Barbara Nickel’s The Gladys Elegies opens with a sonnet sequence based on the fictionalized lives of twins Gladys Muriel and Marion Carol Rungee, whose intimate lifelong relationship becomes the prompt for the poems. The real subject, however, is standard feminist fare—yup, we get it. Husbands and dads can be abusive. Women can be victims. Traditional patriarchal systems of governance can be stifling. And, in this case at least, shared victimization can knot that cord of intimacy pretty darn tight.
The poems would be better if the poet could move beyond the cliché, or at least push the conclusion further. Not only do the self-consciously poetic images stack up (wounds and wombs, unsurprisingly), but Nickel seems content to hint at all the negative things that trail in the wake of abusive relationships—entrapment, filial dependence, domestic enslavement, emotional paralysis. Been there, done that. What if she pushed beyond the obvious and the usual? What if Nickel explored instead the ramifications of staying in an abusive relationship in positive or creative terms? What if, for a poetic surprise, the accusing finger were not pointed at the fathers and husbands? Or if, after pointing the finger, the poet moved beyond the obvious moral truism Men Who Abuse Are Bad? Any feminist can carry the argument to where Nickel has set it down. The trick of the poet is to nurse an argument to maturation. But Nickel rings the doorbell, sets it down like an unwanted baby, and runs away.
The sonnets are readable, despite the stiff-backed spiny meter. As a prosodist, Nickel rarely reaches the charm and ease of lines like these that close one of the sonnets:
Today I heard the clock’s insistent chant:
Tell Gladys she should leave before she can’t.
This couplet has all the metrical ésouciance of Justice or Schnackenberg, but Nickel’s meter more often recalls Pope’s acerbic observation,
When Ajax strives, some Rock’s vast weight to throw,/ The Line too labours, and the words move slow. (Essays in Criticism, lines 370-1) When the meter clicks like a metronome, the poet needs more practice and more variation.
After the Gladys Elegies, four more sections explicitly take on the subject of Mennonite history as it constitutes the Mennonite present. And many of these are lovely collages, highly imagistic and fragmented. Anyone raised in an ethnic Mennonite community will love
Komm, Essen, a poem whose titular divisions (Faspa, Blutwurst, Plume Mooss, etc.) combine the effects of historicized symbology with the nostalgic oomph of an old family photo album. In this respect Nickel echoes and reprises Mennonite poets who have done the same, Julia Kasdorf and Jean Janzen.
In the last section,
The Rosary Sonatas, inspired by a sound recording of Heinrich Biber’s Rosenkranz-Sonaten, three worlds are drawn into delicate balance: the world of New Testament topography; the world of musical knowledge, and the world of poetry, with its elisions, assumptions and privacies. Nickel extends the feminist interest by ascribing to Mary, Mother of Christ, an emotional response upon Biblical occasions like the Annunciation and Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. Mary and Elizabeth celebrate their emotions in literal terms (blackberry wine, piano, stringed instruments). And indeed, the fragmented beauty of representing imagined emotion in such terms produces a quiet purity in the lines. Yet the overall effect of the piece is one of interiorization. Nickel loses much by accommodating, then abandoning, many of the stereotypes that cling to contemporary poetry: that poetry is all about emotion rather than thought; that poetry is too difficult to follow; that over-reliance on broken syntax and fleeting impressions robs the poem (and the poet) of intellectual substance.
Most of these stereotypes are irrelevant to most poets, of course, who go on writing what they want to write, in exactly the way they want to write it. But here the accommodation of stereotype is troubling because Nickel does not go beyond it. What’s she trying to say, really? That the lives of Jesus and Mary might be read interestingly if imaged metonymically and musically? Sure they might. But at some point the reader must ask: why? Why should we read this way? What do we get out of it? If a poet brings three elaborate tensile worlds together just for the sake of bringing them together, what is the reader to take away except sensation? And surely poetry is more than sensation.
The Gladys Elegies is worth reading on two levels. First, it offers some poems that are so successful that they invite audience participation, both literal and semantic. The smart sonnet
Busking, for example, twice positions the reader as audience, once to the poem and once to the busker whose performance is breathtaking. This poem is about more than sensation: it actually challenges the reader to think about the meaning of art. It insists that art is like laughing or marketing for tomatoes—in other words, that art is life, a tendentious claim by anybody’s standards.
On the second level, The Gladys Elegies is worth reading because its soft-shoe prettiness invites the reader to think about the purpose of art, and the direction of contemporary poetry. Most of these poems tiptoe down the hushed hall of imagination, where connecting doors are shut and a carpet muffles the sound. And such a corridor satisfies if what you want is a dim private space. But on the other hand, why not knock on a couple of the doors along the way?
1997 California Poet Laureate
Los Angeles, California