REVIEWS - by Ted Bookey


by Nancy Henry. MuscleHead Press, 2003

There are some things about which it is nearly impossible to be honest. Honesty measures not only the accuracy of an account, but the speakerís attitude towards it; she must be free of sentimentality & other kinds of evasion, without slipping into a clinical objectivity that cannot feel what it describes. The hard-hitting, honest poems in Nancy Henryís HARD come of her experience working with severely head-injured autistic teens at a rehabilitation center. Henry brings to transfixing notice, the everyday atmosphere and wrenching dramas of our willed ignorings. We blithely go about our distracted business-until the searing moment of attentiveness batters consciousness and what we have held back out of denial and disinterest gains entry. No Thumperism, the emotional pit and philosophy so many in the helping professions fall into-that if you canít say anything hopeful, say it anyway out of a well meant warmth and sincerity of feeling, an attitude I believe grows out of stupidity and make one want to retort with Adornoís famous remark about the impossibility of poetry after Auswitz. There are candidates for honest bad-mouthing, reaching from oneís relatives to the alleged leaders of our world. When he wrote

A smooth forehead betokens
A hard heart. He who laughs
Has not yet heard
The terrible tidings

Brecht was prescient, probably more than he even knew. In our bloodiest of centuries, an estimated 187 million perished. In World War I, the proportion of military to civilian casualties was ninety to ten. Today for every ten military casualties there are on an average ninety civilian deaths-atrocity become normative. And when might it all end? It probably wonít. In the short term the best wisdom may be pessimism. In the long term. optimism. And vice versa.

Even were this not so, we find ourselves in an aleatory world where dangers are irregular, inconstant in their times and seasons. Everything is got by actions that may involve us in other and obnoxious consequences in addition to those wanted and enjoyed. Unknown consequences flow from the past and dog the present, the future even more unknown and perilous; by that fact the present is ominous. Those so far lucky enough to have escaped can feel like theyíve gotten away with/from murder. So many things can, perhaps yet will, befall us. We are all potential players in the local tragedies and black comedies of our lesser worlds.

One of those worlds-one enabled by natureís haphazard distributions of genes, further enabled by human cruelty is the subject Nancy Henryís Hard explores with skill and insight and reminds one of the Objectivist Charles Reznikoffís later poems, based as they are on documentary evidence gathered from records, and presented in a series of details, fragments cut away from their horror. No explanation of the depicted events are offered , nor does she provide explicit emotional or moral response to them: she leaves us alone with our own silences. Seemingly flat, documentary, particularized, most of the poems function like a mosaic of salient incidents:

Skateboard King
lurching back from physical therapy
you are a bug that was crushed
dragging itself along
with whatís left.

Heroes of the ordinary:
Here we have our own Comic Book Heroes:
The Boy Who Stuck to His Work
The Girl Who Remembers What Happened Yesterday
The Kid Who Tied His Shoes

"Is it good to have hope?"
you ask,
I need you to repeat it twice,
the words tangled on your thick tongue. (EXTREME )

Henry just tells what she sees, thereís little editorializing (the best poems contain the least), the author simply avoids the temptation to bleed her emotions onto the poem, letís the brute images work as an imagist poem might:

One week all the boys
convince the night shift guys,
cool college men,
to shave their heads for them,
uncovering the scars.
Their bald scalps bloom
the hieroglyphic of disaster,
slick jagged runes
where hair will never grow.
They illustrate long days
a mother spent beside a bed
a fatherís fierce hope
shattered and revived
expectations painfully remade,
some bloody night an EMT
is still trying to forget.
They rub one antherís scalps
with hard knuckles, make
irreverent fun of every bony knob
and dent, I grow used to it at last,
stop dropping my eyes,
dare to read the story there,
pink on mahogany skin,
violet and gray on white. (NAKED)

A place is made for the observer/poet to register her frustrations and feelings of impotence. The difficulty is knowing when to stop so that the poem does not distract itself and the poetís tears are kept from splashing the poem-an irresistible temptation, difficult as managing everyday things as Henry pushes her charges into reality

You know you cannot rescue them,
as you make them tie
their own shoes
though they cry
with frustration of tangled fingers,
backwards sight,
knots that keep dissolving into air.
You let them lurch from the kitchen with cereal
that will slosh to the floor
every time, let them mop
and swear,
and cry again.
here is no deliverer
but their own slow, marginal triumphs.

You are only there
to keep the pretty lies away
to keep them strong
to keep their eyes trained
on what is possible.
even if itís only
pain. (DAYSHIFT)

She becomes, for a moment, the incredulous reader:

Under the short brush cut
you can see the dent
where his father hit him
with a board.


You think Iím making this up.
You think Iím making this poem
more dramatic.
Iím not.
I sit with this boy every day.
We try to do his math.
We try counting money

And acknowledges the dark comedy that can so often accompany the grotesque in human behavior:

The boy with the Harry Potter glasses-
plastic frames, no lenses


his mother, in Philadelphia
ten hours away from this place
where we teach her son how
to blend in with the world,
get a simple job someday
and not get pulverized by life. (ACT YOUR AGE)

And the horror and shock of what it must be like working among these autistic beings. The poem RED-HOTS moves from the opening:

I wonder where she got the candy
the small red flecks sheís raining
on the book that I am helping
her to read.

to a bloody (literally) horrific ending. I was relieved coming upon images of light and color in her description of Trevor
"smiling, gleaming teeth
opening a wide half-moon in his
sweet dark expresso face. (cut and paste)

The poems are not all dark and bone bare. Look at the transformations Henry wrings out of a pencil in the poem of that name:
Morning, itís passed out with spelling papers
slick clean smooth yellow-orange, perfect planes
point clean as a fox tooth
perfect hatbox of pink eraser on the end.
By noon four strips of toothmarks
like rows of stippled corn
eraser gray and damp, chunk bitten off.
By one-thirty, snapped in two,
eraser gone, sharp metal tube
bitten to a point;
by three heís standing on his bed
pencil in his fist, broken jagged edges
menacing like teeth
"anyone who comes near me gets stabbed!"

Follow the teeth images moving through the lines. going from "clean as a fox tooth" to a "chunk bitten off to "bitten to a point" and finally to "jagged edges menacing like teeth." Then read DEMOSTHENES to see how the poet brings the Greek oratorís world into her arithmetic class of autistic children, the sage who put pebbles into his mouth to "cure" his stutter and these hapless kids who must be kept "from eating things they find / upon the ground / some things that could kill them."

Hard isnít all about Henryís wards. It speaks also of "a thing that holds you / close to people youíd not chose to know /in any other place than here, but here, you know /t way they like their coffee, /when theyíre on their last nerve"" (TRAUMA BOND)

In PEOPLE WHO TAKE CARE the rewarding nature of the work is described. It might have been all too easy for Henry to sink into a kind of If I have made just one life better" Thumperish sentamentalism. She doesnít, stays real, knows what a shit (literally at times) job her job is, how the people who take care of people "get paid less than anybody/" are not worth much / " not respected by other people / " who make more money / tell them what to do / never get shit on their hands / never mop vomit or wipe tears / donít stand in danger"

and ends with

sometimes they fill a hollow / no one else can fill / sometimes through the shit / and blood and tears / they get to a beautiful place, somewhere / those clean and important people / have never been."

When someone we love is dying, has a stroke, when we have been there with them through it, when we have done what we must, we know the truth of Henryís final line in ICE, "Itís all we can do."


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