A JOURNEY INTO AN INNER LANDSCAPE: Gary Kay on Barbra Nightingale’s Geometry of Dreams

geometry of dreams

Geometry Of Dreams, Barbra Nightingale, WordTech Communications

Samuel Johnson famously (and inaccurately) described metaphysical poetry as, “heterogeneous ideas yoked by violence together.” Geometry of Dreams,” Barbra Nightingale’s new collection, contains poems filled with heterogeneous ideas, but they are blended skillfully and imaginatively into compelling narratives that engage and challenge and the reader, who is invited to explore a literary landscape where numbers, quarks, spatial planes and velocities keep bumping into feelings.

The initial poem, Irresistible Force, reflects the typical trajectory of Nightingale’s “metaphysical” poems. The reader is asked to contemplate the possible meaning of polynomials, discrete angles, gravitational fields, the Pi of existence. “Having done this,” the speaker suggests, “it might/ just be possible to imagine/ numbers that don’t exist,” which naturally leads to the unanswerable question: how are speaker and reader, both concepts, precisely aligned? The last stanza, however, does not offer an answer for the head, but instead, “a blow to the heart,”

Thinking all the while
there must be a stop to motion,
the headlong rush into nothing
so sensible as a plan,
wondering if anything
could stop it once it began
except the grey thud of a body
falling, forward, then backward,
whipped, as it were by velocity
of an object, say a bullet, or a blow
to the heart, even if it wasn’t quite
physical, even
if there were no blood.

“Changing the Direction of the Dawn” begins with the whimsical question: “What if the world stopped spinning clockwise, and then started turning the other way?” Then come a series of questions that develop the strange premise of the first. The final stanza returns to the human realm. But this time the ending is soft, personal, romantic:

Would the sun rise in the west,
The moon take over day?
Would we
wake up to pale light
sometimes golden, then silver?
It is so easy to love in the dark.

Archeology explores not reversals of motion, but the inevitable movement of time, reflected in the solid reality of a rock, worn down to a pebble, reflecting not only physical decay, but the loss of a language and a culture,

Yet this rock, this time, this shale,
is entirely of this world
speaking a language
long since gone to pebble.

“Pondering Stones and Their relation to Mathematics” reveals a different movement. This time it begins as a journey into an inner landscape, Miranda’s descent into the unconscious, which transforms her body as well as mind,

Miranda is getting lost,
She’s always had a problem
negotiating space, bumping
into this or that, aware
only at night finding blue
and purple bruises
scattered like islands
over her body.

“What Is,” a poem that echoes Wallace Stevens’ Emperor of Ice Cream, begins with the following conceptually and musically intricate stanza, rich with sibilants that snake through each line,

It is the mystery that snares us
Muddles our senses, then lets go.
It is the dichotomy of parts
That fits despite their shape.
The poem ends with a clever and playful “sense and scent” of dialectical certainty,
Nothing matters
Only the sense of it remains,
The scent of occasion, event,
The reality of seem and that
Is good enough—enough for good.

The next section of the book contains the sonnet sequence, The Ex-Files. These poems deal with Nightingale’s response to the suicide of her ex-husband. Somehow she is able to summon the courage and imagination to create a remarkable series of poems, and transform her personal tragedy into a stunning work, one which explores her husband’s suicide and her marriage in tones varying from ironic, humorous, sad, regretful to often brutally unsentimental. The sonnets total 18, a number symbolically represented by the Hebrew word Chai, which means life. The first poem begins with the wry observation:

I won’t say your death made no sense—
But when a storm knocks out power,
Can openers are for cans, not veins.
It ends with the poignantly surrealistic:
Where are you now, the rushes whisper
And it matters not if the fish have ears.

The next poem opens with the following confessional, a three line summary of the entire marriage:

But I’m the first to admit
It was good when it was good
And when it wasn’t you stank.

The emotional intensity of the previous opening contrasts with the speaker’s subdued speculations of her ex-husband’s daughter and “non-grieving ex-wife” to the news of the suicide. This poem ends with the oddly detached observation:

how time wraps itself into a stone, then snowballs
downhill, only to crash
into somebody’s previously good day.

Far different is the sad and haunting description of what the sister wants to do with the human remains,

Your sister wanted the rest
Poured in that wine bottle, the one with your name on the label,
But you didn’t fit through the funnel, too large, too large.

The final poem, chai, starts with a restrained analysis of the speaker’s marriage and its poetic implications, but the underlying regret and anger quickly surface,

The Hebrew word for life also means eighteen.
Eighteen years of marriage, eighteen verses.
It would have been twenty-eight last month
if you hadn’t been such a prick, mid life crisis
be damned.

But the speaker, more poet than bereaved ex-wife, ends by describing the literary implications of life and the death of the husband and her marriage.

You would have loved the irony.
All my attention finally focused
on this one last thing, this chai.

Fittingly, the poem ends on the word, chai, the Hebrew word for life, with all its glories and blemishes — affirmed, preserved, and portrayed.

The best poems in this collection are by far those that deal with the emotional complexities of human relationships, and the wide range of feelings that the speaker is brave enough to explore with the reader. An excellent example is Siren Song, where the speaker boldly, incredibly, gives voice to her vagina. The poem is a piercing cry of lust, longing, and desperation, which takes the reader into an underworld of temptation and desire:

Siren Song

Lethal, according to some.
Flora whose very perfume
Causes anaphylactic terrors,
As if the jaws of hell existed
Not beneath the surfaces of the earth
But in women, their secret spaces
Caverns of death and destruction.
Yet the mouth beckons, a bud opening
To reveal the hidden stigma
Pulsating, slick and so much heat,
Blooming nightshade waiting,
Its song of longing louder and louder
Echoing in empty chambers
Waiting, wanting, waiting.

“Yet with Love,” a poem that explores the difficult relationship of the poet with her daughter, reflects the other side of Nightingale’s emotional continuum. It ends with a peace offering, given to a daughter, whose anger and resentment have yet to poison her mother’s love,

Never doubt for a moment
I tasted your sea breeze,
the salt of your anger
bitter on my tongue.
Yet with love,
yet with love, do I offer
this olive of peace.

The opening stanza of “Three Takes on a Wounded Heart,” demonstrates Nightingale’s lyrical power, and elegant fusion of image and feeling. She is the “drab” bird in the mangrove tree, exquisitely sensitive to everything in her surroundings, whose movement spurs her to song,

When the moon is half
and half again,
look for me
by the mangrove tree.
I’m the bird all brown and drab
whose feathers ruffle
at the slightest stir,
singing a song to every cur
who lifts his leg and shuffle on.

Keep singing, Barbra Nightingale, like Thomas Hardy’s darkling thrush, but not “in blast- beruffled plume,” and not only of “blessed Hope,” but of sorrow, suffering, guilt, regret, love, joy, and the many other human feelings that light up the human heart.


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