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

by Phebe Davidson

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.

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