Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Nest of Stars

by Nicole Verrone
(Atmosphere Press, 2021) 

Reviewed by Holly Mason

Nicole Verrone’s debut poetry collection, Nest of Stars, moves with grace and fervor. The poems are acute, attentive, and they shine. As the title suggests, these poems bring the heavens to earth. 

The poems in this book offer reflection, contemplation, and wonder. The speaker’s questions illustrate a curious mind and a comfort in, and embrace of, uncertainty. Mystery is welcomed—as in the poem “stars” when Verrone writes, “But these stars, light grown from nothing, stand in / mysterious assembly.” Later in the same prose poem, she continues, “And yet, housed in a code, in the hot bed of / synergy where dust meets dust, the flowers of light and night / fill deciduous space in the eye….” Here, stars described as “flowers” direct the reader’s attention from the sky down to the land.
In a later poem, “eclipse,” on this same, contemplative path, the speaker asks: 

Does one pay more attention when life begins
than in the coasting, tween, adult, mid-life scenes,
abruptly re-focusing in the end?
What does payment of attention mean?
Do we fade like static snow;
an eclipse of moments?

Alongside these existential questions, the poem moves into the territory of pregnancy and birth and then closes with this compelling tercet:  

It passed so fast,
I passed so fast
from light to fog to darkening. 

This poem brings the “heavens to earth” through the language of “eclipse,” which the poet uses to describe earthly beings and their life cycles. With attention upon a lineage of women, the poems span generations—from the speaker’s grandmother, to her mother, to herself as daughter and mother, to time with her own daughters. The speaker is nonetheless steady across the pages—the voice consistent. She recalls a childhood memory in the poem “afterwards”:

I hid behind the circle of lawn chairs
in the limbs of a mimosa tree
heavy with a secret

I was four.

In thinking of memory and matriarchal lineage, we can return again to what I think of as a thesis poem of the collection, “stars,” where the speaker recollects her grandmother with incredible clarity. The poem begins with “My perception of stars is dim. These lights are scattered / pockets of floating fire,” and moves into an introduction of the farming grandmother who “viewed the stars as God’s drawer of diamonds.” Verrone writes:

Down to earth means down to earth. If I could
hold her hand and walk through her dark farm, my 
grandmother would see the starry sky as acres of potential 
good soil. Perhaps she would compare star beds to prolific 
crops, thriving as an iridescent stream of mineralized water. 

Atmospheric and packed with truly dazzling imagery, Nest of Stars offers meditations on existence and beauty. There is a speaker in these pages who is pleased to experience beauty solo, but is also pleased to be in community, companionship, and with her beloveds. A later poem in the collection, “ride home,” offers an illustration of the glorious moments when marvel is shared, in this case between mother and daughter:

Last evening, 
I lifted my dancer
home over autumn fields. 

Amber and wheat plowed brown
eaten by silver columbine.
The profuse perfumed earth,
deep-breath smell of dusky dust
arrested she and me
and we locked eyes.

Smoking bales
lassoed with twine
surrender to November.
But my dancer, here,
in her pink tights,
leotard and pursed lips,
her sharp jawline and lilac eyes,
holds my hand
for landing. 

You’ll find in these pages carefully crafted lines that invite us to read and reread them for their deliciousness and precision. For example, this couplet in the poem “observe”: “observational visibility occurs / in the net of epiphany.” Or these lines in “veil”: “theories are veiled, / hidden truths of youth, / sweet like china bells.” Or this inviting stanza in the poem “profile”:

Press your ear
to the canyon wall,
warm as Sunday bread.
Cupped close-
lobe skin to stone,
just a minute or two
like a daughter listening
to waves 
in a conch shell. 

These lines lure the reader in with sensory details, offering a moment of stillness and welcoming awe. Often in the collection, such atmospheric moments are followed by moments of wisdom to savor. In the opening poem, “voice,” we are told “it was all oak and grief, / file after file” and “moonlit mountain path, / barefoot tones / in a sullen summer.” “Voice” ultimately winds around to a line of captivating truth, “time will not unwind.” Verrone’s poetry is both highly sensory and unpretentiously intellectual; phrasing serves as  a clever vehicle for philosophical thought. Take for instance this stanza in the poem “scar”:

Pain creates memory,
notching an end
when the scene’s sting
suspends the clock. 

Here, the speaker contemplates the way a scar still holds ache over time. Alongside a speaker’s captivation with, and delight in, mystery and the supernatural, the speaker expresses interest in science, logic, and intellect. As in the poem above, we don’t just have the metaphor of the scar, we also have the medical science behind it, too. We have the stars as luminous points and as space matter. We don’t just have a heavenly celestial sphere, we also have astronomy and  “NASA’s image as the center of a dahlia” (from “stars”). 

Being human on Earth means living within a range of experiences. There are moments in the poems that examine corners of loneliness and others that delight in familial love—sometimes both within the same poem. This duplicity is finely rendered in the poem “hunger” as the speaker asks in one stanza, “Isn’t loneliness cruel?” while in another confesses:

I asked my father this morning for help. 
My battery sparking in a dark cave
trapped in exhaustion with self.
If the specifics in that stanza aren’t captivating enough, the next stanza’s descriptions are no less sharp:

His cherry-faced joy
not with anticipated scolding,
but cheered me in the furrow. 

And in the final lines of this poem, a sonic and cerebral offering:

The feast, and wedding fleece
awaits at the end
of solemn roads.  

Various modes of storytelling, mythologies, fables, and age-old stories offer backdrop and backbone for a number of poems. At times, with parable-like movement and framing, the poems exist in a space of both wonder and wisdom. Borrowing from and repurposing these narratives welcomes the reader into an arena that feels at once familiar and new. There is sacrament, demon pigs, Eden, Camelot, Neptune, Orion, Athena, and Icarus. There are wise men silenced by a babe and a night of holy prose. There are seven swans, seven sins, and seven wonders. 

The poem “eden ash” expresses concern over climate change in our current moment and thinks ahead to what may be (or may not be) for our grandchildren“now Eden smolders / and our grandchildren / with metal shoes / will pop exhaust bubbles.” A good steward of the earth, the poet laments the “price of emissions, / the cost of omission” and ends with this powerful stanza, a climate prayer, a fervent petition:

Power mutes
voice of low repute.
Lend her thine ear-
with a sharp point,
erase the bottom line.
the verdant fruit laden vine
for them
before apple infection
makes masters of war
look like all men. 

The book’s speaker is a disciple of nature, and there is a love of the natural world throughout that is almost transcendental at times. Many poems offer a rootedness in place, as in the final stanza of “hen” when Verrone writes:

Fragile enough to die,
or brave enough
on chilly tips of October
to hide my bones
in the crook of your limbs.

In Nest of Stars, lines and stanzas can be enjoyed for their imagery and prosody, but the reader will also find a buried treasure of ideas to piece together and questions to consider. Take, for example, these stanzas from “siren tone”:

Can one hear their own siren song—
honeyed pitch
or is it behind cognition
in the womb of a dream region?

Hush it, quiet it,
wail it out into deep midnight.
The drape of dreams 
is a poet’s seam. 
Isn’t hunger innate?

That question sings out there in the end, thinking about the human condition, after the poem explores notions of filtering through the varied voices that aim to lay out our paths. The collection as a whole explores another type of hunger—hunger for discovery. Near the end of the collection, in the poem “amelia,” the poet offers a striking elegy for Amelia Earhart and is in awe of her courage. This poem, like the whole of Nest of Stars, praises the daring spirit, the daring girl, the daring woman. The poet closes with Amelia’s own words: “the stars seemed near enough to touch and never before have I seen so many.” These words are perfect and haunting—an embodiment of awe.  

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