Book Review

Zebra by Nadine S. St. Louis. M233 Marsh Road, Marshfield, WI 54449: Marsh River Editions, 2008. $12.00.

Reviewed by Lou Roach

“Do zebras running strobe in moonlight?”

Nadine S. St. Louis asks this question in the title poem of her second book, Zebra.  As I read this collection, my first thought was “I don’t know about zebras, but I bet Dina St. Louis ‘strobes’ in moonlight and other settings.”  The work of this vital and very truthful woman emits bright flashes of enlightenment from the pages of her book to open the minds of readers.  She defines the use of
“zebra” with the lines:

Old med school rule:
when you hear hoofbeats
think horses, not zebras.

Necessary corollary: Someday
there will come a zebra.

She should know—she has become the zebra, free and high-spirited once again.

St. Louis taught at the University of Minnesota for a time.  She spent the greater part of her career teaching English literature and composition at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. She has written a previous book, “Weird Sisters,” a celebration of womanhood and friendship.

In her new book, St. Louis writes with a heightened sense of the moment, as she walks us through her private world of cancer—not just any cancer, but a rare and malevolent variety.  She faces her antagonist with bold defiance, as she relates in “Confusion to the Enemy”:

. . .take up
your own cause: stand tough, think tall,
look straight into the eye of the beast.

Beast, what a big, red eye you have.
The better to make you burn, my dear.

Smug, that’s what it is, too used
to driving its prey to the wall
with a glare from that scorching eye.

You know you can’t allow such easy victory,
must turn back the monster on itself,
so you raise your defiant glass to damp the fire—
My turn to name the poison, Beast.

Her poem, “On Cutting Ladies in Two,” offers readers an analogy of surgeon as “magician,” with whom the patient appears in the spotlight as he demonstrates his skill.  An incision at her waist-line enables the doctors to remove a cancerous growth.  The poet notes:

Eyes tight against the dark
you ponder briefly your own
moment in history . . .
You will stand and reflect
in the sun rising how fine the line
between science and magic . . .

“Scar” describes her contemplation of a tattoo across the resulting 18-inch scar:

I’ve settled on leaves—blue, I think—
and a nice vine: renewal, but with
a difference, like rue.

St. Louis includes poems about her family and friends, speaking with love and gratitude of their support, their wit,  and, most of all, their presence as she grapples with “the beast.” She cites fast and funny wheelchair rides through hospital corridors with her daughter in “Sic Transit”:  “. . .but she and I laugh. That’s the fuel/  that makes us both run smoothly/ even on the rockiest days.”  She emphasizes the importance of the small, but vital, occurrences that make all the difference in outlook when the routine of life is uncertain.

Special time spent with each of her grandchildren is explained in “Lunches at the Siam Terrace and Crane Alley.”  She records a treasured trip with her husband on a sunny September day when  “It had been a long time since/ we had traveled such a highway/ with no one to let blood at the end” (“Niji Means Friend”). 

Written with sensitivity and truth, but without sentimentality, the poems in Zebra left me wanting to shout “Go, Dina, go!”  There is no bitterness in these selections, only a sense of determination and intrepid spirit.  She writes of living with the ever-present shadow of the cancer’s return in a work entitled “Shadow”: “ . . .Then you catch glimpses of a wraith/  at the edge of vision when you turn your head/ . . .You begin to consider the odds/ you’re joining the battle

“Once More Onto the Beaches” speaks of her reaction to a recurrence:

Better to have throat
than chest or belly cut

provided it’s done right

You’ll still breathe and swallow
Sweetness in an iron hour

Some readers may question the poet’s inclusion of several pieces concerning her daughter’s house and its atmosphere and the closing of that house as St. Louis’s only child and her family leave for a new home in a distant location. Perhaps these poems seem superfluous in a book about the writer’s illness. The poems do address her continuing participation in the lives of those she loves and the emotional bonds that helped focus thoughts away from herself.  With “My Daughter’s House,” “Epiphany” and “Last Night at 405,” St. Louis makes clear the idea that she did not want cancer to

overshadow every other portion of her days.

Her lack of  indulgent self-pity is clearly evident  in two poems about the effects of chemo-therapy. She employs wry and irreverent humor to describe what many women view as their loss of femininity, even their identity—the forfeiture of their hair in exchange for a promise of recovery.

In “Pretending to Be Sinead O’Connor,” the poet reports:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
but now I’m discovering the freedom
of transformation: for formal occasions
I wear the Rosie Clooney wig, ash blonde   
with just a hint of frost;  for casual
I have the scarves, gypsy knotted,
turban wrapped.  When I feel
like insurrection, though,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
...I dare
to startle, shock, unnerve.
I do not hide the naked truth.

In “Bad Hair Days,” she accepts baldness instead of bemoaning the absence of a naturally full head of hair:

“Once it gets long enough,”I promised
to the grandchildren”s delight,
“I’ll spike it”—and I would too,
except for the curls. Every morning
I start out looking for Annie Lennox;
what I find is Little Orphan Annie, retired.

This review would be incomplete without mention of one other poem by St. Louis—“On Being Given a Book of Poetry Mourning All Those Who Have Not Survived Cancer.”  In that selection she offers advice about giving such a book to a cancer patient in treatment, stated in such a way the reader will not forget:

. . .this book belongs
to the uninvaded, those
with the luxury of contemplating
death on a theoretical level . . .
 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
it is not for the ones
who work in deep night swearing
they see a deeper shadow biding.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
So thank you, my friend, for the thought;
forgive me if I decline your gift.      
My nights are too shaded just now,
My (tight)wire too thin.

Because I found these poems helpful as I accompanied a loved one into and out of the perplexing milieu of cancer treatment through 2009, I would recommend the book to readers who may find themselves in that position.  Dina St. Louis’ work is very real and reassuring.  She does not romanticize her experience;  she tells the truth with attitude and spirit.  

Lou Roach, former social worker and psychotherapist, lives in Poynette. Her poems have appeared in a number of small press publications, including Main St. Rag, Free Verse and others. She has written two books of poetry, A Different Muse and For Now. She continues to do free-lance writing, although poetry is her favorite thing to do.