Duke University Alumni Magazine

Crossing water

By Florence Nash A.M. '94. Durham: Gravity Press, 1996. 50 pp. $9.43.

slim volume from a small regional press often signals that you are about to be introduced to poems that, while earnest, are unready, hurried into print by an over-anxious author. Nothing could be further from the truth in the case of Florence Nash's Crossing Water. The poems in this book show the good effect of long patience, of language that has been lived with and loved.

     One of the most striking qualities of these poems is their ordinary subject matter. That might sound like damning with faint praise, but it is not. In the age of ax-grinding poems--poems of political outrage, poems of sexual oppression, in short, poems more concerned with current headlines than with the deep currents of language--it is tremendously refreshing to come upon poems "about" watching a meteor shower at Jordan Lake or a son's broken leg. What Nash does so skillfully is show that dramatic subject matter is finally not what makes a poem of lasting value.

     In the poem about her son's "simple fracture," she uses the occasion of the recent injury to remember another visit to the emergency room. It's not big, life-threatening stuff, just a broken leg and some childhood stitches. She gets the long-distance call and pictures the young man "sagging off the playing field between two buddies...." ("Sagging" is indicative of the accuracy of observation Nash maintains throughout the book.) Then she remembers helping a young doctor hold down this same boy in an earlier incident:

    Under hard disks of light
    your small body jerked with pain,
    with the new struggle not to cry.
    You fastened your eyes wide onto mine,
    clutched fistfuls of me like a baby
    animal clinging to its mother's fur,
    and my heart pumped hard as if
    it could still wash through your
        translucent skin
    into the jewel of you curled beneath it,
    as if this surge of love could sluice
    right through your bones and back
    traveling no distance at all.

     She brings the poem back around to the distance of the beginning and collapses that distance at the same moment, capturing all the tensions that work a good parent.

     Good poems must be deeply felt, but depth of feeling alone isn't enough. Nash keeps the purple passages at bay with craft. The best accomplishment of that feat probably occurs in the poem "Going after lightwood." Lightwood is a vernacular term for a kindling with a high resin content. The remarkable thing about this poem, for me, was that I made it to the fifth stanza before I realized it was a sestina. A sestina is one of the most demanding poetic forms, with six six-line stanzas in which the same six end words repeat in a complex order. It was, I believe, Elizabeth Bishop who said, if you can get a reader past the third stanza before he or she notices the form, you've written a successful sestina.

     The "story" of the poem is of an outdoors man going out to retrieve a lightwood stump he's seen. As the end words--bank, light, quiet, woods, fear, and stump--subtly repeat, you feel, as the man must, how a landscape can settle into you. Successful sestinas are rare, and Nash should beam with pride at having written such a good one.

     While she demonstrates that she can handle a difficult form, Nash also shows that she knows how to use freer verse:

    This morning
    on the mossy path
    that splits
    our remnant patch
    of wood
    we came across
    quite suddenly
    where we stood
    a fine big copperhead.
    in a common script
    scribbled on the ground.
    Snake: Here.
    we stepped around
    and later said
    how much we miss
    a world where
    what we have
    to fear
    appears forthright
    and clear
    as this.

     The poem lies thin and snake-like on the page and the rhymes--wood/stood, ground/ around, fear/clear, and particularly the hissing of "miss" and "this"--make what could have been a prosy statement sing.

     Crossing Water is a fine, quiet book full of good reading.

--Michael Chitwood

Chitwood's third collection of poems, The Weave Room, will be published next year by the University of Chicago Press.

The Intellectual Construction of America: Exceptionalism and Identity from 1492 to 1800

By Jack P. Greene Ph.D. '56. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1997. 228 pp. $16.95 paper.

     Greene, Andrew W. Mellon humanities professor at Johns Hopkins University, explores the changing definitions of America from the time of Europe's first contact with the New World through the establishment of the American republic. Challenging the historians who have argued that colonial American societies differed little from those of early modern Europe, he shows that virtually all contemporary observers emphasized a distinctiveness of the new worlds being created in America.

The Search for Meaning in the Workplace

By Thomas H. Naylor, William H. Willimon, and Rolf Osterberg. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996. 219 pp. $12.95 paper.

     Inspired by The Search for Meaning by Duke professor emeritus Naylor and Dean of the Chapel and professor of Christian ministry Willimon, the authors, along with Osterberg, a lecturer, author, and consultant, combine a spiritual journey inward and an outward quest in pursuit of human connectedness. Finding meaning in the workplace is no easy task, they contend, if life beyond the workplace has no meaning, and vice versa.

Keeping an Open Door: Passages in a University Presidency

By Keith Brodie and Leslie Banner. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996. 200 pp., 16 photographs. $22.95 cloth.

     Duke chancellor (1982-85) and president (1985-93) Brodie and Leslie Banner recount what it was like to lead Duke during an era of change for research universities across the country: how Brodie reached some of his most controversial decisions, including the "Black Faculty Initiative"; his strategy for precluding abuse in Division I athletics at Duke; how his training as a psychiatrist shaped his leadership style and influenced how he dealt with trustees, deans, faculty, and students; and the avenues of power still open to today's university presidents.

Sons of the Fathers: Healing the Father-wound in Men Today

By Gordon Dalbey '64. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1996. 307 pp. $11.

     Dalbey, a pioneer in the growing Christian men's movement, maintains that, in order to learn how to relate to women in a healthy way, rediscover their masculinity in order to become "real men," take more initiatives as fathers, and commit to other community- and family-based principles, men must heal the wound left by imperfect fathers. The book offers "a deeper understanding...and a path to healing...only possible through a restored relationship with Father God."

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