By Fred Kreutz
For The Turn of the Tiller, The Spill of the Wind poems by Nancy Austin (2019, Kelsay Books) it should be said first that kudos are in place to Shay Culligan who designed the striking cover to this edition. The image, a sailboat on a mirrored horizon, back dropped with almost ominous sunset clouds and star-filled sky is poetic in itself. When you add the title–references to boating and steering, travelers on a voyage–the cover captures not only the words from one of the poems but also the theme developed within this edition.
Next, the dedication is a nod to the author’s self-deprecating sense of humor. Her husband (in the next room) responds “Wow” when the author reads him a new poem. “What could that mean?” Nancy asks. Her husband “who has no use for poetry” replies, “That means…a big hairy spider just marched out//of the woodpile I carried in.” So much for the depth and power of poetry.
The poet has many sparkling turns of a phrase, uses of imagery and figurative language, and clever word juxtaposition that sneak up and surprise the reader frequently.
In her opening poem the poet engages us to think about the relationship between the real (life) and poetry: “Poems, like paper airplanes, are prototypes // of the real thing.”
The theme of our lives as voyages is revisited in several poems. In the poem “Drifters”, told through a young person’s eyes, a child is traveling “in the front seat of a rambler” from one place to another…again(?) “…wax paper wrapped wonder bread // somewhat soggy with relish and mustard…” is eaten as the narrator listens to “…the whir of eighteen wheelers headed east or west // one filled with all we owned.” The very title of the edition comes from that same poem when the trek is detailed metaphysically as a sailboat fantasy.
“…the sail’s bow to gusty winds, the hulls heavenward heave…the turn of the tiller
the swing of the boom, the spill of the wind
…–to yet another port.”
In “How the Universe Guides Us” the poet recalls passing on some less than perfect molasses cookies to a seasonal neighbor whose son is dying of cancer. She hands her departing neighbor the only farewell gift she can come up with. When spring returns, so do the neighbors who report of:
“their son’s memorial
how his favorite cookie was molasses, blackstrap…
…how they took comfort in a few, sent the rest to him.”
The title then reminds us how showing one kindness can end up being a greater kindness then we expected.
The final poem to bring attention to is a most gripping, stark contrast of the cycles of life. “My Grown Daughter Asks About Her Grandma” recalls the collision of two life-changing items of news. At the same time, the impending birth of that daughter is contrasted with the report of terminal cancer in the would-be grandmother.
“Anxious to share the news, I hurried through the airport,
hand on my abdomen, new life inside that was you
–only six months to go.
Anxious to share her news, grandma, wet eyes, long embrace
hand on her abdomen, a mass inside, pancreatic cancer
–only six months to go”
If that poem doesn’t take your breath away, nothing will.
Finally, this edition should be noted most for its surprise power. While the topics are for the most part serious, even somber, reading each poem is like opening a present, a delightful surprise of insight, imagery, and empathy in every package.
Fred Kreutz is a teacher, writer, photographer, and bon vivant. He likes Wisconsin sports teams, cribbage, gin rummy, summering by the lake, and visiting children and grandchildren with wife-of-forty-nine-years Karen.