made” (18-20). 

He treads with caution, though not without exoticizing or romanticizing that which is new and different to him. In “Before Falling Out of Love,” he hilariously celebrates that “wow we are fucking in Africa!” He confesses to feeling like a fool fumbling with the vowel placement of Japanese words and doling out Japanese clichéd icons, from cherry blossoms to katana swords, with the speed and movement paralleling his sushi on the conveyor belt in “The Last Samurai.” He searches for meaning in his life at Machu Picchu, wondering how he is supposed to feel about everything, from blackface parades to the ruins of Ollantaytambo. His search for something transcendent instead leaves him with recognizable mundanity. Hearing couples complain about each other in Peru is “proof one place / is just like any other place” (“I Should Stop Talking about Darkness,” 8-9). In one poem he reverently notes that inside each person is a skull, but later he notes that inside everyone is also a wallet. But money has no negotiating power here, as he soberly realizes the tombs of Westminster Abbey only portend his own. He is scared while touring the high points of Ecuador, where he likens the proximity to heaven to the lack of oxygen there. In Notre Dame he devours too big a bite of the Eucharist, his first pronounced mark or disturbance of the universe in trying to latch onto it, onto something fleshy and tangible. He regains his oxygen sipping an Americano in London, numbs himself before the television, indulges in unrestrained voyeurism of the Venus de Milo, and disappears in reveries about life on Mars and insomniac nights for Dracula, as fiction offers satisfying escapism that he could not secure in the real world. His resolution for a futuristic asteroid threatening one’s peace and sunset is to “try hard to ignore it” (“Nostalgia for a Distant Future,” 23).

The final tour takes place in the U.S., where the tourist still watches and observes. A mother shaves her legs, surrounded by every relic of her sons’ childhoods except the sons themselves. A family full of men, all emotionally severed, flounder in awkward grief at a funeral. A young man contends with death, loneliness, and taxes in the daily drudgery of living and negotiating whether to confront or ignore the reminders of death. The freshly returned tourist considers all that feels less genuine to him here on his home turf. In spite of his global travels, mortality is the one constant place. In “Apples,” he concludes:

To travel the world is one thing

and to travel the mind

is the same thing so nothing

really changed no matter

the continents crisscrossed (5-9)

In 2020 the world met with the inescapable reminder of mortality, and the tourist is now confined to shelter in place. Comforting his children, bathing fevered foreheads, witnessing or joining in “The imperial bliss of their livingroom fortbuilding / The underweared consumption of ice cream” (We Cannot Leave the House,” 23-24), he discovers in the space of his home what his global search could not offer. In the midst of the world’s terrors, hoardings, and cruelty, he will deadbolt the door, “raise my children / to be sweet like an orchard” (“Apples,” 40-41). In “We Cannot Leave the House,” with sweet acceptance and celebration, he affirms that

I’m here with my kids ...

It’s okay it’s what I’m here for

To grow their inheritance

To make a nest of time and string like a bird

As the walls close in ...

And what it is to be a father but to be present

Shannon Nakai is a poet, reviewer, and contributing editor for The Cortland Review. Her work also appears in The CIncinnati Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Atlanta Review, Cream City Review, Heavy Feather, and elsewhere. A Pushcart Prize nominee and former Fulbright Scholar, she works with and for migrants and refugees as a legal assistant for the International Rescue Committee.