Patricia Nelson, Out of the Underworld, Poetic Matrix Press, PO Box 1051 Lake Isabella, CA 93240, 2019, ISBN: 978-1-7337025-4-6 88 pages
It is most unusual to begin a book review by quoting verbatim the blurbs on the back cover of a book. I feel that they are the best way to give the reader of this review a context in which to view my struggles with appreciation of this poetry. Let us begin:
With the poems of Out of the Underworld, Patricia Nelson transports her readers through many realms, from the myths of ancient Greece to tales told by the Tarot. Nelson deftly employs lyric language and assumes personas that immerse us in the “weighted land of words.” Invoking disparate voices, ranging from Dante to e.e. cummings, Nelson is our steady guide out of the underworld. —— Jodi Hottel, author of Voyeur
For all of her precision and her perfect ear, the paradox of Patricia Nelson’s poems is in not knowing exactly what they’re about—except that, somehow, you also do know. You feel what you know about them in a space beyond language, or perhaps just beneath it—exactly, pleasurably, and perfectly. —- Meg Scott Copses, Editor, Illuminations.
Patricia Nelson is a retired attorney and environmentalist. She has worked with the “Activist” group of poets in California for many years………The Activist credo is that every word in a poem should be poetically “active,” employing some kind of focused poetic technique—–a principle not as self-evident as it might sound. The group often works with metaphoric imagery.
Personally, I divide Ms. Nelson’s work into two categories. The first is poetry that I intuitively or conceptually understand. If not, I have a clue about the external context used in creating the poem. Hopefully I can deduce the necessary spark of the poet’s own inspiration, which will then light my own imagination and insight. For instance, there are poems titled “Amelia Earhart,” “Daphne,” “Persephone” and “Bruegel.” In the second category are poems in which I am lost, not relating to the lines, not grasping the intended meaning or suggestions of meaning. Ms. Nelson’s poems are not showy, intellectual fan dances. Patricia Nelson’s work is sincere, a means of discovering, and expressing an artistic vision. Is she always successful in communicating?
Let’s get into Patricia Nelson’s poetry.
So there is something after the gale
Of feet and hands and breath,
The heart that rises a little
And utters a brown noise
Like the pulsing, broken bird.
A memory of failing, which I will keep,
Of falling below the line of sight
And the pale stone of his shoulder,
Becoming part of its weight, loved
For my lost cry—when he remembers.
A snow of light is falling,
A hush, thin petals. So much
White that his face is gone.
The moment is still now, complete,
And the terror tall and permanent.
I am the wide shape left
Like a silver, churning light
For those in the space around me.
Like honey, I fill my new height.
I know silence, I hear sounds oddly.
I am larger, twisted
Far into the shadow on the ground.
I reach with a sound of leaves,
And there is no one.
I will not be human again.
The basic myth of Daphne and Apollo is found in many places, including Wikipedia. However, there are variations of the story. Ovid had his version, but there is a version by the Hellenistic poet Parthenius. In this version, which seems to be the version Ms. Nelson is using, Daphne is a human girl, the daughter of Amyclas, a king of Sparta. Daphne was being pursued by a human boy, Leucippas, who, quoting Wikipedia, “disguises himself in a girl’s outfit in order to join her band of huntresses. He is also successful in gaining her innocent affection. This makes Apollo angry and he puts it into the girl’s mind to stop to bathe in the river Ladon; there, as all strip naked, the ruse is revealed, as in the myth of Callisto, and the affronted huntresses plunge their spears into Leucippus. At this moment Apollo’s attention becomes engaged, and he begins his own pursuit. Daphne, fleeing to escape Apollo’s advances, prays to Zeus to help. Zeus turns her into laurel tree.”
Why I think Nelson takes the alternative myth as her contextual scene is that last line of her poem. In the original myth Daphne is a naiad. There is the question of “the pale stone of his shoulder.” Is it the boy’s? Is it Apollo’s? It could be either, but I lean toward it being a reference to Apollo. The question is the purpose of the poem. I don’t think our poet wanted merely to retell the mythic story. Perhaps, what intrigued her was what it felt like to be turned into a laurel tree. Also, she might have been thinking about spurning unwanted affection sometime in her own life, or she might have thought of the Me Too movement. Regardless of influences on the poem, I think one of the main spurs for writing was to become that woman changed and exiled as a tree. Interesting images: “the heart that rises a little/and utters a brown noise/like the pulsing, broken bird.” The heart as a bird is a good metaphor. The bird is brown, but, beyond being descriptive, what is a brown noise? Also, what is the significance of “the” in “the pulsing, broken bird” as opposed to “a pulsing, broken bird?’” That may seem a quibble, but it makes a difference.
What about “like a silver, churning light/for those in the space around me?” The word “churning” is an unusual choice. It implies liquid, or butter, or cream. At the time the reader comes to this in the poem, Daphne is a laurel tree, not a girl or nymph. There may be other reasons, but the word “churning” denotes (or connotes) agitation, the life now embodied in the tree. The tree is not just a tree. It is a person safe now, but trapped. The line “I know silence, I hear sounds oddly” is very simply expressed, but is a river of poetry itself.
This mythic language and imagery is far from the world of everyday experience, but it seems there is some touchstone of experience behind it. However, what that is is speculation. The poem is about how it feels to be metamorphosized into a laurel tree, and that is pure imagination and a compassionate solidarity with a girl, who chose to be alone rather than be taken by a crazed lover, a god in this case. Fanciful, not realism? The realism is in the portrayal of emotions resulting from the mythic action. If the poem reaches a reader, that is the bond. Of course, there is the admiration of verbal wizardry, the sound of the lines, the far-reaching and honing of imagery.
The problem with a mysterious, arcane poem is that it appeals to a narrow audience. Patricia Nelson’s book as a whole is not one that you read through in a single sitting. By doing so, subtleties will be missed, and/or only a vague impression will touch the mind, and faintly, at best, reverberate in the heart. A reader has to slow down. The poems have to be examined. Some of the poems lost me, or vice versa.
Let’s examine another poem in some detail:
—-a tarot card
Narrow by narrow she rides.
Woman with a tall blue ball on her head
And a horn and another horn
And a no eye and a why eye
And a new moon through her dress.
To see her you must live in a jar
Or a rock or an alphabet
Or a planet balanced on a dark.
On a “why” of seed or stem and under
And made of wide by wide.
You must see white to white,
Your heart stem paling at the leaf.
Face of chalk and torso hard as tooth.
In the high-low, pile moonlight silent as sand.
Release the cold and falling salt of judgment.
The poem above takes its imagery from a picture. Here is Eden Gray’s brief description of the High Priestess card in his book “Mastering the Tarot”:
“……has the crescent moon at her feet and wears a crown that shows a full moon with crescent moons on either side. She is the virgin daughter of the moon and corresponds to all the virgin goddesses of the ancient world and to the Virgin Mary. On her lap is a scroll of the Tora (Divine Law), and on her breast a solar cross with arms of equal length; the upright arm is the male or positive force, and the horizontal is the female or negative. The primal unit is now divided into two, and their eternal propensity to reunite results in creation, thus forming the trinity of father, mother, and son.
Behind her are the two pillars of Solomon’s Temple —-Boaz the black, to indicate the negative Life-force, and Jachin the positive. The veil between them, a symbol of virginity, is embroidered with palms (male) and pomegranates (female).”
A couple of mundane contemporary comments before proceeding—-my God, isn’t that description sexist and racist? Well, it is. It is a product of its time and of the ancient values in that mystical tradition. Patricia Nelson’s poetry glistens next to the gray dullness of expository prose, not blaming Eden Gray, whose purpose in writing was different.
Below is Gray’s interpretation of the card and the meaning of the card when it is reversed. What does reverse mean in a Tarot reading? I assume it means a card upside down. Here is Gray:
Interpretation: Unrevealed future; the mystery of things hidden in the depths of consciousness. Spiritual enlightenment, inner illumination. A caution not to speak of that which should be kept secret. In a man’s reading this card represents the perfect woman all men dream of; in a woman’s reading, it may indicate virtues in a friend or in herself.
Reversed: A selfish and ruthless woman. A life of indulgence and outward show. Conceit. Only surface knowledge. In a man’s reading, this card means he must be careful not to be destroyed by a woman’s selfishness.
The above is a rudimentary background for Nelson’s poem, though only superficial to the complexity of the poem. It does give a reader unfamiliar with Tarot cards a springboard to explore the poet’s text.
An immediate difference between the staid image of the card and the first line of the poem is that Nelson’s priestess “rides.” There is motion, life in action. The blue ball, the horns are a literal description of the priestess’ accoutrements, but “a no eye and a why eye” are a dazzle of poetry. What do they mean? Is “no” an absence or a refusal? I don’t know, but, like the irrational in poetry, it doesn’t matter. The phrasing goes beyond the visual. A discerning, contemplative reader would pause at this mystery, supply his or her own swirl of thoughts. The phrasing is ambiguous in that it offers multiple interpretation. Expository prose is more dogmatic and limiting—- perhaps the difference between organized, communal, prescriptive religion and mysticism, the hologram of illusion and reality, and the reality of illusion.
The line “and a new moon through her dress” has both a sensuousness and an ethereal quality to it. Are we looking at light? Are we looking at a female body? Is it virginal? Is it pregnant? Answers, reactions are subjective but a teasing image coalesces in the inner eye. This is fine lyric poetry. The word “through” means both diaphanous in the image, but “through” could mean agency. The woman’s dress symbolizes a new beginning, a new cycle. The image is both vague and imaginatively, dazzlingly visual in the mind’s eye, and, in the abstracting faculties of the conceptual mind, it assumes the matter-of-fact of cloth.
I am perplexed by the second stanza. Where does a jar come from? A jar that contains the remains of a foetus? A jar like in the Arabian nights, or Morocco, or in the tales of a genie?
In the line “or on a planet balanced on a dark,” why is the modifying article “a” dark, and not “the” dark? Dark as a noun is modified by the definite article “the.” I have never seen it modified by the indefinite article “a.” That oddity, plus the expectation for a noun, abruptly stops the line. Is this a typo or printer’s error? If not, what does the line mean, the denotation?
The third stanza? I could try to interpret, but I think I’d miss the poet’s intention, and, certainly, the meaning. The images suggest pictures in the mind’s eye, and they are memorable in themselves, but their connection to the tarot card? The poem is only outwardly about the High Priestess. This is not just an illustrative poem, but an emotional expression. I’m not sure of what exactly.
The complexity of the poems could frighten or dismiss a potential audience for Patricia Nelson’s book. However, there is a poem that is very understandable with succinct and soaring expression:
He told you he would have to go,
The guide who flew and rode monsters,
Lifted you with the knotted length of his arms.
The one made by the gods of his time
And barred by the later, larger god
Who came with your ladder of Light.
The one who took you without envy
To the flying angels, looking
With bird-wide eyes into your moment.
The title is Out of the Underworld. The unifying principle, or at least one, is the emergence of some character or entity out of an Underworld. The poems are light blazing out of the darkness, It could be artistic creativity as in the poem “Cezanne” or, as above, Dante being lifted out of Purgatory. The book is divided into five sections: Exile Monologues; Your Eye’s Blue And Wishing Moth; Otherworld; Purgatory (After Dante); Thirst For Light.
There are numerous words and word-images that permeate the book. Narrow, wide, light, dark, white, weight, leaves. There are others. It would be interesting to note the context and descriptive quality these common words take in often uncommon usage in various poems of the book. At times, the poems torture the reader, namely me, with my not understanding what is expressed, but at other times, when I connect with a particular poem, it is like a door opens, a bright light beams out, and you enter an enchanted reality. Each reader will make his or her own journey through Patricia Nelson’s book. It does have rewards, if you are up to it. The language is not linguistically odd. It is everyday language—-for the most part—used in different ways and contexts.
© Patricia Nelson and Dan Cuddy
Patricia Nelson is a former attorney who has worked with the “Activist” poets based in the San Francisco Bay Area. This is a Neo Modernist group.
Dan Cuddy is an editor of the Loch Raven Review. His poems have appeared in many journals, most recently in End of 83, the Baltimore Post Examiner, and the Bhubaneswar Review, and work forthcoming in Welter and the Broadkill Review.