There is an easy-going quality to the poems in Nina Lindsay’s Because that make this one of the friendliest books this reviewer has read in some time. Lush but clean, emotional but evenly wrought, engaging a diversity of styles over its five sections but with a voice that feels continuous and familiar, these are the sorts of poems one can fall into a deep absorption with. That is not to say that these are intellectually easy—indeed, it is the subtle peculiarities and soft surprises we find throughout that really propel us forward through these pages, and I can’t help but think that this would be an interesting book to teach in advanced courses, precisely because it is so unassuming.
Our subject is as common as they come: mostly, the domestic, what it means to dwell. We find ourselves making meals, taking the family to the beach, watching children play in front of the library, studying the flowers and trees abloom in the neighborhood (pretty directly understood as Berkeley), and any number of perfectly quotidian activities, all punctuated with affectionate assessments that bind the material world with a direct kind of emotional meaning: gratitude for our loved ones, wonder at nature, and so on. Here is an example from one of the opening poems, “My Bare Feet”:
Nothing, I think, could make me happier
except—my bare feet
on the tight-wove wool pile of our faux-antique
Persian rug, or my hands on this bowl
or this bowl
or this one,
or my lips on your lips, soft
as air rushing out of the oven,
or my fingertips
across the oven’s white enamel,
it’s one nick.
We veer so close to sentimentality in these lines—“Nothing, I think, could make me happier”—yet we ultimately avoid it, and that is for the reason of Lindsay’s subtle craft and nuanced but unexpected shifts in tone. The above lines are hugely tactile—they are nearly a study of tactility—and we get smart syntactic mimesis such as the tightly woven spondees of “tight-wove wool pile of our faux-antique,” next to a kind of opposite technique, the blank repetitive phrasing of “this bowl / or this bowl / or this one,” which itself mimics the smooth feel of the empty bowls as the speaker picks up and considers each one. There is a material sophistication to the speaker’s sentiment, and that keeps it from going saccharine.
More so, as the speaker continues, we see the affection start to pull back. There is the “nick”—a slight imperfection—but then we close with this: “Each morning I review my evidence— / and the floorboards turn imperceptibly darker / and my hands keep the settling dust alight.” “Evidence” is such a tonally out-of-place word—so calculating—and it’s followed by a darkening of the scene that evokes a slightly ominous feel. We have this feeling of accumulating time and the existential anxiety that comes with it, and this is exacerbated by the subtle shift in the sense of touch. Where before we were richly engaged in tactile experiences—touching all these surfaces—here we find the negative space, the dust that is kept alight, that surrounds everything. We realize all this touching has been compelled by a kind of nervous energy.
I offer here an extended analysis of a single poem, but take it as an example of subtle and complex maneuvers that Lindsay deploys throughout the collection. In other poems, her images are more playful and surreal, but they never abandon this sense of subtle execution. This moment from “And Came To the Place Where She Recognized Herself Without Fear” is particularly good:
She stood on top of it. She lifted the roof,
startling the nesting pigeons.
The sky was flat there, inviting elaboration.
She stood inside the doorway. Her other half rippled as in water.
We frequently face a deep reticence in these poems, a beholden quiet that enriches Lindsay’s more outwardly affective and material moments. The quotidian is full of mysteries, often rendered in sublime or even prayerful moments with nature, such as this lovely image from “To the Evening:” “but all I see, stepping out / into the graying light / is the ant on the doorframe, / arching and bowing / arching and bowing to the evening.”
Such beholden reticence becomes, in other poems, something a bit more direct, a kind of inquiry into the unreadable, such as in this dream poem, “Passage,” when the speaker finds a coin in her pocket and is going to buy her “greatest desire” with it:
It is a coin
worn so smooth
I can’t read it.
The dream stops
as I hand it over—
the dream and I both
gaze at it
both touching it—
it doesn’t even gleam
in the ominous winter
sun of all my dreams,
it is so tarnished.
In this way, reticence becomes intimately intertwined with issues of communication—the “gaze” that is, in a sense, always unfinished, never completed with satisfactory understanding. This notion is cemented with an entire section of poems “mistranslated” from Chinese animal riddles found in High on a Hill: A Book of Chinese Riddles. Lindsay explains in her notes that they are “a variant on homophonic mistranslations in which, without knowledge of the language, I write what I see in the Chinese characters.” It’s an alternative—and possibly culturally problematic—form of reading. Regardless, it enables some really fine lines, such as this, from the earthworm poem “Squat”: “I never know whose night I’m invading” or this line from the bee poem “Nest”: “The dream, the world, the court of law, the birds, the intention of the ladder. The sky / remembered nothing but the golden.”
The sense of mistranslation, the unanswered gaze, and other forms of failed communication reach ultimate expression in a few, more unguarded moments, when the speaker is more fully in view and we have special access to her affective state. These lines from “Damage”—which finds the speaker swimming in a pool—is especially good:
I fold through the water
like a spoon through batter,
like a shook sheet moves
aside the air. As if each breath
weren’t apology, but new matter:
This is what I meant—
This is what I meant—
This is what I meant—
Altogether these are quiet but complex poems that wade through the inchoate existential questions that inform day-to-day life in the neighborhood and home, written with a playful and approachable sensibility that surprises in the gentlest of ways.