Legal Disclosure Notice: I received a free review copy of the ebook in order to write this review; I was not paid.
Robbi Nester, Narrow Bridge, (Main Street Rag, 2019) 88 pages, poetry, price unknown at the time of this article's publication.
Robbi Nester's new book "Narrow Bridge" sets up a grand theme. The epigraph reveals that the narrow bridge of the title is a metaphor for life and fearless engagement with it. "Trafficking in immensities is dangerous," she says in the poem "Conversation" and in "Giant Manta Ray": "The solidity of earth is an illusion." One is thus set up to enter a quest of breaking life into its "shifting particles," a phrase Nester uses twice.
In reality, the collection is tamer than one would expect. The imagery is crisp as if placed under surgical light. There are a lot of references to science, water, and the moon. At its best, the music is superb with lilting, sonorous alliteration and beautiful phrases that taste like ripe fruit on the tongue:
"...mantis shrimp constant as castanets
booming grunts and groupers."
- "The Making"
At its worst, it comes perilously near the whimsical. Not that there is anything wrong with whimsical, but that particular effect is somewhat jarring in a collection that purports to traffic in immensities. Those immensities live below the surface for the most part.
You will find immensities most in Nester's deceptively plain poems about her childhood and various memories, where she seems to be "searching for the source of sound" ("Blue Wings"), but to find them one must spend some time meditating on them. After interviewing Nester (see below) and learning some of the actual history behind these childhood reminiscences - and sharing some commonalities with them in my own background - I wish for a less gentle, mannered approach, for "a waking dream [that] might shock imagination from its sleep" ("Blueprint").
In the end, the overall emotional impression of the book is nostalgia, like looking at old family photos without knowledge of the gritty, real-life stories behind them. "Narrow Bridge" would have benefited from a less scattered, sharper, rawer approach. The immensities have been washed over by the waves of time and polished a bit too much. That said, Nester has an undeniable way with the music of language that makes this collection a delight to read aloud.
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S.R.: What sparked your interest in poetry and what influenced you to publish?
R.N.: I have written and read poetry my whole life. My great-uncle, Isaac Rosenberg, killed at age 26 in WWI in France, was a famous poet and painter. He was born in London, of parents who had immigrated from Lithuania, fleeing from pogroms. His first oil painting, a portrait of my maternal grandfather, hung in our house, and now hangs in my house. It was impressed upon me early and often that I had descended from a noted writer and artist.
As for what made me want to publish, that didn't happen till I got to college. For many years, it was mostly just rejection slips, but my first publication was actually during college, in a journal affiliated with the school, but not a student publication. It took a while before I began to publish substantial numbers of poems, which wasn't all that long ago, starting perhaps in 2000.
All writers want to be heard. I especially have felt the need for an audience. I love reading my work to an audience, and began doing that early, perhaps 30-40 years ago.
S.R.: The overall feeling I got from "Narrow Bridge" was nostalgia. What does the metaphor of the narrow bridge mean to you and how does this play out in the collection?
R.N.: I wouldn't say I am nostalgic exactly. It's more complicated than that. I had a very difficult childhood. Both of my parents were mentally ill to some degree. My father, though he could at times be very sweet and charming, was fairly often violent. His family was embarrassed by his condition, and never reached out to offer help, preferring to hide it.
My mother's family lived abroad, all over the world. They were a faraway refuge I dreamed of. The library provided a closer refuge, right across the street.
But I have always had quite complete and vivid memories of my childhood, and think of them often. Some of these memories are very painful, the feelings still very raw and alive. Others are serene or magical. Both of these varieties of memory are treated in my work. My previous book, Other-Wise (Kelsay, 2017) , was full of poems in the first category, though there were a few of the other kinds of memory poems too. This book may have more of the second variety.
S.R.: Many of the poems involve childhood memories and family members. How did these shape your relationship to poetry?
R.N.: One of my first published poem was one about my grandmother. She was mysterious, telling me nothing about her family history. Even the name I knew her by was an assumed one. Anyone who knew those secrets is dead now. I wrote partly to sort out my complicated feelings about these people.
S.R.: How does your sense of place affect your work?
R.N.: It affects me to the degree the memories are attached to particular places--the house I grew up in in Philadelphia, and the neighborhood beyond it, Virginia, the green hills of Western Massachusetts and the dunes of Provincetown, California, in all of its variety, Israel, where I visited relatives on both sides of my family in 2014.
S.R.: Do you have a philosophy of poetry that you try to convey throughout your body of work as a whole and how does "Narrow Bridge" accomplish this?
R.N.: I don't know if I have a philosophy of poetry. I certainly have a preference for strong images, accessibility, poems that strike the note of sound and sense.
S.R.: What do you believe is poetry's role (and/or the poet's role) in modern society?
R.N.: Poets, like all writers, need to tell the truth as they see it, both personally and politically, even if this makes them unpopular.
S.R.: How do you think future generations will see your work?
R.N.: It is nice to imagine future generations will see my work. I am a modest person. I hope that happens. I am not sure how people in the future will read my work. Perhaps it will recall for them places and things from their own experience, or maybe it will read like a historian's or paleontologist's notes on things long past.
S.R.: What advice do you have for young poets who are just beginning?
R.N.: Quell the desire for praise. Read, revise, and listen. Read journals, go to readings and open mics, take classes and workshops. Experience the world and take an interest in everything.
S.R.: Where are you going from here? (Future projects or thoughts on moving forward?)
R.N.: I hope I will be writing many more books. I will continue working on three manuscripts--one a compendium of all the poems I have written about women, one a collection of Ekphrastic poems without their images, perhaps to be published alongside a website or with links to images online, and the next general collection of poems.
Thank you for speaking with me today!