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The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poemsThe St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poemsThe St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
Two Minutes of Light
by Nancy Pearson

Perugia Press, 2008

Reviewed by Allison Elliot

Nancy K. Pearson’s first book of poems is a collection that truly works as a whole.  Starting with the childhood memory in “Cyclic” to the later meditation “Consider the Lilies of the Field” we follow the poet from an innocent girlhood, through domestic turmoil and chilling abuse, suicide attempts, drug and alcohol addiction, a marriage, hospitalization and finally, a kind of peace.  

In the opening poem “Cyclic” we see the speaker with her sisters, in an idyllic Oceanside setting, fishing with their father.  With lilting consonance, the poem describes the day, “All morning, the leggy low tide calls/ allemandes left and right.”  They are like four little Eves yet to be cast from paradise.   It is “before the winter/ I began slicing my wrists like fruit,/ before I spent my Medicaid checks on crack,/ before I demanded the world recognize/ my suffering. “ With these lines, the poem abruptly states the horrors that are to come.  The final image of the poem is more suggestive, and for that, perhaps more ominous:  
. . . the sea water surrounds us
like a horse gallop,
how it explodes a field of birds -- 
black wings breaking a sure hunk of sky
into a thousand parts.

If the reader has a sinking feeling that we are about to enter a dark land east of Eden, it will soon be born out.  The opening poems of childhood repeat these juxtapositions of the natural world with hints of terrible happenings in the human world.  Later, the poet leaves childhood behind and enters an intense period of addiction and attempts at recovery.  It’s refreshing to discover a writer that resists glamorizing the life of the drug addict; a life lived on the edge.  In “From the Motel-By-The-Hour” we meet some unenviable characters.  Silva with her wig seems glamorous at first, until we see an image of her desperately picking at the shag carpet for her fix:  “The shag hooks her silver hoop – / ear snagged and hanging off / like old fish bait.  Stuck down there,/ someone just cover her up.”

At one point in the collection, the poet states “I believe only in the certainty of equations.”  This focus on equations makes itself felt in the poems, even the titles:  “From the Motel-by-the-Hour,” “Two Worlds,” “Winter Solstice, 4th Floor,” “The Halfway-to-Hell Club,” “Halfway to Flight.”  The numbers give one something to hold on to in the lack of tangibles, similar to the way police officers  or doctors will give a very specific, almost clinical description of a victim’s death to family members:  it gives them pieces to cling to, like rungs on a ladder.  Even the collections’ title:  Two Minutes of Light refers to the daily amount of light gained after the winter solstice.  It’s a small, but significant number and it testifies to one of the book’s main accomplishments, which is that it shows the healing process as what it must be for many:  small, agonizingly slow steps forward and sometimes in retreat.  In one poem, the speaker’s fellow patient in the hospital room, who has had to learn to walk again, tells her that “relearning/ is a controlled falling.” 

The difficulty of the process is well-expressed in “So a New Coat Will Grow.”  The poem is a back and forth between casting off and collecting, forgetting and remembering, optimism and bitter irony.   It opens with a tree shedding its leaves as the speaker is drinking and brooding, “Here I am again without you.”  She watches a woman comb her dog’s hair out of the grass.   It’s a strange sight since combing the grass will not help the dog’s coat, and the grass, described as “brown grasses,” does not appear to be helped by it, either.  Yet the idea is still there for both the speaker and the reader.  Shedding does precede new growth and is its necessary precursor.  Still, knowing a truth doesn’t make one follow it.  The poem ends with a moment that illustrates the speaker’s heartrending dilemma.  The night “catches me fishing/ your long hair from my drain.”  The word “catches” suggests a feeling of guilt on the part of the speaker.  She has failed to shed the past of someone who has most certainly shed her - the hair in the drain being such a strong and apt metaphor for being left behind.   Perhaps the title is even referring to this person who has moved on and left the speaker in a loneliness she cannot get out of.  If so, the poet may be acknowledging that she has been taught a hard lesson.   

In one of Lorrie Moore’s short stories, there’s a comic scene where one character tells the other that when you choose to get healthy, you leave a lot of good people behind.  There’s a sense of leaving people behind in these poems:  fellow junkies, hospital roommates, lovers, friends.  More shedding.  By the time her 20’s are over, she has done a lot of it.  And though this catalogue of people may be a source of guilt, it also seems a necessary part of the poet’s struggle towards a normal life.

The last third of the book focuses on this part of her life.  We see her living quietly, soberly; piling wood, cooking.  She has found love, or it has found her.  It’s both interesting and oddly inspiring that Pearson does not come to any earth-shattering conclusions at this point regarding her tumultuous past. In “Thought Thinking Itself,” she muses, “We reassemble our lives and discover nothing . . . There is nothing at the end to unravel.”

There’s an oft-repeated quote by Winston Churchill, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”  It seems to be what Pearson is saying here.  The process of shedding has to be gone through.  There’s no instant cure or watershed moment; no diagnosis that will bring relief.  Though we want equations, for things to add up; maybe they don’t.  And maybe that’s okay.  The two minutes of light keep building on one another.  

ALLISON ELLIOTT lives and works in New York City.  She is an assistant poetry editor at the online journal 42opus.