It’s always a relief when a friend’s collection of poems turns out to be terrific. I got this one when it came out a couple months ago, so this morning’s reading was my second time through these poems. And I was even more impressed than I had been the first time.
It helps that I like poetry books that are illustrated and thematically unified. Each of the fifteen poems in Balance describe a different yoga pose, helpfully and adroitly illustrated on facing pages by Nina Canal’s inkbrush paintings. And I think it says something about the quality of the poems that even someone like me with no particular interest in yoga should find them engrossing.
Essentially what these poems do is document a rediscovery of the human body. In “Paschimottanasana,” for example,
I am rowing my boat
along the quiet river.
My ribs open like a magnolia
flower, its stiff white petals
only this morning furled
in the burnished bud.
Legs strung tight as sails,
I hoist myself up …
Or as another poem, “Uttananasana,” puts it:
I am an explorer,
entering the ancient city,
descending into another world.
Nester’s imagery is cosmic — in a Nerudean rather than a New Agey sense. The narrator takes the planet itself, the moon and “the hills / [that] undulate under the clouds like fish / in the shallows” as her teachers; travels back to her childhood to become a “god of volts and ohms” and a “curious dolphin”; imagines herself as aspen and fern fiddlehead, whelk and two-headed snake. Nearly every image feels necessary, and the language is just as terse and taut as one would wish, given the subject matter. These poems are very well-made things.
Much as I liked the illustrations, I can’t help wondering what I would’ve gotten out of the book if I didn’t have them there, not knowing otherwise what the names of the poses mean. What would I have imagined based on the poems alone? Would it have made that big a difference? Maybe not, but I don’t think I’d fully appreciate the lack of arbitrariness in most of the imagery, the precise and delicate fit between metaphor and pose.
My favorite poem is all about fit — which is to say, fitness, if that word can still be redeemed from shallow consumerist notions of the body, in which we are continually exhorted to be more (or perhaps less) and different from what we are. I hope the publisher and author won’t mind if I quote it in its entirety:
These feet have seldom met.
all lifetime long, fated to tread
their single paths on yielding earth,
to press parched soles against
unsympathetic streets, they
desire only new routes, never
dreaming what they truly seek.
Yet arch to arch, each toe
pressing its long-lost opposite,
these feet have met their match.
Bound in a forced embrace, they find
a blessing in this union, welded
in a prayer to all things lost,
to what was always there.
Too many of us literary types spend too much time in our heads — I know I do — and in any case distraction is urged upon us from all directions, even (I’m told) at the gym, where screens beckon and iPods abound. That must be why I found this collection so refreshing. I’m only sorry it wasn’t longer. By poem 15, I can feel my breathing beginning to slow and deepen. Lord knows how fit, how well-balanced and rooted in my body and in the cosmos I’d feel after 15 or 20 more.