Kathy Nelson Poetry

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Contemporary Poetry, Reviews, and Commentary

Phebe Davidson, Review of Kathy Nelson’s “Cattails"

Review

by Phebe Davidson

Cattails

Kathy Nelson

Mainstreet Rag Publishing Co.

ISBN: 978-1-59948-428-0

Kathy Nelson’s chapbook, slated for May, 2013 publication, has much to offer a reader. Because Nelson

is a realist about life as she has lived and observed it, she writes of life and death, of continuity and

discontinuity, as conjoined experience. She is not intimidated by the themes that absorb her. The poems

are by turns brash and didactic, poignant and powerful, rich in poignant detail. The book’s first poem,

“Incoming Tide, Outer Banks, North Carolina” begins:

I confess I’ve squandered my attention on mere trifles—

life, death, mostly death—

This is a portentous assertion, the sort of announcement that is sufficient to create some uneasiness in

the reader, some sense of being slightly estranged, oddly distanced from the poem and its speaker. The

poet insists, three lines later

Impotent vigilance saves no one, least of all me.

This might seem, in light of the title, to risk being too easy a setup for the image of a tide washing out

footprints. Yet just a little later, almost (but not quite) too late to link us to the moment, Nelson’s

imagery almost leaps off the page, enlarging perspective and understanding.

Pelicans ride the stiff breeze, just out of reach,

a ragged line, one creature.

In “What my Grandmother Taught Me,” many readers will recognize the grandmother in question by

the scents her memory yields up, the tang of

. . . cedar from her chifferobe, White Shoulders,

and the pink Coty lotion she wrung into her hands.

This is a woman, incidentally, who can still disrupt our expectations, one who faces her world with

“gumption, like bitter greens and vinegar,” who teaches her granddaughter that

. . .a woman lives quite well without

a man as long she has money and a dog; that Jesus

doesn’t mind if you check up on the tenants, you just

have to wait, take your key when they’re not home.

The specificity of “take your key when they’re not home” is irresistible. And the wonderful spill of

sensory experience goes on, from “the banshee Panhandle wind [that] thwacks the plastic hung against

the back porch screen” (“Aunt Winnie’s Table, Ambrose, Texas, 1958) to the mother who “searched the

dial for NPR among the Bible-thumpers” (“My Firstborn Hikes the Appalachian Trail”) to “a pot left

overnight / to soak in greasy water” (“Sometimes I Feel Like”).

The themes Nelson takes on in this collection are big ones: life and death, continuity and its opposing

shadow, the connections that fuel our lives. Such themes often seem to demand a kind of abstraction, a

willingness to say, for instance, “Now I am growing older; her lessons linger” (“What my Grandmother

Taught Me”), or to write of real and imagined daughters,

May they grind away at your

hard edges, sand you simple,

smooth as stone.

“Prayer for Daughters”

Kathy Nelson’s willingness to engage her themes leads her to powerful subjects, and her skilled use

throughout of imagery that ties the living to the sensual world does a great deal to make readers believe

her when she compares herself to an oak, “clinging / to its crinkled leaves / singing to itself / about its

own tenacity” (“Sometimes I Feel Like”), and to make those readers eager to see what this poet might do

next.

 

$11.99

Written by wildgoosepoetryreview

May 13, 2013 at 2:01 pm

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I can’t wait to read this book of poetry from such a deep thinker.

Karen Brode

May 13, 2013 at 5:39 pm

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Book Review

Book Review

Kathy Nelson,

 

 

Cattails, Main Street Rag, 2013

by Estella Lauter

Because of its title, I expected Kathy Nelson’s chapbook to be primarily about

nature, and it does contain images of birds, foodstuffs, sky and water, but it is

really about living and dying as a fully human being. The title poem is about her

grandmother, seen through a Brownie camera in the ‘30s near the Texas-Oklahoma

border by her grandfather, who took the picture. The poet recognizes her

grandmother’s expression of “waiting” on her own face at times and wonders if

they also share the desire for “more.” She, for one, knows what she wanted: “love

as lush as cattails . . . love to soak this parched land” (14). The book is full of

waiting and wanting, but also of losses: footprints on the Outer Banks washed

away by waves (7); the contents of the poet’s childhood room and home, including

her father’s clothes and tools (9); her teenage daughter who moves out to live

with her birth mother (24); and the greatest loss of all—her father (29-30).

The poet knows that “Giving birth is practicing for death. Every day you’ll be

giving something up,” but she still tells her daughters to trust the heart rather

than the head in raising their children. Thus, like her own mother who married

her father and risked the loss of her birth family, the poet remains open “to

danger, heartbreak” (26), tenacious in her waiting, wanting and loving this life.

Women readers may especially appreciate her “Prayer for Daughters”: “May you

have daughters./ May they give you sleepless nights” (19) and cause no end of

worry, anger and fear as hers have done. But her final wish is this: “may missing

them/ ache like a broken bone” (20).

Nelson’s poems rely heavily on narrative, but the stories are framed differently—

by photographs, lessons, a kitchen scene, a Bible camp, a classic moment in the

Old Testament, the flight of hawks, a phone call, a baby shower, a hospital, a

dream, a liturgy—to fit together as a kaleidoscope of a life. This is a highly

accomplished first book.

The last two poems do in fact return to nature—first to a lake in New Jersey,

where “what matters here is ripening and decay” (33), without the regret or

shame that was part of the religion of her childhood. The tall grasses, like the

cattails, tell of a “Glory” that has “already come” in this world. The final poem,

called “Self-Portrait as a Beech in My Neighbor’s Yard” (34-35), offers a powerful

extended metaphor for acceptance of death. Although “yesterday” the tree was

bathed in sunlight like a pattern woven “in silk across a golden robe,” by evening

the pattern is gone. Just so, the poet is “the solitary one/diffusing into gray/as

night comes on.” These poems resonate with the Psalms, celebrating human life

on earth with its many losses made bearable by love.

Estella Lauter is Professor Emerita at UW-Oshkosh and lives in the Door Peninsula. Her first

chapbook,

 

 

Pressing a Life Together By Hand (2007) appeared in the New Women’s Voices series

from Finishing Line Press, and was nominated for two Pushcart prizes.

 

 

The Essential Rudder: North

Channel Poems

 

 

 

was released by FLP in 2008. Her poem "Gaza, January 2009" tied for first prize in

the 2009 Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Contest; it appears on www.wagingpeace.org.

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