15 October 2009

After by Nancy Pagh

After by Nancy Pagh Floating Bridge Press, 2008 25 pages. $12.50 Reviewed by Laurie Rosenblatt Spare, balanced, well-made—and that’s just the chapbook design! If you’re a poet, don’t write another line. Move directly to Washington State just for the chance to be published by Floating Bridge Press. The elegant cover of “After” by Nancy Pagh suggests the eye’s image and after-image having stared at a bright light or the sun. It’s just right since these poems bounce off a phrase or two from other writers. Such extensive use of epigraph may suck the energy from one’s own work like a black hole, the inspiring lines might impose a mannered tone, or the rhythm set an awkward gait. Perhaps the imported text distorts the new poem by simply encouraging it to hew too closely even parasitically to that original perspective, voice, or style. In short, “After” is a bit of a high-wire act. But if you like to see high-fliers fall, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Pagh skillfully avoids each trap in these technically interesting, lively, smart, and compactly complex poems. She builds on her sources allowing her own associations to take us to different insights carried along by her appealing voice. I know. Gush. Gush. Gush. Not as interesting as a little action with the tooth and claw. But really, the poems are fun, skilled, and (how rare is this) surprising. Pagh doesn’t shy away from the big names. She engages Emily Dickinson in the title poem and wrestles TS Eliot in a wry poem called “Love Song,” where we find, “the virgins are thirty and forty and going/ to the sperm bank./ The medical technician witnesses/ immaculate conception every day,…This poem clings closely to the original in its rhythms, vocabulary, and subject matter (modernized of course), but somehow manages a poke at Eliot and deference to his poem without cringing subservience. It ends with a final look at the technician: In the lab Monday afternoons he stirs, dissolves, with sugar spoons the Sweet’N Low, the saccharine, and then imagines online sirens giving head while women ring the waiting room. I do not think he’ll sing to them. In another poem, Pagh takes off from Pat Lowther’s observation that the octopus, “is beautifully functional as an umbrella; at rest a bag of rucked skin sags like an empty scrotum,” to explore a woman’s vulnerability to a certain type of male character observing: …when you first know them; the loss of youth, integrity, or wife clear in each lovely unsure gesture you mistook for tenderness Exact and apt, the line breaks lend delight to insight. And although Lowther’s images are so interesting and strong, Pagh isn’t overwhelmed instead opening out into something related yet fresh. Fnally, in the poem “Before,” Pagh uses a snippet from a creation story, to tell her own story about desire and its origins: …--all was oyster shell and butterclam. The raven’s groak. The muskrat’s little hand, a pattern pressed in crust of sand was delible. No metaphor at all. We lived each in our own body and happy there. The poem continues to refuse metaphor, “No metaphor at all” and “Only the birds dreamed their falling,” while weaving concrete images suggesting desire, writing, and ending: ….You were likened to no object whatsoever. That was our practice, also. Then somebody said beautiful. Somebody wrote a poem. And somebody wasn’t, and hurt. I know fire was involved: we built the flame and made the char that wrote it. These days the poetry biz is sometimes awash in blather, low bars, lazy observation, and tatty notions. You’ll find none of that here. Pagh sets the bar high. Then she sails right over it.