Review of Narrow Bridge by Robbi Nester
by Mary McCarthy
Robbi Nester’s new poetry collection (Main Street Rag, 2019), her third, opens with a poem about a great whale “singing the world into being” (“The Making”). In this poem, Leviathan is the creator of wonder on a grand scale, not a stern father god of judgement and retribution, but one who is an artist, celebrating life and beauty, a god more Beethoven than Jehovah. What follows are ambitious, transformative poems, where we as readers stand on that narrow bridge between immensities, and like the solitary fisherman or astronomer, attempt to comprehend them. What we see is the unknowable, shifting nature of reality, half-invented, where all our “precious charts” are delusions we have conjured, a state of being that “masks a swarm/ of shifting particles” (“Blueprint”).
What lies behind the façade of ordinary reality is hard to catch a glimpse of, but filled with an exuberance of living things, rich in their mutability, full of particularity, presented here as a treasury of inexhaustible delight. Nester sees with an artist’s eye, celebrating the world with precision and grace, until each detail becomes a revelation.
One source of this wonder is the realm of childhood. Here is the solitary child, reading on the cellar steps, or happy underneath the fall of laundered sheets, “[wrapping herself] in their cool width” as they hang on the indoor clothes line. In this way, the child becomes “a chrysalis […],” a “mind sufficient to itself,/ fostered in fertile darkness like a flame” (“Down the Basement”).
Nester’s childhood love of sheltered solitude can’t prevent encounters from happening again and again, in classroom, schoolyard, and at a father’s hand, with the rough unthinking cruelties of the world. She witnesses and remembers, but is not deterred or broken. Frustrated in a game of musical chairs she’s far too small and slow to win, she bites the birthday girl and is sent home–in disgrace, but not defeat. She is stubborn and determined–to take fear in small doses so as to better survive terror, to see with perfect attention, to catch the bright elusive moon in a mirror, and hold it there, if only for a moment (“Catch and Release”).
These are poems full of courage and curiosity, with a persona unable to resist the world’s wonder. Even though she knows that “Trafficking with immensities is dangerous” (“Conversation”), she dares to address the ocean directly, and waits for an answer. This fierce attentiveness is rewarded with epiphany, for the persona finds a way to communicate with this impersonal being:
I sang to her, and found
that sphynx, the ocean, opened up
her silver eyes, and let me
sit between her paws.
The poet, in her determination to build a world as beautiful and sufficient as the perfect spider’s web, comes to know and celebrate her own particularity, which, like the hair that won’t be styled against its nature, sings the world again into being in language rich and vital, a world of her own, but one we all recognize and know.
Learning about the world also means defining one’s place in it, at the intersection of public and private, past and future. The poems in this collection explore these dimensions: the school shootings, the refugees welcomed nowhere, and the weight of the past, of law and traditions that separate and punish and deny justice. In the shul, confined to “the drafty women’s section in the back” staring at the Hebrew letters “black ink mantises, moving their jointed legs/ from right to left across the page” (“Old Religion”), she knows herself to be “[banished to the anteroom of the tradition.” Untutored in Hebrew, she “[knows] the tune, but not the words,” as a woman in a patriarchal culture, “fit to stir the soup, but not to speak.”
Even at home, exploring her mother’s vanity, she finds a gold necklace, promising protection. But when in her excitement she asks her mother whose it is, her mother says it is not for her, but “[f]or the baby boy we never had” (“Mezuzah”), as these gifts were only for boys, not for the disappointment of a baby girl.
The question becomes not only how to make and recognize the world, to see through its changes and illusions, but to re-make it in a kinder, freer, more human shape. First to “wrest the dusty curtains/ from the wall, let in the sun” (“Old Religion”), and then to find, even in small gestures, ways to “mend the past, repair the world” (Season of Mending).
No matter the cruelties visited on us, no matter how narrow the bridge we walk, the thrust of these poems is not anger or despair, but hope and joy–seeing connection, refusing brokenness, affirming the creative energy of all life, seeing the light inside and outside the self, and dancing in that light.
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Narrow Bridge is available from Main Street Rag.