in ghostly onehead

My first full-length collection of poetry, in ghostly onehead, includes 75 never-before-published poems. I began writing the poems on July 23, 2015 and finished editing the collection on January 12, 2021, a period of 2,000 days.

The title of this collection comes from a phrase from The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous work of Christian mysticism written in Middle English in the late 14th century. It is known as “the classic of Medieval mysticism.” “In ghostly onehead” essentially means “in spiritual union” with the creative force of the universe. I have long felt that as a writer, I act as a conduit through which this force flows.


Praise for in ghostly onehead

In J. D. Nelson’s in ghostly onehead, there are spinach hats, woolen moons, and grass-eating suns. Books growl, forests are cloned, and people talk to bread. There are appearances by Johnny Carson and Paul Stanley, and Nelson himself, in the third person, as a meteorologist. These poems are hilarious yet profound, both cosmic and rooted in the material world. — Keith Higginbotham



J. D. Nelson presents a harvest of lines that you wish you’d thought of. More than that, he gathers them up & presents them in a succession of poems you wish that you’d written. It’s a jealous wish, though, because nobody can shape a poem like J. D. can.

He’s a variety of things all gathered together in a compact whole, & he owns it. “I’ve won this earth / I’m wording it this way.” Acrobat, surrealist, rapper, sociologist, mountain-top purveyor of enlightenment, hermit in his underground laboratory. & that’s just with his poetry! He carries on a permanent conversation with the world itself, &, at the same time, maintains a spellcasting commentary on the interchange for the rest of us. If he can’t find the word that fits then he’ll invent one; & the world — & us along with it — smile at his wisdom & we all feel the better for it.

“I have a head full of cats.” That’s the line with which J. D. Nelson closes in ghostly onehead, his — surprisingly — first major collection of poetry. I say surprisingly because he’s been sharing appearances in many of the same journals as me since I came back to writing poetry in the first years of the current century, & I’m astonished no-one has snapped up a book from him before. — Mark Young, poet, artist, and editor, 5.1.21



American experimental poet, J. D. Nelson, with voicings singular and unique, in in ghostly onehead, his first full-length collection, constructs a playful, melancholic elision. Employing purposeful, visionary poetics including cut-up techniques, he aspires to the radiant, exhibiting taut, bold clarity. A divine mix of the inward, contemplative, and hilarious, Nelson’s poems propose a new-world where “violin hats” and “skin-suits” are in evidence, a crossroads, both circuitous and carnivalesque. The book induces in the reader, a deeply wrought current of ecstasy, the almost-celestial. A synesthesia of a broken-down America, of constructed landscapes where “closing another bank account at midnight/the same meal plan for days and days” is the norm. We discover, journeying back from sacred empty places there is enough “soup for the lonely world”, while “the earth bursts/the moon of that”. One poem’s narrative asserts from “cuts on my hands from puppy teeth/I become the wolf”. In another, a voice proclaims, “I’ve won this earth/I’m wording it this way”. A bravo achievement! Get your hands on this superlative collection (a tour de force). — Robert Frede Kenter, poet, visual artist, publisher of Ice Floe Press



In this full-length collection, J. D. Nelson is both conduit and disembodied other, tethered but distant, like a visitor returning to a birthplace without memory. There is a simultaneous connection and estrangement: “nothing here is the color of the mind.”

If in ghostly onehead involves an ebbing state of aspiration and anticipating want, the mind itself becomes a necessary part of the exile, a banishing of the ego from origin, erasing until nothing is familiar. The texts themselves are deconstructed, both lost and found, pushed away from knowing, the “meaning of the eye.” — E. Lynn Alexander



J. D. Nelson’s book in ghostly onehead, a book which is nearly half pure couplet, the author has accomplished the unthinkable; he has made a language poetry that is fun, playful and yes, even accessible. Instead of setting literary devices free in a field to wander and do what they will, he has constructed tightly wound hybrids of sound and word poems in such a manner that the mind truly expands when viewing the whole of a couplet, or tercet, or single line in these works, and any time I’d recommend you look back at the title of the poem you are reading and you’ll see this poet has masterfully curated exactly the mind space he wanted to curate for you. There is nobody in the world who does what J. D. Nelson does. — Paul Corman-Roberts



in ghostly onehead, J. D. Nelson’s first full-length collection, takes the lyric’s temperamental ghost on a wild joyride into the riotous, incandescent dreamworld of “wooden water,” “paper sun,” and “the clown cloud car/ one scrambled/ egg mtn.” Tirelessly inventive and unquiet with their creative energies, these poems speak of language and its hidden meanings, of syntactic spins that create meanings, of orality’s emancipatory tactics. Nelson’s ever-curious mind belabors succinct inquiries that move back and forth erratically from the metaphysical “soup for the lonely world” to the physical realm where “you are spidered enough to stand with the roots of the trees.” Spirited and complex, darkly brooding but always with its good humor intact, in ghostly onehead is a memorable and brilliant debut. — Kristine Ong Muslim, author of The Drone Outside



At Play in the Fields of the Lord

I cannot recommend J. D. Nelson’s work strongly enough. I love it! The knotting of wit and image in each poem is also a letting loose, as the imagination ravels and unravels itself in the same gesture. Each poem is its own momentary revelation and surprise; each shows us how to read on its own terms. If you ever think you have got a handle on things, remember “now the earth bursts/ the moon of that”.

There can be a vague feeling sometimes that spirituality, or spiritual direction, is at odds with avant-garde writing – that the one precludes the other. This is a view that has been increasingly challenged (and richly complicated) in recent years by many writers and artists, such as Hank Lazer – not only in the latter’s poetry, but also in his collection of essays, Lyric and Spirit. Nelson’s wonderful collection is ghosted by very different traditions, very different perspectives; by vocabularies variously and winningly inflected – for example, The Cloud of Unknowing hitches with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E folk, Dada, Kerouac and Burroughs; injunctions to silence in Christian mysticism tumble into delighted word play; the Dark Night of the Soul finds itself blinking in other daylights. Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Tea at the Palace of the Hoon”, ends with one of my favourite of his lines: “And there I found myself more truly and more strange”. After encountering Nelson’s work, the world is indeed found more truly, more strange – a song sung out of time. — Cal Wenby, poet and artist



Nelson takes what is best from those old cats, the Beats—the colloquial, the slang, mumblings, abbreviations, and even tosses in an emoji or two for good measure. There is the e e cummings eschewing of capitals, the words meandering like ants on the page. But I also see Eliot and Blake and Hopkins, the old mystics. As the title of the work implies, Nelson has spiritual inclinations. All of these influences are unmistakably there, but Nelson has a voice all his own. These poems are brief, quiet, understated, quietly astonishing. I found myself reading and re-reading them out loud, playing with the words in my mouth. The imagery is startlingly original, each poem a gem, juxtaposing modern life (machines, dry soup mix, fruit punch, football, Home Depot, space travel) with the natural (the sun, the moon, the earth, the body, water, worms, wolves). His poems have a beautiful desolation, a starkness, like a single crow in a snowy field; but they also have a tenderness that communicates the poet’s love of life. He captures our longing for balance between what is human and what is natural—there should be no division, but we all know that there is. Above all, Nelson makes us see the world in a way that we’ve never seen it before, which is a rare gift. — Lauren Scharhag, author of Requiem for a Robot Dog