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.