by Jean Nordhaus
The Ohio State University. © 2006,  59 pgs.
ISBN-13: 978-0-8142- 5158-4

A Review by Grace Cavalieri

Jean Nordhaus writes poems in an arrangement of stillness. She finds favor with serenity. Maybe this is because Nordhaus knows what to leave out of a poem. Only the seasoned writer trusts the reader, believes in invisible bridges, and knows the reader of poetry is as smart as the writer. Jean Nordhaus is a deeply intuitive poet. She moves to the center of the hearth without clutter or clumsiness. And it is hearth, the Latin rootword for “focus,” that is in her poems. Jean writes from matrimony, monogamy, daughterhood, and those cultural experiences so many of us share. What remains on the page however, makes Jean her own poet, and so the poem remains uninfluenced by outside conditions. She may write about the world, but the work remains private and untouched by the forces pulling on her. Perhaps what we have here is an independent woman. Complexity is made simple in a speech aloof from the ordinary. Whatever the outer life is or was — we have dignity, detachment and the necessary strength to be autonomous.

These poems, some from daily life, take mythic proportions. Although there are characters — mother, aunt, butcher, friend — each becomes an archetype. What a sacred thing poetry can be. What Nordhaus breathes into these beings makes them larger than the world.

This slender volume is light on the hand. Spencer Reece, the poet, once said to me “A book of poems is just a fragile thing, it’s a miracle it exists at all.” I thought of this, but then I thought of what is not fragile. The voice. Freud’s interpretation of women and Jung’s, neither one, is adequate. They were not wrong but perhaps mistaken, seeing woman in light of man. There is something about these poems that teaches us what a woman artist is, silk stronger than steel. Here are two poems from Innocence:

I remember the heat, the green-striped tent,
the little canapes of crab and ham,
my frazzled mother, guests in summer hats,
bowls of roses wilting on the tables,
and how the water fell upon the ground
as rain mid rose again. There was a body there
impersonating me. It wore my face,
my ice-blue linen dress (I had refused
the white) and stood, benumbed, on ice-blue
linen spikes while kisses floated by
like ducks along a moving track.
I felt that I was living
someone else’s life, surprising
as the wedding presents heaped upstairs,
those pristine bowls and implements whose uses
I could barely guess. And you, so cheerful,
there beside me, wanting this.
We hardly knew each other then, although
our bodies recognized each other well enough
and half-suspected they could live together.
Were the day and the hour propitious?
Many who now are gone were still alive.
Others had not yet arrived. The auguries
said neither yes nor no, but there was water
in the air and on the ground and
I have held you in my arms as air
holds water to relinquish it again.


How I loved those spiky suns,
rooted stubborn as childhood
in the grass, tough as the farmer’s
big-headed children-the mats
of yellow hair, the bowl-cut fringe.
How sturdy they were and how
slowly they turned themselves
into galaxies, domes of ghost stars
barely visible by day, pale
cerebrums clinging to life
on tough green stems. Like you.
Like you, in the end. If you were here,
I’d pluck this trembling globe to show
how beautiful a thing can be
a breath will tear away.

Grace Cavalieri is a poet and a playwright. She produces “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio.