“Her style never obtrudes on her subject or that quiet sense of transcendence. . . . We are clearly at home in these deep, rich poems.”
In this latest and most seasoned book of poems, Nancy Willard’s clean and direct style results in truly memorable poems, real gems full of empathy with all things, especially the natural world.
Her innocent eyes and open heart allow her to see and capture the magic of the everyday. Her mythic sense and lively humor promote a quiet wonder. She opens the book with this revealing quote from Jean Giono: “True mysteries are hidden in the light.”
The book of 50 poems is divided into five short and tight sections, each with its own character and style.
Section One consists of portraits of others, including family. In “Some Things Should Never Be Written Down” she lists, “The lovesick hummingbird’s whistling for love;/ the tide of sleep humming toward me/ and baited with whispers, what he said,/ what she said . . ./the ring of my mother’s name/ when my grandfather called to her three days/ after he died, and she with her arms full/ of wind-washed laundry/ just freed from the line.”
Ms. Willard opens here to the inner world of longing and loss yet ties it firmly to images of the outer, the “wind-washed laundry/ just freed on the line.”
In another poem from this section “Unpainted Still Life” we encounter a brother speaking to his dead artist sister: “How much of yourself you left behind!” and the sister answering back, “Look for me in the world I left/ when the sun splashes its light on everything.”
In Section Two Ms. Willard turns objects into icons capturing their mythic proportions. We have poems like “Shoes,” “Legend of the Tangerine,” and “A Letter from Ferns in the New World” in which the substance of the world takes on legendary significance thanks to the poet’s imagination.
In “The Morning of the Feast,” for example “The potato opens its eyes, the carrot’s hair/ is standing on end, the beets come up/ for air, the nutmeg conjures its family/ tree. They gather again in the first garden.” Though nature is the source for these, the style is more sparse and magical, reminiscent of Pablo Neruda’s odes.
It is in Section Three dealing with nature exclusively that her images and details are most vivid and full. Here are elemental poems of plants and animals. Deer, red-tailed hawk, squirrels, horseshoe crab, dragonfly, bees and bats come to life here.
“Deer in Winter” is a lovely lyric full of images soft and warm to the touch. The deer stand “among the darkened fingers/ of oak leaves. Now they are hungry./ They nose the old grass in the winter garden./ They are all ears for weather and hunters/ and their ears are filling their pockets with news.” Ms. Willard reveals how life’s mystery and significance lives around us.
One of her most famous poems, “Losing Compass,” is among the best here, revealing her absorption of such poets as Robert Frost and Elizabeth Bishop as well as a Zen-like sense of life’s transcendence.
Again she moves us out and into the oneness and marvel of the natural world, where we stand as “Thatched with reindeer moss/ and starflowers, the roots of pitch pines/ muscle into the light.”
Here we enter into the deep mystery, where “For all things, light/ opens the dark woods, the mapped path, the crack/ under the door. But who on earth knows where we are?/ And which of us remembers the way back?” All of her poems have fine endings and true, refusing to belie their truth with happy assurances.
Section Four is located in places and atmospheres, all of them tied to the sea and the sense of waves both literal and mythic. In “Honor the Waves” she instructs, “Honor the waves as they wash toward you,/ wearing the cool skins they are born with,/ riding the dark like a congress of nuns./ You can hear the froth of their gossip,/ their laughter exploding.”
Her style never obtrudes on her subject or that quiet sense of transcendence.
Finally in Section Five the author gives us wise grounded poems of acceptance. In the beautiful “Elementals” she combines the elements of air, fire, water, and earth in a prayer-like instruction for making things whole.
Put on my garment of water.
The whale shall be your bed,
sunfish your morning star,
seaweeds your lovers crying,
we are, we are
Put on my apron of earth,
the cloth of rain. All things
fall through the net of birth,
put on the earth.
In this short, sweet collection from Nancy Willard’s later years we truly have the “elemental” and essential poems, ones that give us “a momentary stay” against life’s confusion, yet remain open to its greater mystery.
In her poem about poetry, “Learning by Heart,” she captures the way poetry moves through us as an act of creation and communal sharing. To help memorize a poem she urges us to imagine it into a house and furnish it. “Now walk through the house/ of its only guest, the poem/ on which you may spy/ like a new mother, rising at night/ to check on her smallest sleeper./ You are also walking/ through the body of the poem,/ reading its vital signs.”
We are clearly at home in these deep, rich poems.