Living Above the Frost Line: New and Selected Poems, by Nancy Simpson, 2010, Carolina Wren Press, 108 pp., paper, ISBN 978-0-932112-61-3, $15.95. Reviewed by David Chorlton.
This is not a book of poetry which grabs its reader’s attention with spectacular lines and extroverted virtuosity, rather a more contemplative one. While the language is generally uncomplicated, it has momentum and holds interest with a grasp of concrete imagery. The virtues in Nancy Simpson’s works include restraint and humility, as well as being firmly set in natural surroundings; for example, "On a Mountain in an Unfinished Cabin" (in the opening section with poems from 1977-81) ends with this stanza:
I am among the living.
So many trees,
I make an agreement with leaves,
acting silly, singing-
Give me all your oxygen,
I’ll give you CO2.
Wegia is pleased. It rains.
We watch the sun set as if visible.
While many of these poems grow from the details of daily life, such as waiting at the mailbox or watching for "Carolina Bluebirds" and noting the date they arrive (December 3rd), there is frequently an underlying drama not far away. "The Wreck" is short and well paced in providing the information that leads from:
Witnesses saw it all, heard the crash,
the speeding blue Camaro stopped dead
at Pinelog Bridge. Sam Beck insists
he saw a man fly through the windshield,
Something in me moving fast
wants to fly out through my eyes
like a body thrown free of the wreck.
One of the later poems, describing a walk around Knowles Lake with a granddaughter, highlights the balance of an everyday life within its radius of personal concern and the natural world. In this case, the walkers see a turtle heading into traffic and are able to steer it to safety. We care for what we can, while greater forces often conspire to leave a feeling of despair.
"Voices from the Fringe" is the most ambitious poem in the book, interweaving public and personal aspects of the Gulf War. The way war slips into our lives far from the battleground itself is first expressed when news of hostilities beginning is announced on the radio between music by Mozart and Haydn. "Who wants war?/I’ve only just started to stop/grieving over the last one." The poem reads meaningfully as a journal of the war and voices raised against it domestically. For all the implicit horror, the author remains steady and focused as she quotes Norman Schwarzkopf ("We are softening the battlefield") and notes that "Today President Bush wants us to pray." A daughter tells her mother not worry, and after a message from her son a mother says "That was/the last I heard from him." Then confetti, not bombs, falls amid the fervent cheering in Manhattan.
So much of this book hinges on considering what is happening on a vast scale as opposed to the scale of an individual’s life. "Small Scope" is a gentle enough poem, layering observations from the spreading asphalt to a skunk’s carcass on the road to a walk along the beach, and concluding with "I see myself/and all of us, minute." It is interesting to find one of the more dramatic beginnings to "This Night": "Insomnia is a mountain and grief/is a lion gripping my throat." This time it is mourning that occupies the subconscious without letting go. Throughout, each small gesture points to a more universal one, and more than a tree is lost when an oak dies and something more is gained when the cicadas arrive.
Nancy Simpson is very good at showing her readers that looking around them will reveal more pleasures than expected, and yet she never leaves the mistaken impression that they live in an untainted or unthreatened world. Here is the ending of her reflection on "Network News," a poem with more than a dash of her folksy wisdom:
Would it be better to turn off
the set, refuse to hear, maybe
make up a lie or two of my own?
I have to make myself laugh
sometimes or go mad
and my gods help me do that.
It is satisfying to find a deserving poet well represented by this selection from more than thirty years of looking at her world and writing about it with heart.