Books

In new volume of poetry, Nicole O’Donnell articulates a non-mythic, realist sense of the northern life she knows

Everything Never Comes Your Way

By Nicole Stellon O’Donnell. Boreal Books, 2021. 85 pages. $16.95.

In her third book of poetry, Fairbanksan Nicole Stellon O’Donnell firmly establishes herself as both a remarkable artist and a commentator on the role of poet. While her first book, the well-researched “Steam Laundry,” told the story of a goldminer’s wife during the Klondike and Alaska gold rushes and her second, “You Are No Longer in Trouble,” consisted of prose poems related to her experiences as student and teacher, “Everything Never Comes Your Way” travels a wider path through subject matter and style.

The poem with which it opens, “Advice to the Young Right Fielder” situates a young girl on a softball field, breathing into her glove and cataloging dandelions, “unready, in the green nothing.” Don’t worry, the narrator tells her, “Everything never comes your way.” This is the perfect lead into the vulnerability and toughness that characterize so much of what follows.

In the first section, titled “Leave Out the Hours,” the prose poem “Memoir” serves as a list of what the narrator might put in or leave out of her life’s story, with hints of childhood joys and shame, missteps as an adult, cancer, and details such as tasting moose heart and a crash with “glass in your chin.” Other poems address marriage, motherhood, large and small tragedies, and the poet’s experiences in India as the recipient of a Fulbright Distinguished Teaching award.

“By Proxy” is a response to well-meaning people who don’t know what to say to someone facing terrible circumstances. This aching poem ends, “And you, dear one. You only say you / don’t know how I am doing this / because you believe your relief / over not being me will protect you / from being me someday. / And me, I have imagined worse things. / I can’t stop imagining worse things. / That’s how I’m doing this.”

The second section, “For the Sake of Argument,” consists of poems that are, in fact, arguments of a sort, less directly grounded in the poet’s life and more philosophical and questioning. The references aren’t always clear, although they relate to a longing to understand the words and intentions of others. In “Poem with Possibly Misconstrued Scientific Terms,” the narrator wishes for a glossary to follow a poem being read, then imagines a frustrated scientist “taking another deep breath before starting an explanation again.”

A central theme of the third section, “They All Came Before You,” has to do with the poet’s relationship to the natural world, with specific references to her life in Alaska. Here, the narrator is not a singular soul finding solace in restorative nature but someone with a more complex relationship to weather, the land, and others. In “The Other Side of April,” she contemplates her yard in comparison to a neighbor’s. “It’s not greener. Admit it. / Muddy, punctuated / with burned spots / from the dogs.” In late spring, snow clings and boot prints won’t melt. “It’s all the same, / persistent / unmelting. / In every yard, / a playhouse / buckling / under the pressure.”

Here, in five prose pieces, each called “Explication,” O’Donnell confronts the legacy of the late poet John Haines. In the first, she tells us, “I arrived in Interior Alaska just in time to feel the shade of his shadow.” One winter day, while scrambling to pick up after her two young daughters at the local rec center — ”Unfrozen and pink from the hot showers, they slaughtered the morning’s silence with their joy”— she manages to approach the elderly Haines for the obligatory “thank you for your poems” she thinks she owes him.

In the second “Explication,” O’Donnell is annoyed with a Haines poem she owns as a broadside. “Haines’s confidence, his certainty that he belonged in Alaska and that Alaska belonged to him makes me narrow my eyes and shake my head.” While it seems to her that other poets see Haines “through a haze, imagining themselves each as the silent owl, sitting beside him in a shadowy spruce, with a drifting moon and a muttering river nearby,” she says she sees him “always floating, above or beyond, toward Asia, or somewhere else so far from the reality of my family-tethered Alaska life that I have to hold my hand up to shade my eyes when I look for him.”

The third “Explication” shares more of O’Donnell’s life in contrast to Haines’s “cloudlike” fame and the obligation she felt, as a younger poet, to admire his work.

In the fourth she advances to questioning Haines’s positing of “the single self in the wilderness as the key to enlightenment.” There must be other ways, she says, other passages “that don’t depend on transplanting oneself onto a faux-empty land.”

In the fifth, she further explores her own concept of nature, “in the body, in relation to other people,” as a woman who has given birth and lives in community.

A final Haines-related poem, “A Song for Forgetting,” is a masterful use of a poetic form known as a Golden Shovel. In the form, made famous by poet Terrance Hayes, the last words of each line are taken from another poem. The referenced poem here is Haines’s well-known “Poem of the Forgotten,” which begins “I came to this place, a young man green and lonely.” O’Donnell responds: “Unlike you, I can’t touch the moment I / saw myself as self first. I don’t know when I came / into the sense that I was alone, built of thoughts too / scattered to whisper, ‘right here, only this,’”— and so on, embedding the original poem, with some small changes, at the ends of each of her lines.

Other poems in this last section, about picking berries, watching a Denali Park wolf that will soon be killed, and the song of a winter’s stove-tick, all express O’Donnell’s non-mythic, realist sense of the northern life she knows. She is an original, a poet for our times as well as our place.

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include “Fishcamp,” “Beluga Days,” and “Early Warming.” Her latest book is “pH: A Novel.”

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