Monday, May 16, 2011

Paula Bohince's "Nostalgic"

Paula Bohince's "Nostalgic" first appeared in Southwest Review, but I picked it up a few days ago at Verse Daily.  I've never read Bohince before, and I must say I'm at a bit of a loss when it comes to understanding "Nostalgic."  According to the title, we're dealing with the past, with loss.  According to the language of the poem, we're working with birds, place, and love.

"Nostalgic" is a short, 3-stanza poem with lines that range from the short to the very short -- the clipped -- the briefest of which is the one-word last line of the poem, "cloud-headed," and the longest of which is the third line of the poem, "cloistered homage to a decade of geese."  It is a lyric piece although I'm not entirely sure it doesn't tell a story of a leaving...from what I'm unsure.  This could be a love (forlorn love) poem, as there is a "we" in it that definitely doesn't include me, and uses language like "kiss" and "departure" and "In the end," which taken together can suggest love gone awry.  But I also wonder of environmental loss: the "robin's / blurred departure," the "homage to a decade of geese," "the marsh / where cattails remained when all else / left."  The question is -- are these images meant to be read literally or metaphorically?  Or both?

Bohince's clipped lines help create this sense of discontinuity.  No pattern of consistent length emerges: some lines stick out, some don't.  As well, many of the lines are so short they disrupt meaning.  Whereas a poet like Billy Collins generally has a complete phrase or thought per line, Bohince breaks her thoughts up across lines in this poem such that rhythmic and cognitive flow are disrupted.  Consider the last stanza:
In the end, we were landmark,
compass, same as the lingered-over
pond, the marsh
where cattails remained when all else
left.  Ragged in salt,

All but two lines are enjambed in a way that disrupts immediate meaning-making, though in gestalt they do work together to create sense.  Plus, Bohince has a few nice effects due to her enjambments.  The way "lingered-over" hangs on the stanza's second line does make me linger a moment over the "pond" of the ensuing line.  The tough enjambment at ". . . all else" slams an emphasis on "left," supporting the read that loss/departure are prime components to the story and theme of this poem.

And, the discontinuity of the lines adds to the poem's overall sense of melancholy, darkness.  This mood, of course, is more obviously driven by some of Bohince's choice words: "haunting," "departure," "ragged," "cloud-headed."  I would include "Un-find" in this list as well since it is such a weirdly formed word.  "Un-find" makes me feel so uncomfortable.  I mean -- that's an impossible task.  Once something is found, can it be un-found?  It can be lost, but can it be...ignored?  Sort of like finding Waldo: once you know he's there, it's pretty well impossible to un-know his location, to un-find him on that page of the hidden picture book.

Perhaps this notion of impossibility is at the crux of the poem.  There's this clear sense of letting go, of being ordered to let go, as evidenced by the commands in the second stanza, yet to feel nostalgic is generally an acceptable way to feel.  It is bittersweetly pleasant.  It is a remembrance and longing for a happiness that has been but is no longer.  Perhaps the speaker here has been unable to move forward.  Perhaps she feels fettered by those emotions and their connection to past events necessary to the poem but hidden from its readers.  And if that's the case, then the poem actually struggles against it's title: the speaker does not want to feel this way.

So then, who is being spoken to?  In the first stanza, there is no clear speaker and audience, but the two commands "Un-find" and "kiss" of the second stanza clearly separate the poem into the speaker and the spoken-to.  The third stanza combines them into the we who "were landmark, / compass . . ." Running forward with the relationship read of "Nostalgia," I'm going to say we have a lover who located her place in life according to this past relationship, to a "we" of which she is no longer part.  When the relationship ended, that sense of place vanished with it, as it often does in the world after a seemingly steadfast (to use Bohince's own language) relationship.

While "Nostalgic" isn't my favorite poem in recent months, I do appreciate its tight, constricted lines.  It feels crafted. It controls how I read it down the page, forcing me to wonder about the "right" words and lines...I think.

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