A native’s honed poetry reveals a cultural landscape
by Rob Neufeld
Home by Nancy Dillingham (March Street Press, trade paper, Sept. 2010, 61 pages, 9)
In her sixth book of poems, Home, Big Ivy (Barnardsville) native Nancy Dillingham captures the essence of a mountain woman through forty-four variations.
One poem, “Pioneer Woman,” invokes that figure as a muse: “I think of you…when you waited/ in a cold cabin/ for a step…”
` Another talks third person about a granny woman,” shrunken like a doll,” tending a garden and “hocus-pocusing small children/ giving off puffs of arcane charm.”
Dillingham’s music varies from haiku description to Whitmanesque song of life to jazz. She cuts her lines to make clear phrases, giving her the flexibility to sound matter-of-fact or flashy.
“Dressed up/ like she was going/ to see Jay Gould,” the poem, “In Her Photograph,” begins—her “hair swept up in combs.”
It’s hard to say those lines without some attitude in the vowels. The poem continues with riffs and reaches a superb sound-ending.
From the position Dillingham has chosen—involved observer of her culture and accomplished quilter of words—she is able to present tall tales (“Big Toe Tale”), woman’s sagas (“The Short Life”), and epigrams (“Burial: The Art of Dying”).
Her modesty as a poet, saying what she sees, means that some of the poems are slight. It’s part of the mix. It’s the haiku-type impulse, in which commonplace revelation takes the place of drama.
Dillingham is most stunning when she crosses a fantasy line in her metaphors. There are places between allegory and literal telling that sound like the best folk songs and look like the aha moments in fairy tales.
In “The Crow Knows,” a woman in the woods spies a crow’s nest with a ribbon from a funeral in it. The woman sees herself, “her hair down/ billowing against the pillow/ unadorned yet lit by light// and just in her sight/ dark-winged sorrow sits/ unwinding the long red ribbon of joy.”