Review by Ted Gilley
A STRANGER HERE MYSELF
by Niki Nymark
Cherry Pie Press
P.O. Box 155
Glen Carbon, IL 62034
In A Stranger Here Myself, Niki Nymark endeavors to convince us, as poets will, that life is a serious business, and while the reader may enjoy her judicious (but hardly original) splashes of salty, pleasurable reference to love and laughter, with their light seasoning of motherly “wisdom,” it’s the more serious poems that linger in the heart, and bring the lasting pleasure.
The first, brief section, chiefly love lyrics, is more soft than tender. These are followed by a middle range of longer poems largely concerned with family history and Nymark’s Jewish heritage. The volume closes with a return to the lyric form that takes us, in poems such as “I Regret Nothing” and “Not What I Signed Up For,” out the back door and into the moonlight, secure in the knowledge that the author is okay with life, but feels a little rueful. This is the poet, coasting. What she signed up for was “a life collecting/ocean glass and wisdom” and not the one she’s stuck with, in which she’s not as smart or as tall as she’d like to be.
But, we have to ask how desirable—unless one is cloistered—a life devoted to “collecting wisdom” can be. Nymark’s light touch seems to suggest that wisdom is plucked, by the wise, out of the sand. But does anyone really believe this? “Not What I Signed Up For” concludes with a desire for a life in which ” … it doesn’t take me so long/to understand what love is.” We might agree—just. But as readers we’ve encountered this kind of dying fall before, and besides, we know that no one’s ever “smart enough” and that love is a tough nut. But at some point, most of us learn that whatever else love is, it isn’t neat; it’s what we grasp in both hands and try like hell to hold on to. Elsewhere, Nymark seems to recognize this, and nearly nails it. Here is the whole of “Upon Reading Her Journal”:
“I’ve lived too long,” she wrote,
“I’d like to die, but I’m ashamed
to kill myself.”
We never knew,
she was so cheerful, mild,
happy, we thought.
If you can’t trust your mother,
whom can you trust?
The irony is not lost on the reader: Mother wasn’t happy, she just seemed, in her mildness, to be happy. The problem for Nymark—and she’s hardly alone in this—is that what’s concealed is also, too frequently, what’s easiest to write about. Could Mother have been both unhappy and happy? The tantalizing journal fragment doesn’t tell us, and the poet doesn’t speculate. The problem—who was Mother?—is laid out, but it’s hardly laid into.
In the book’s longest and most accomplished poem, “Dieter Explains Bavaria,” the author’s Jewish heritage comes into play in the well-paced, graceful story of a tourist cruise through Germany and Austria. The glitter of touristy sites, glimpsed (and duly noted) in passing, and the green of the vineyards are just window dressing, Nymark suggests, for this boneyard of the past: “Next day/is the anniversary of Kristallnacht./We attend a palace concert/in Vienna … ” The poet sets her mouth firmly here, urging us to look beyond the glossy surface of present pleasures to a past that refuses to be ignored:
Everywhere another church,
Baroque naves, Rococo columns,
airy Spanish windows,
letting in white light.
Our Lady’s Church, built 1352
on the ashes of the Jewish Ghetto,
the brochure says.
This is the poet in her strongest, most confident moment. She follows it with a chunk of poem called “metrolink nazi,” a vignette sketched in quick, lower-case black-and-white strokes featuring a shouting, uniformed metro-cop, passengers queued-up on a crowded platform—and a whiff, in this present-day scene, of the ghosts of cattle cars and waiting death camps. In these poems, the daughter of the Jewish diaspora stands and delivers.
Poems remembering friends and family—”The Divorce,” “Maggie’s Butterflies,” “Her Story”—are snugged in with personal reminiscences that suggest (in “Song of a Bad Kid” and “Things I Didn’t Know”) that the poet was, well, a pretty bad kid, even though the account of her transgressions—cutting flowers in a garden not her own and playing with pals in forbidden neighborhoods—leaves the reader wondering how the poet would rank stealing a bicycle or breaking a window. These are airy, loose constructions that hint at residual guilt—that least interesting of emotions—and don’t ask to be taken very seriously. The Maggie of “Maggies’s Butterflies” ” … smiles at the birds. The patches/of mint and chives/sway in a gentle wind.” Sentiments like these are what the professional blurb-writers like to call “closely observed” moments, but a little sweetness and light goes a long way, and the free-verse rendering can’t disguise a greeting-card flavor—the trouble with greeting cards being that they do your thinking for you.
A final prose piece, “The Report of My Death,” a self-indulgent fantasy that features the poet lying in her own coffin and finding it “every bit as comfortable as it looked,” is the kind of exercise in humor that purports to take the sting out of the big D. But at what cost? It’s a lose-lose proposition, given the weight of some of the preceding material. Hey, death isn’t so bad, Nymark seems to tell us, with a wink—Nazis and other miscreants having been dispensed with. But of course, we know that death is pretty bad, don’t we? In the all-American enterprise of poetic uplift, a casual nod to death is expected, but not often enough laid to rest before press time.
Ted Gilley is a writer and editor living in Vermont.