Review by Claire Hersom
OUR LADY OF LET'S ALL SING
by Nancy A. Henry
Sheltering Pines Press
PO Box 1344
Kennebunk, Maine 04043
There are those rare individuals whom one can meet, even momentarily, and the impression of the person's personality and spirit touches and remains in your memory--a flash of their smile, tone of voice, a vivid image they've portrayed. This is also true of writers. Occasionally there is a writer who can connect in such a way with life's beauty, depth, and honesty, that they become unforgettable. Nancy Henry fits this bill.
We are introduced to Henry behind a backdrop of the contrasting personalities of her parents, two strong people who, at times, stretched her across the lines they drew for each other until she hurt. "Map to Myself" is a self portrait that says, "look, you’re going to read about me and my life in these pages, and that’s great, but it's not always soft and pretty, so expect no apologies." Refreshingly, she gives none. She puts the reader on notice while she moves back and forth negotiating the intricacy between vulnerable separations of child-like insecurities and her adult strengths.
At first, the title of the book seems odd and hard to place in a context. But the title, and cover art by Annie Farnsworth, coupled with the poem of the same name, opens a window through which the poems of this collection can, and perhaps should be viewed. Who was "Our Lady of Let's All Sing?" The cover art only tells you (in one diaphanous layer after another) she's female, earnest and somewhat surprised at her world. It would be easy to say the obvious: "Our Lady" refers to Henry's mother to whom the book is dedicated. However, while one or two poems mid-book seem out of tone with the rest, much of the contextual theme of the collection is about the significant influence of her father on Henry's opinion of herself as a woman. Interestingly, as I read and deciphered more of the underlying conflict, I began to view "Our Lady of Let's All Sing" not as one specific woman, but as generations of women. In that context, the focus shifts wonderfully to a universal feat: this peculiar and often thankless commission to find love, be loved, and especially to find self love; a constant underlying theme through these pages and one she has magnificently portrayed
Another underlying theme in the collection is Henry's sensuality. Much of her work separates and refines this theme as it evolves through her life. Beginning in her pre-teens, it pokes at her --be a woman, be a woman,--but as she often portrays, what does that mean? She explores this honestly and without shame. Where is she heading and what is she looking for? Perhaps to what she acknowledges in "Father's Day." In this poem, Henry is 17, with adulthood dancing in between girlish memories, as she rushes to meet a father divorced out of her life.
...I wore a dress of turquoise silk and sandals that made a noise
on the varnished wood as I walked toward him, and he turned
for an instant, with that look of raw admiration he could give
a pretty woman, just before he realized it was me...
he breathed, for the first time in my life
...I knew in that moment I would be a woman men could love.
In "Tante Gaye," one gets a snapshot of a favorite auntie, perhaps the poster child for The Graduate's Mrs. Robinson. This poem indirectly shows Henry's sense of her sexual self through her interactions with Aunt Gaye, (a skinny-dipping, free spirited woman), who in a drunken rage imagines "...your ancient boyfriend was hot for me...It was the first summer I was pretty." Henry, confused by the attack, continues, "I cried all night long / In the morning, you...winked at me..."
We find her need to step into the role and be, "a woman men could love" from a totally reversed perspective in the poem "Noah at Five." She begins: "Suddenly, I'm perfect..." as her small son brags her up, tells her she cannot change, "he wants me just like this, forever"--the sweetness of this balancing her universe. She says: "I am unashamedly enthralled. At Stop n Shop I am Lucinda, Fair Lady / with this small knight / in size 6 vinyl cowboy boots..."
I have read few poems as funny, endearing, or edgy as "Raga." In an attempt to get in touch with her "inner goddess," she dances (buck-naked) all over her living room, (over poetry books on the floor and piles of laundry) to "Last Train to Clarksville" (of all things). A neighbor comes unannounced just in time for the show: "...and she says / she says / excuse me / did I come at a bad time?" In "Eight Poems I’ll Never Finish, Just the Good Parts," she starts: "I'm so into you baby, I want you / to write my autobiography / I want to sleep with you for the same reason rich people shop-lift..." And there you are, reading along, remembering how odd it was to hear of a wealthy person getting handcuffed and dragged away for the rush of it, the addiction of it. She relates to this with such raw sophistication, totally in counter-point with a juvenile simplicity, ending the poem with: "How can I clean this room with your DNA everywhere? How can I disturb this sanctuary full of shit and diamonds?" This droll charm bounces back and forth between the imagery and the implication, the commonplace and the culture. Her wake up call to Mrs. Beeler in "What I Really Did on My Summer Vacation, 1972" is a perfect example. "Mrs. Beeler, here's the thing / I did not go to the beach and collect shells; I did not ride my bike a lot and have fun. / My sister got knocked up, and mostly / I stayed in my parents' room, watching Dark Shadows..." This gritty, slap-base voice is peppered throughout, making great use of conflicting opposite voices both raspy and sweet, like Ella Fitzgerald and Snow White in a bump and grind. She takes all of this, mixes and sets it apart again and again to examine and redefine. By her last poem, the reader has passed through a world they've been invited into with no choice but to nod their heads in agreement at Henry's keen and reckless wisdom.
In "The Dream House" (one of the best poems of this collection) she brings us to our knees:
In that house my skin could never breathe; your disapproval wrapped me in
its itchy weight and wore away
at what I'd thought
I shed those dismal clothes and stepped into that flow;
your scolding's became crow-song.
When I awoke, stretched naked along the warm boulder
of my lover's back, I knew the house was shame;
I knew the house had fallen down.
That kind of sensibility is what makes this book so impacting. Henry is not a distant name in the credits of the book, but someone who engages as a person with the reader, which means you don't read these poems, you experience them. I love the way this author loves: her family, her father, her mother, her son, her daughter, the ex husband, the new husband, the dogs, the cats, grandmothers, the paranoid aunties. She is all of them in her past self and in her present self. She writes with a buoyant spirit and a savvy sense of place in a bigger world; one the conflict of her inner self sometimes won't accept. She is seeking in these pages, always to balance these two realities.
While the mother makes few appearances in the book, those she does make are significant. You see her in the title poem in a classic scenario of a family trip with six kids, the mother trying to deflect the consequences of a volatile father. "...how many choruses you coaxed from us... Making peace somehow, with 'Shine on Harvest Moon'...denial, in today's parlance, but, because of it, I live."
In "One Picture," a poem dedicated to her, Henry's reminiscent and melancholy tone is palpable:
It was a time before the trembling
fell upon your tongue, before your own crumbling began.
Looking at this picture, I could almost let you leave me
up those stairs, if you walked into that light
if I could see you framed in this durable arch
that has held true even when all the timbers of home
have one by one released...
In "Will and Testament," Henry's gift from her mother--"Perseverance, her holy rosary of small, stubborn choices--more than anything, I've called on this."
In "Beauty Weekend," she brings her fourteen-year-old daughter away to Old Quebec for her birthday, and allows the reader to reminisce about her daughter's conception:
I asked him to my rented attic room
where he could never stand upright
So our reclining led to other things
and finally to this girl
impossibly sleek and lovely...
...and I, coolest mom, deem them old enough
to stroll the mall alone...
There are worse things than being a failed bohemian
with one false move
I could have missed this rangy wonder…
You have to love her for the sense of awe she has, seeing the beauty of her daughter now, and the gift of her then, too.
I have picked this book up over and over, read it aloud to many, always beginning: "Just listen to this." The book is alive and real, and carries you through twists and turns of first kisses, touches, births, and despondent, breaking hearts. Henry is sometimes sweet, sometimes crude, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, and sometimes so incredibly sad, you break apart with her. Her work is deceivingly simple, yet immensely layered, the depth and perspective, and the exquisite craft of her poetry, undeniable.
Claire Hersom is a Maine poet, essayist, free lance correspondent and book reviewer. Her work is frequently seen in Wolf Moon Journal, the Aurorean, and Off the Coast, and in several anthologies. Claire has two poetry chap books, Supper At the Farm printed in 2005, and a book of poetry, The Day I Circled the Wagons published by Snow Drift Press, Bristol, Maine, in the fall of 2006. Her next book, Drowning: A Poetic Memoir focuses on prejudice and poverty, and will be completed in the spring of 2008. While much too young to have nine grandchildren, she joyously does.