I will begin with my longtime friend and sister in the art, Nancy Simpson, whose Living Above the Frost Line: New and Selected Poems was published this fall by Carolina Wren Press. It's a beautiful, elegant book, with French flaps (a shawl-like dust jacket/cover) and cover image that is gorgeous. Just click on the image above to enlarge and see what I mean.
Nancy Simpson has enriched the literary community of North Carolina for over thirty years. Her work was first heralded by the late Richard Hugo when he read and celebrated her poems at the Callanwolde Literary Festival in Atlanta, shortly after she began to show her poetry around to friends and readers in the far reaches of western North Carolina. He praised her rich inner life and her ability to give expression to it as it manifested itself in her everyday life. Whether driving over the Nantahala Gorge in “Night Student,” expressing the complexity of self in “Driven into the interior,” or documenting the carnage of the first Gulf War in “Voices from the Fringe,” she brings the inner and outer worlds of her experience into a harmony that resonates like the current giving voice and shape to the mountain creeks she loves. Living Above the Frost Line: Selected and New Poems traces the growth of a poet determined to survive despite the obstacles raised by age, mortality, and the inevitable losses that come from being alive in this world. Through her poetry she greets that half-drowned woman, harking from her Florida girlhood, who appears as her muse in “Bridge On the River Kwai, “ bearing gifts of memory and sustaining images. In return the poet gives her “a mountain, the safest place to be.” Rarely has the relationship between poet and muse been so beautifully expressed.
I'm delighted to be able to offer several of my favorite poems.
At 12:17 this Sunday
he is uninhibited
in front of God and
I-75 South, a man
lounging in the bed
of his red pickup truck.
He is getting his tan
the fast way, 80 mph
on his chaise lounge,
his black bikini
drawing the sun down.
He is holding a blue
tumbler in his hand.
I can only guess
what he is drinking.
I want to make a pass,
I mean, get past him
in this god-awful traffic.
I want to see
the face of the woman
at the steering wheel
who is taking him for a ride.
In the last days of the age
word went out that women
therefore must be allowed
to participate in creation.
And there came forth an artist
calling to us, Come hither!
In the center of a cornfield
in Brasstown Valley,
she sculpted an assembly
of corn women. She fashioned
husk bodies, worked six days
making in her image. She dressed
the corn women in gauze gowns
and entwined eglantine in their
cornsilk hair. Come hither!
We entered the cornfield,
our capes waving
in the evening breeze. We
circled the corn women,
lit a circle of small fires
and danced in firelight.
In the morning we came forth
to sculpt, to paint, and to write
the story that is left to tell.
Looking For the Sons of My House
I am looking for the sons of my house,
grown from babies into boys,
three of them with dark brown eyes.
Where are they now? The one
who brought a snake down the hall
into my room. The one who
had to fall off the porch, to test every rule?
The young one who flew half-way
around the world to be my son?
Their bikes are wrecked, tossed
in the landfill with their outgrown shoes.
One day I saw they were no longer boys but men,
the one who drove me to night class in Asheville
when he was a teen, the same one
I stood with as mother of the groom.
Where are they now?
One whistles on a hillside, feeds his dogs.
One is stuck in rush-hour traffic, stuck
in a marriage I blessed. The young one
climbs today on a mountain in Switzerland.
All of them far from the mother house.
From the top of the mountain we see
Town Valley submerged in clouds.
You say the word ‘ocean’ and a gull
flies from the branch of an oak,
squawks his squawk.
I know a lie when I see one.
Seagulls do not live in the mountains.
It is the woodpecker men call extinct,
alive, soaring above oaktops.
Now driving through fog in the valley
you show me things not seen before.
Men are swimming on the courthouse lawn.
Women stare fish-eyed from their gardens,
their mouths turned up.
Barnacles collect on the pier.
Count one for every life you were young:
the schoolgirl, mute,
who spoke only underwater
hoping no one could decipher.
In water memories converge.
Shell is sharp to touch.
Seaweed is soft as hair, and skin
is the large sensor. Skin
keeps its own record of the day
you slit your forearm, diving
into green ocean at South Beach.
Look how barnacles bashed by waves
hold on. Some are encased in stone.
They could cut you bloody, Girl.
Looking back I see my mother
was misinformed, promised an abortion
though it was illegal, five doctors
dead sure I was damaged, and certain
she would die if she gave birth.
She did sort of die, seeing me hideous
in her dream, seeing a ball of hair
bouncing in the room, in the afternoon
when she tried to rest.
I heard from her lips
how she fell down praying.
My mother was devout. I knew
she could not kill. Don’t you see?
I was in the best possible position.
A voice from a dream
on the north bank of the river
inconspicuous as deadwood.
where grass glows at sunrise,
where light is found all day.
Dream a new body.
a blue robe, and you
We stand over the carcass of a jellyfish.
It has given up the ghost, grown opaque.
Moon Jelly, I say, we knew you when
you lit the sky of the underworld.
And we count out loud the lines on its body
as if in counting we might learn
how long it lived in the ocean.
Gulls show interest in our arithmetic.
They circle. They fly down
to the sound of our voices.
Are we going to reach the end
of the island? Are we moving in a circle?
Light-headed we walk.
It interests me seeing
the hermit scuttle away
with a moon shell for a new house.
Look how furrows of silt create
a frontal lobe. We are walking,
don’t you think, on gray matter?
I will always say yes
to almost everything you ask. Yes,
it is possible to imagine
intelligence beneath our feet.
Evening turns out just as imagined.
We walk the length of the beach
and lie on the sand. We enter
the surf, our bodies submerging.
In hearing distance of a wave’s yes,
earth is a woman with plans.
What She Saw and What She Heard
On the mountain a woman saw
the road bank caved in
from winter’s freeze-thaw
and April rain erosion.
Trees leaned over the road the way
strands of hair hung on her forehead.
She gaped, her face as tortured
as the face she saw engraved in dirt.
Roots growing sideways shaped brows,
two eyes. Humus washed
down the bank like a nose.
Lower down, where a rock
was shoved out by weathering,
a hole formed the shape of a mouth.
The woman groaned, Agh!
Her spirit toppled
to the ground, slithered
under the roots of an oak.
She stood there asking
Back to reason, back home
she finished her questions:
What can one make of the vision, that face
on the north side of the mountain?
Reckoning comes, a thought:
It is not the image of a witch nor a god,
but Earth’s face, mouth open saying,