Book Review

Kathy Nelson, Cattails, Main Street Rag, 2013

by Estella Lauter

Because of its title, I expected Kathy Nelson’s chapbook to be primarily about nature, and it does contain images of birds, foodstuffs, sky and water, but it is really about living and dying as a fully human being.  The title poem is about her grandmother, seen through a Brownie camera in the ‘30s near the Texas-Oklahoma border by her grandfather, who took the picture. The poet recognizes her grandmother’s expression of “waiting” on her own face at times and wonders if they also share the desire for “more.” She, for one, knows what she wanted: “love as lush as cattails . . . love to soak this parched land” (14). The book is full of waiting and wanting, but also of losses: footprints on the Outer Banks washed away by waves (7); the contents of the poet’s childhood room and home, including her father’s clothes and tools (9);  her teenage daughter who moves out to live with her birth mother (24); and the greatest loss of all—her father (29-30).
The poet knows that “Giving birth is practicing for death. Every day you’ll be giving something up,” but she still tells her daughters to trust the heart rather than the head in raising their children.  Thus, like her own mother who married her father and risked the loss of her birth family, the poet remains open “to danger, heartbreak” (26), tenacious in her waiting, wanting and loving this life. Women readers may especially appreciate her “Prayer for Daughters”: “May you have daughters./ May they give you sleepless nights” (19) and cause no end of worry, anger and fear as hers have done. But her final wish is this: “may missing them/ ache like a broken bone” (20).

Nelson’s poems rely heavily on narrative, but the stories are framed differently—by photographs, lessons,  a kitchen scene, a Bible camp, a classic moment in the Old Testament, the flight of hawks, a phone call, a baby shower, a hospital, a dream, a liturgy—to fit together as a kaleidoscope of a life. This is a highly accomplished first book.

The last two poems do in fact return to nature—first to a lake in New Jersey, where “what matters here is ripening and decay” (33), without the regret or shame that was part of the religion of her childhood.  The tall grasses, like the cattails, tell of a “Glory” that has “already come” in this world.  The final poem, called “Self-Portrait as a Beech in My Neighbor’s Yard” (34-35), offers a powerful extended metaphor for acceptance of death.  Although “yesterday” the tree was bathed in sunlight like a pattern woven “in silk across  a golden robe,” by evening the pattern is gone.  Just so, the poet is “the solitary one/diffusing into gray/as night comes on.”  These poems resonate with the Psalms, celebrating human life on earth with its many losses made bearable by love.  

Estella Lauter is Professor Emerita at UW-Oshkosh and lives in the Door Peninsula. Her first chapbook, Pressing a Life Together By Hand (2007) appeared in the New Women’s Voices series from Finishing Line Press, and was nominated for two Pushcart prizes. The Essential Rudder: North Channel Poems was released by FLP in 2008. Her poem "Gaza, January 2009" tied for first prize in the 2009 Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Contest; it appears on