In the interests of candor, I should preface this review by stating that Nancy White was a beloved and formative teacher of mine when I was a student in the 1990s at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn. It was in her class that it first seemed possible to make a place for oneself in the world through the written word. Nancy and I reestablished contact only a few months ago and I was sorry to hear of the difficulties she had endured in the time that had passed, but it would be no exaggeration to say that from the compost of misfortune grew an amazing thing: a book of poems called “Detour.”

The poem “Woven and Sewn” opens this collection with a surprising and arresting tough-love invocation: “You are no virgin listen. You must stop here.” This voice is both contemporary and timeless, assured and experienced, with its second person address aimed as much at the poet herself as to the reader. This dialogue exhorts us to take heed, to “Sit down,” for there are important things to be read.

White’s voice here sets the tone for the rest of the collection in which virtually every poem is spoken in the second person, an affect that results in an immediate, intense, and sustained identification between reader and poet. The use of the second person in place of the poetic “I” serves to mediate the potential of a solipsistic or journal-entry quality in such an introspective and domestic narrative. Instead, White transcends the confessional and succeeds in gathering and inviting a sense of the universal, of reciprocal alterity; a sense of the recognition of the other that is oneself.

As is suggested by the circuitous implication of the title, the narrative of “Detour” follows a non-linear path that mirrors that of the psychoanalytic process. The structure of the book, divided into three parts – “Smoke,” “Solid,” and “No Sequel” – moves from the cataclysmic events leading to divorce to an unsentimental review of childhood where a revised understanding and reclamation of the self takes place before returning to a present that readdresses what has come to pass on different and farther-seeing terms. Based perhaps on the credence that the only way out is through, “Detour” describes a kind of map of the internal processes necessary in the evolution of the psyche after your world has been shattered and ultimately answers the question: How do we express personal transformation in poetic terms?

“Poetry is a form of courage” which is the “ability to do something that frightens one, for one’s choices can’t be about being afraid,” says Joan Retallack. Similarly, Charles Bernstein speaks of an “aversive poetics” in which “mental fright” is the “place where poetry begins.” We hear this starting point of fear in “Propeller” where:

       you don’t know don’t know
       because all of this so far is mostly made of fear

As with “Propeller,” in many of the poems, the rawness of emotion is undercut by an adherence to and innovation of form. Replete with fresh turns of phrase, syntax, and construction, they showcase a delight in words and a playfulness of language, music, and line. There is also strong evidence of a sharp wit and an ironic, self-deprecating sense of humor.

“Thirst,” “Honest,” The Drinkers,” “Your Life Has Stood,” “Look Up,” “Tide Going Out,” “You Remember How a Voice,” “Your Mother Starts Talking,” “Ceremony for Coming of Age,” and “After Detour,” for example, are full of surprising linebreaks and/or parenthetical clauses that create a sometimes discordant, sometimes syncopated visual and musical experience that mirrors the interjections of the mind when one’s thoughts become at once repetitive and scattered.

In “Reflection in a Hard Surface,” these techniques describe the devastating guilt of an imagined complicity in one’s own betrayal, of not knowing better, of expecting to have known better:

                     not you (no one) he
        lied to you them us her and the you you
       thought you
       were isn’t now so who
       listened who ate
       the bait who let it into the
       ear like a drop of warm oil did it ease
       something there where we had hardened did we
       store his lie down in red coils did the hue of our
listening reach for him to tell it (the story) again (the story)
welcome and annihilating did we assist did we assist weren’t we there

“Grasslands,” bearing echoes of e.e. cummings, but with a sharper edge of melancholy, knowingness, and reflectiveness, demonstrates how White’s voice is more modernist than postmodern. The use here of the phatic function, or verse equivalence, with its disruption of non-verbal utterance, is at once amused, musing, and deathly serious:

       you force the car
       fast on the oiled road
       narrowing like love become

       useful but you
       are fruitful pining
       magic as a frying pan

       see how
       explanations pow
       smear harden on the windshield

In such poems as “Beauty,” however, we glimpse a more unadulterated rawness that is nonetheless controlled by the freshness and rigor of its form. Neither shying away from the hard facts, nor dwelling on the pain of them, “Beauty” demonstrates a trust in the reader that allows for the revelation of vulnerability. The vulnerability here lies in the specificities, just as the devil is in the details, and it is through the microscope of such detail that the simultaneity of the particular and the universal in such a loss is conveyed:

       … his neck smelling of
       narcissus his lack of hangnails his laugh like
       a landmine such intention

       of goodness his appearance golden his
       tantrums his silence frozen after fine sex
              cordial after bad his beauty his

       beauty his darkness is love

In “Summer,” White’s sense of irony and humor, her tendency to not take herself too seriously emerges and yet it is not lost on the reader that what is happening here is deeply serious as well as utterly human. Describing how one grows accustomed to certain habits of emotion, it begins with a meditation on the sadness of premature endings:

       Today the sun is out which is sad.
              Trees sad when rustling and when still.
              Leaves that drop in July. When the lilies
                     open their widest, it is sad to be
                     alone in the house…

The poem builds to reveal that:

       … It is sad that he slept
       with those women, some of whom you
       also fed at that table. Discussing it,
              civilized, was sad, and the climb up
                     again and again to start over…

And later, White writes:

       You think, when you feel it return,
              how loyal sadness is, how accustomed you are,
                     spreading its folds about you.

This ladylike image of sadness as a skirt spread around you, its politeness and primness, not only convey the awareness that such habits of thought are possible to change, but it does so with White’s keen, wry sense of humor lurking beneath.

And in “Your Father, Your Son,” White attempts to debunk gendered socializations as she tries to claim for herself “the fine foul language of his big male freedom,” to redress the dominance of maleness in pursuit of a big female freedom despite fears and expectations.

What is so appealing here goes beyond a mastery of craft and technique to something more essential: present in “Detour” is a sincere argument in favor of exploring the subjectivity of personhood that speaks to the importance of the evolution of a singular unique self. The elucidation of this painfully hard-won process in the poetry of “Detour” becomes an act of courage, compassion, and feminism.

White has a gift for putting disparate things next to one another in a kind of ontological plurality – different modes of language and different modes of abstraction. But the stylistic diversity is held together by an embodied, intensely physical and sensual urgency where each emotion is fully rendered and felt. It is this profound humanness and humanity that allow for the strong sense of satisfaction and poetic concretion with which “Detour” leaves the reader.

To that end, we see in the final chapter, as in “They Ask You About Middle Age,” the growth on an assertive hopefulness in the idea of harvest and the ripeness of personal maturity:

       Soft, barely believable mornings (and other sweet
fruits) do grow.

And the final poem, “Below the Lifeboat” shows us what can happen after going through the process, the promise of becoming “unified” “after detour.”

It didn’t matter, didn’t mean anything. Too much
hair, he said, and flesh, and cigarettes. He was

drunk. She tasted bad. He thinks she faked it. Just
what had appeared to be your life lifted from your hands

and spilling, a little. You lay at the bottom, a still,
speeding place. Of the cold like a trout, of the silence

behind motion,  you were less than the fish. But it waited
for you—honey-colored shed, new timing belt, a fly with eyes

like green fire—back in the air. You let go of the bottom where
dead things rolled and the light broke back into your lungs.

SELF A: What happens when you work on a book that long? Do you officially, clinically, lose your mind?

SELF B: I think the book’s evolution tracks the finding of a mind, not the losing. I had sunk all the way to Country Western on the car radio, a fact I hid with lightning-quick station changes when I pulled into parking lots where people might know me. Poetry is the opposite of wallowing, so it was my rescue vehicle and soon I was headed in a good opposite direction.

SELF A: What was different, this new direction?

SELF B: My style changed, became less narrative, and being more interested in other people’s stories than in my own also changed my voice. I got to morph into/through other points of view and come out the other side.

SELF A: Like cheese through a grater.

SELF B: Ouch, no. The divorce that sparked this book was certainly that painful, but writing poetry was the opposite of that kind of dumb animal pain, even when the poems were about my or someone else’s sorrow.

SELF A: You seem to have a thing for opposites. Why? Is this another one of your avoidance moves?

SELF B: Contrast is such a great definer. You of all people should know that. That’s why secretly we kind of like it when someone throws a bucket of ice water at us. Dark and light, comfort and shock, the contrast sharpens our focus. Because I like to avoid and to modify, defining something by virtue of what it isn’t works well for me.

SELF A: So what’s this book, detour, about anyway?  Without all the define-by-what-it-isn’t stuff.

SELF B: Fine. You think I can’t do that? It’s about what happens when the whole meaning-imbued scaffolding that gives your life substance, or so you think, falls apart. There’s nothing you can do to stop it; it’s out of control. An unnatural disaster. Then what? Can you survive? How? And then since you can’t be the same person, exactly, who are you?

SELF A: That’s too many questions to be a definition.

SELF B: Not if the book answers them.

SELF A: Does it?

SELF B: Read it and see. I’m not just being a tease here. In the end, who am I to say? I only wrote it.

SELF A: Took you long enough.

SELF B: You seem to have a problem with that?

SELF A: I’m just saying … I had really given up on you, and then, pow, suddenly there it is.

SELF B: Evolution doesn’t happen in a mere century.

SELF A: So what “evolved”?

SELF B: The voice, for one thing.

SELF A: I meant to ask about that. Don’t you think using the second person point of view was … maybe … a cop-out? Kind of cheesy?

SELF B: Don’t let my publisher hear you say that. Even saints have been known to tear up contracts.

SELF A: But the “you” got to me. Who did you think you were, dragging every reader who picks this up through a grisly existential midlife crisis? An older reader has already survived it and doesn’t want to go back, and a younger reader might go slit her wrists rather than consider that it could all come back to zero like that.

SELF B: You’re a little melodramatic, no? All I can say is that it was liberating to try the book in that voice, to change all the confessional and the third-person narratives and the hovering lyrics into the same shared second person point of view. Suddenly the voice was this old, old woman, sort of a transhistorical Greek chorus speaking to everyone who’s been through those weird middle years, not just me. I like to think the shift in the voice was me, getting over myself.

SELF A: But it’s still about you.

SELF B: Yes, and no. I found myself deleting tons of completely irrelevant personal details— lines, stanzas, whole poems. I added new stories, some from no one in particular and yet true of every woman I know, because hey, it wasn’t me any more, it was you.

SELF A: Leave me out of this! It was you.

SELF B: You think a mid-life crisis won’t happen to you? You think you’re immune? I think even really well-adjusted joyful people have days in their 30s or 40s when they have to pull the car over to the side of the road and panic, thinking, Oh my god, I took the wrong turn way back and now it’s too late to fix it!

SELF A: Is this why you called the book detour ?

SELF B: Sure. I had this image of the Greek letter omega as the book came together, an omega made of water, in motion, a wave-oxbow thing where you eventually land right next to where you started out—but the detour, the arc away and back, is the defining element. You can’t come back to where you were, but you had this whole trippy trip and if you’re lucky you realize the detour was the story, not the interruption, and you wouldn’t have wanted to miss it.

SELF A: Okay, I admit it; I know what you mean. Just promise me the next book isn’t in the second person.

SELF B: Deal. Next book: third person, more or less.

Success

By Nancy White

Poem

Cracking the case is only one goal.

Agnes expects promotion, she’s going

for the gold. Asking Owen to post

a rat’s note with a tack when no one

was watching, she “accidentally” opens

his anxiety about roaming their career

track too randomly. Owen (like everyone)

knows officers lack control

over factors like traffic and molesters

and crack. He opines that

active duty can only go where flat

laws lead. Owen’s take? Agnes angling

for captain is ugly. It grates, her inching

closer to that badge, occasionally at others’

expense. So he posts the note but

also drops into canteen chatter that

Agnes has grown slow on the draw. Owen

can pause like nobody’s business, building

into it each agent’s angst regarding

partner preparedness. Agnes passes

the exam but no star comes, no

badge for her breast, not to mention

no bump in pay. Owen doesn’t even want

sergeant. Now he finds Agnes harder

to beat at handball, steaming in her

thwarted state. Increasingly he cancels,

and staying away, starts to get fat. In fact,

his superfluous freight weighs him down so

in a highspeed drug bust he lags

behind and gets shot in the back. Someday

Agnes will arrive where her drive

is valued. For now she’s got to raise

another rookie to the task, Owen’s ghost

like an anti-badge between them.