Crossing Water, by Florence Nash
Gravity Press, 1996.
50 pages, $9.43 (paperback).
I'm drawn to the more cryptic, condensed poem, looking at all family narrative-confessional poetry with a cushioned ear and weary tongue. Occasionally a poet comes along to prove that writing through the umbilical can work and with a queasy, electric power. That's not to say that Florence Nash's poems are uneasy or family-full. Nash has a highly evolved understanding of the nuances of sound and symbol (especially for a first book), and a way of making potentially sentimental, Southern stories we've heard before, into vibrant, tightly controlled objects. If she doesn't let the mainstream Southern lady poetry circuit divert her talents, we're bound for some blinding pyrotechnics in the future. Crossing Water can't be ignored.
Nash grew up in North Carolina and spent summers on the Outer Banks where sand, water, flora, and fauna burn at noonday, where a "bearded / crusted hull slams through murderous waters." As in these words, the gentility in her poems always foreshortens through "not a real dark, just an edging away / from the rising sun." It's this Gothic tension familiar to Faulkner, McCullers, and O'Connor that keeps putting sand in your mouth—and allows the ocean, its "blue ketch," its "Cold Beer / Live Bait / Video Rentals / Jesus Saves," its "onlookers stand[ing] / cold-eyed as birds" to counterweight the familiar with a consciously spirited, but not artificial, rebellion against Southern reticence toward self-revelation.
There are poems here, too, of art, music, home, and children: "plates on the cherry tablecloth / under the wan bulb" and "this thick, slow-rising loaf of self / marked with contentment / as a leopard with its spots."
Four poems, in particular, stand out. "Res poetica" in which a "ravenous" "they" "feed at night" with "huge eyes" and "do not remember the rain forest." "Singing Bach" in which the poet's song (Nash is also a singer) becomes a strenuous climb up Alp-like mountains to find "chambered nautilus, tiny shrimp / minutely hinged and plated, / fossils of feather-feelered thousand-legged / ocean crawlers"—a representative example of Nash's flexible, careening vocabulary. My favorite poem "Copperhead," as "forthright and clear / as "common script / scribbled on the ground." The epiphanic grace of "Benediction": "When you have lived so long in a dry climate / . . . you no longer look at the sky." And "Desire" manifesting as a "huge cat / rough-tongued / his loud breath sour as sickness."
Something here conjures a splendid hybrid of Elizabeth Bishop and Anne Sexton. These poems I have added to my lock box under the stars. They will undo the lock themselves and rumble through the house on unwritten occasions when the intellect and soul require a friend.