The Next Moment.|
Jacar Press, 2010.
64 pages, $13.95 (paperback).
Gravity Press, 2010.
60 pages, (paperback).
Seventeen years ago, when my family and I drove away from Durham, enroute to a new life in Nashville, one of my chief regrets about leaving the area was its rich literary community. Although I was heading for the birthplace of the Southern Literary Renascence (Vanderbilt University and the Fugitive poets, etc.), my initial impression of middle Tennessee as less endowed with contemporary writers and writing than the Triangle area of North Carolina has turned out to be true. And while there are poets and prose writers of great note over on this side of the mountain, there is nothing like the flourishing, statewide vigorous community of writers, editors, literary organizations and workshops that the other side boasts . . . It is no surprise, then, to come upon two recent offerings by two Durham area poets, Debra Kaufman and Florence Nash, each published by a small press also located there. In their very different ways, they offer rich rewards to those with an interest in contemporary poetry.
Kaufman's The Next Moment is her fifth collection of poetry. Over the years, her work has gained the admiration of some of the region's most prominent poets, including Fred Chappell and Betty Adcock. In this new volume, she continues her work as a narrative poet, closely investigating the defining moments of domestic and family life. Nearly always, she offers her findings through the complicated lens of gender. Here, her concerns are clearly those of middle age. In "Almost Fifty in August," we find the narrator in a (literal) dark night of the soul:
. . . down a dark gravel road
that dead ends in deep pine woods.
Here in the muggy night
insects won't stop screaming,
spiders spin out their ordinary lives.
This may be as good as it gets—
The now familiar narratives of mid life occupy many of these poems: lingering problems of previous marriages, the decline and death of aging parents, the terrible competing nature of familial and social roles as women, in particular, struggle to exist responsibly as daughter, mother, wife, ex-wife, autonomous self . . . "Who are you," Kaufman asks:
. . . if you are not
your story's victim or heroine,
not even its narrator?
Let go of yourself
as wife, mother,
("If You Are Not")
Although Kaufman prefers the plain style in both voice and diction, there is nothing particularly plain about her choice of subject. The fifty poems gathered here document lives that are stormy, passionate, and often impulsive internally. On the outside, however, the woman's voice narrating most of these poems assumes the calm, socially-acceptable demeanor of the kind of "good girls" that are the explicit, sly subject of two poems early in the book. The struggle to contain these competing desires—one for compliance, and the other for self-liberation—plays throughout the majority of the poems. This is appropriate for a poet who claims a matrilineage of "quiet brooders," hardworking farm women and housewives who had to be "roused to talk," preferring silent industry to the psychological disclosure that intimate conversation and storytelling entail. ("Knitting")
Kaufman renders this achingly illustrative in "Minestrone, Rainy Day," where, beneath the ritualized making of soup on an autumnal afternoon, the narrator ponders silently the suicide of a neighbor's twenty-three-year-old daughter. In one of several dialogue poems in this volume, Kaufman shows us a mind at war with itself. In a marvelous reconfiguring, she transforms the inscribed model of her silenced womenfolk to serve the needs of a contemporary woman and writer. Here, the unavoidable distress that bridging the distance between experience and language can initiate is managed by the coupling of hard talk and the soothing regularity of women's work:
After the soup simmers for 30 minutes
if you can name it you can treat it.
add green beans and tomatoes, simmer another 15.
When Marielle let the dark into her heart,
Add the red beans, heat through.
did she know it would take her all the way down?
Stir in pesto—ah, the fragrance of basil . . .
There are other themes explored in This Moment, all of them arising from experiences of brokenness and loss. What sticks with us, though, is Kaufman's hard-earned determination not merely to survive these difficulties, but to claim the tiny transcendences hiding at the core of all human life.
Florence Nash's Fish Music is her second collection from Gravity Press. Although this new book has more of the feeling of an informally-gathered bouquet of poetry (compared to Crossing Water, her previous volume) than of a consciously-conceived collection, the poems themselves retain Nash's imprimatur: a profound love of language in all its aspects. Language is liquor for this poet: its sound, texture, and rhythm; its appearance on the page; the linguistic possibility of poetic forms; the love of diction, itself. Nash's lexicon is part of what is most delightful about her work: the way she surprises us—though gently—again and again with the unexpected word choice. Here are a few of my favorites from this book:
"the hot, fragrant racket of family"
"his wicked lizard grin"
"their punky, faint smell"
"I stood, sensa sospira, clutching the broom."
"Or needing the roustabout's / hard arms"
"pulling apart fresh lettuce"
Some of these poems address settings and themes familiar to fans of Nash's work—music and medicine, the Atlantic coast where she grew up, the ambivalent appeals and pleasures of family, the twinning of aesthetic and sensual pleasures that this poet is so adept at rendering. Many of the poems here, however, seem to focus on the gradual, inevitable passage into old age. What makes them different from others on the same subject is their complete lack of sentimentality, and a kind of terrifying honesty and self acceptance about what is happening, and what has taken place. The ending of "The Old Tattooed Lady at the Body Art Show" is a good example of that:
Parting the chattering gallery crowd,
the wheelchair creaks under her weight.
Her eyes are wondering as a baby's, slack hide
wrinkled and blurred as a map left in the rain,
a dim memory of dragons and menageries.
On her chest the 48-star flag is waving still.
Ladies and gentlemen, step right up:
Here is what time does. Here, made flesh,
is hope stripped bare, a tin-horn fanfare
for everybody's old freak show of dreams.
Although this psychological intensity is a hallmark of Nash's poems, she is capable of leavening her work with a bawdy humor that calls forth belly laughs. In a hilarious send up of a college or high school reunion, she pokes gentle fun at the decline of the body, when "nice and tidy" is an acceptable exchange for the hot and tight bodies of adolescence:
Things are looking good here,
nice and tidy. Doing fine.
Honey, you got something hanging loose,
somebody's liable to just
bite it off.
Those who have been students of Nash will appreciate the addenda included in Fish Music under the title of "Exercise and Amusements." Of particular note is the exquisitely made "Syllabic," that begins with the line "You must be ruthless with a line that doesn't fit," and proceeds, line by line subtracting a syllable each time, until the end: "not."
Fifteen years lapsed between Nash's first two volumes of poetry. I hope that she will not make us wait that long for the next gathering. And though I take her point, in one of the book's most beautiful poems, "Landscape with Valentine,"
Oh, do not imagine because I am silent
that I am not teeming . . .
It seems a shame not to share with those of us who appreciate them the vast riches of this visionary poet's imagination.