Poems of Witness: Kathleen Nalley’s Nesting Doll

As I was thinking about my blog post due today and which poet I should write about – yes, I have been and probably always will be a world-class procrastinator, no matter what I teach my students – it occurred to me, again, that I was avoiding the obvious. Kathleen Nalley’s chapbook Nesting Doll, winner of the South Carolina Poetry Initiative’s Chapbook Series chosen by Kwame Dawes and published in 2013, has been sitting on my side table since I got it back on September 13, 2013. Don’t get me wrong. I love this book. It hits hard and makes the reader keep her eyes open, both qualities that make poetry work. But I know the author. I know her well, and that has kept me from writing about this collection. Until today.

Nalley’s poems are hard to read. Not hard like inaccessible, but hard like, Damn. The reader is asked to be inside the heads of a male rapist and a mother who knifes her two children; to be inside the heads of a girl sold into the world of sex slaves and a woman who layers on weight in response to a world of sexual abuse. In “First-Round Draft Pick,” the speaker describes himself raping a drunk girl, “She woke up when I tightened my belt / around her wrists, whining something / about losing her virginity” (14). He states that he never takes no for an answer, and that he “learned it / from [his] dad” (14). The cycle of abuse is fully described in a very few lines, and the reader cannot look away.

In “Fat Lady Singing,” the speaker responds to years of pain including being violated by her father, by peeping Toms and depraved strangers, and by a “German transfer student, / five years her senior,” (18) by putting on weight. “[A]n extra helping of potatoes” becomes “the baggage. Her body became / its own armor and chink” (18). The reader understands this layering, the series of shells that protect the woman within. This echoes the title poem. In section two, “Becoming,” Nalley writes “Outside, you cary history, / weight in years and kids, / line from too much time / smoking or drinking or exposing / yourself to sun, a hated job, hours / upon hours of drying and folding // clothes, socks, your sex, guilt” (6). The final lines of this poem emphasize the power in the series of identities, the “dolls” that encase each other in ever-larger forms to shape the woman: “Seal the / queen last. She’s rough to the touch. / If there are splinters, pick them out” (8).

But it is hard to read these poems full of pain, full of anger, full of things that, as Kwame Dawes writes of the chapbook, “we prefer not to look at.” And yet we read them, and we are empowered by their rawness, their unflinching look at the oftentimes not-so-nice world of being a woman. I think I put off writing about this collection because I was worried about not having the words to show its true craftsmanship, and I can only hope that I have done my friend justice. I encourage you to read this beautiful chapbook with open eyes and a clenched fist. These are poems of witness, and they, in all their honesty, work.

Nalley, Kathleen. Nesting Doll. Columbia, SC: Stepping Stones Press, 2013.

“But what would Robert Johnson say?” Charles Wright’s poem at the Crossroads

It seemed only appropriate to write about Charles Wright’s poetry today, since he has been named the next Poet Laureate of the United States. In a 1998 interview with PBS Newshour‘s Elizabeth Farnsworth, Wright said the following about his work: “I think that the true subject of all poems is a clock, I think, because time is what–time is the great destroyer. Time is what feeds us and takes it away at the same time. Time is what starts us and time is what ends us. We live in time. We would like to live outside of time. But we can’t, of course. And so the clock is what we all write about. Our lives are all about the clock.” My favorite Wright poem is “Poem Almost Wholly In My Own Manner” from the Black Zodiac collection. This poem explores the idea of the clock through the blues and the Bible, through the crossroads and Ezekiel’s burning vision.

The first line reads “Where the Southern cross the Yellow Dog” (Wright 28). The reader knows immediately that this poem will be about the idea of the crossroads, specifically the southern idea of the crossroads. This poem is placed firmly where it can go anywhere, in any of the four directions. This is juxtaposed with Ezekiel’s vision. “Time, like a burning wheel, scorching along by the highway / side, / Reorganizing, relayering, / turning the tenants out” and “Interstices. We live in the cracks. / Under Ezekiel and his prophesies, / under the wheel” (Wright 28, 29). The chariot is drawn by four beings that can be seen as representative of the four directions. In this vision, God can send the chariot in any direction, and Wright puts himself and the reader firmly beneath it, consumed eventually by fire and time. Wright calls upon Robert Johnson and WC Handy, both famous for the use of their own crossroads in their blues: “But what would Robert Johnson say,  / hell-hounded and brimstone-tongued? / What would W. C. Handy say, / Those whom the wheel has overturned, / those whom the fire has, / And the wind has, unstuck and unstrung?” (30).

The reader visualizes the railroad tracks at the crossroads, the lines in the dirt; she hears the rhythm of the train’s wheels on those tracks. This is the sight and sound of the clock hands turning. And here’s the message: “Poetry’s what’s left between the lines” (29). The lines of verse, the lines of song, the lines of a guitar’s strings, the straight lines of railroad tracks crossing. Poetry is what happens in lonely passage, in the rolling destruction of fire. I simply cannot do this poem justice in trying to write a brief analysis. This poem hit me in my gut the first time I read it, and it is one that comes to mind often, and unbidden.

If you’ve never read Charles Wright’s poetry, today’s a good day to start. 

Wright, Charles. Black Zodiac. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, 1997.

Wright, Charles. “Seasons serve as backdrop to Charles Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection.” By Elizabeth Farnsworth. PBS Newshour. 15 April 1998. Web. 12 June 2014.

 

Punctuated Bodies in Rebecca Thill’s “Punctuation”

In the last few months, I’ve really been trying to up my Twitter presence, and in doing so, I’ve come across a lot of new-to-me journals and poets. Consequently, I’ve been reading even more poetry than usual. You read that right. Twitter, the 140 character flurry of information, has led me to read more poetry. Once I started checking my feed fairly regularly, I found that it’s much easier to find the things I want to read. I follow a lot of journals, and those journals post not only their favorite poets and poems, but also blurbs about articles and deadlines for contests and submissions. Yesterday, I got an email that @melancholyhyper started following me. I checked their website, Melancholy Hyperbole, and I was pleased to find some really wonderful poetry, in particular three poems by a poet named Rebecca Thill.

“Punctuation” is my favorite of the three. The speaker uses the images of quotation marks and parentheses to show the positions of her and her lover’s bodies. “Both bodies curved in, / paired arcs, resting on the crux / of back to chest contact, / we create an opening:” (4-7) describe the lovers, and also shows the space between them which leaves room, a physical opening, for the spoken words that indicate a betrayal in the next stanza. The speaker’s lover says “don’t worry . . . she’ll never know“(9-10) while they are in the quotation mark position. After the words are spoken, the speaker turns to face her lover, forming the parentheses. The images of the punctuation serve not only to show positions, but also to frame those words. When the speaker turns, her body holds the spoken words indicating a betrayal inside, between the two of them. They are “(nested)” (15), and the use of actual parentheses here mirrors their bodies showing inclusion and secrecy. 

In the last stanza, the lovers turn back to back, effectively removing themselves from each other. This position is not a mark of punctuation; it serves no purpose. The words themselves have been let out: “Things said, can never be unsaid” (22), and the fact that the lovers no longer form a purposeful mark indicates that they will not be together again, that they no longer work. 

Thill’s use of punctuation as images helps the reader to navigate the poem, and it shows the delicate balance of love. Thill has two more poems on the Melancholy Hyperbole website, “Anatomy of Impatiens” and “Personal Ontology.” Both poems work. Check them out, then Tweet about them. Spread the word, and read more poetry! Thanks for reading. @TheLadyRandom

Just Right Love Poem

Because it snowed over four inches here in Eastern North Carolina, and because it never snows here, my family and I had two days together in the house, watching the snow fall, listening to the ice pellets hit the thick layer of snow, and playing My Little Pony Monopoly. The ponies teach about the power of friendship and love, and so those things should have been on our minds, but we all managed to still forget that tomorrow was Valentine’s Day, and so it came about that, after working a nine hour day, I found myself at the Walgreens picking out Valentines I thought my son would like and choosing some decent candy from the little that was left.

 I picked two packs of Valentines: cute baby animals and Spiderman. My son chose the Spiderman ones so that he could keep the cute baby animals for himself. My daughter chose to make Valentines for her classmates. And as I watched her draw a unique animal complete with caption for each of her friends (Sssleepy Sssnake says You’re Sssweet!), I thought about what Valentine’s Day has meant to me.

 I can remember my dad leaving small, heart-shaped boxes of chocolates outside my brother’s and my doors when we were little. I can remember wanting to receive sucker-grams in junior high and being largely disappointed. I can remember in high school and college vaguely wanting something lavishly romantic, though I wasn’t really sure what. Now, I’ve been married for twelve years, and I really just want the house to be cleaned by magic, some good food I don’t have to cook or clean up after, and my kids to have good memories, to have fun, and, above all, to feel loved.

And I want to tell you about love poems. How they encapsulate ache, ecstasy, romance; how they reach in and twist, and make you want to come back for more. I remember reading Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins to Make Much of Time” in my Norton Anthology when I was seventeen and thinking, yes. That’s right. And I remember reading Karyna McGlynn’s “When Someone Says I Love You the Whole” on my smart phone several weeks ago and thinking, yes. That’s right. 

For today, I want to share this: “The Shirt” by Jane Kenyon. “The shirt touches his neck / and smooths over his back. / It slides down his sides. / It even goes down below his belt— / down into his pants. / Lucky shirt.” 

That’s it. And, yes. That’s just right.

Kenyon, Jane. “The Shirt.” Collected Poems. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2005. Poetry Foundation. 2014. Web. 13 Feb. 2014.