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
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
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.”