Something Novel Came in Spring

by Nancy Austin. Water’s Edge Press, 2021.

Review by Fred Kreutz

The endorsements for Something Novel Came in Spring inform us that Austin “asks if the quarantine splays open our shortcomings, threatens to unravel all that was?” (Pat Carney) and “Austin shares the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic…” and “Despite COVID fatigue, Austin finds solace in nature and recognizes that the darkest nights reveal the most stars” (Carolyn Martin).  Certainly this collection ponders the disruptions of our world—from personal to universal—starting in spring of 2020.

One can liken reading these poems, singularly and as a collection, as opening a group of those classic Russian nesting boxes.  As the poems proceed down the page and as each reveals itself through the collection, every turn invites going deeper past what we read first to find another reflection, word, association, or story that opens more connections and observations that heighten understanding, empathy, and oneness with the author.  The title itself opens to at least three levels of meaning.  The first thought is the COVID intrusion on our world, both large and small, then after exploring that “doll”, we open another that celebrates the coming of spring—not the March of 2020 but the eventual emergence of “spring” after the pandemic has abated.  Further in, the poems lead us to another theme of hope, a kind of new appreciation after an unpleasant deprivation. 

In these 51 poems, organized into six thematic chapters, Nancy Austin’s voice and words operate as an “everyman” experience.  We all went through this experience too, and like her we got “back home // where for a while (we) feel safe”, and we “buy sanitizer”, and we are told “our country has it under control.”  We, like her, “hide from it, / tucked in my easy chair, indebted to those running / toward it…” and “I wonder can we outwit this microscopic foe…”  Poet Austin,      saw the news.  “Beds line the halls, code blues beseech, nurses plead / …surreal shifts, shortages / of staff, surgical masks…”, and “One tells of a co-worker, Mary, off the ventilator / lucid, so he left her to tend to others, returned to find her gone. / She died alone. They all die alone.” We share her the exhaustion and threat of despair when she writes, “I’m sickened, worried, evil may have the upper hand / no matter what we do.”

Austin reflects on how the pandemic has isolated us from our loved ones—a newly born grandson and an aging father.  “I…wait for the next call, FaceTime, Zoom (“Four Months In”) and “I try not to dwell on Dad, stranded in Arizona at age ninety-five” (“Making Soup with Yo-Yo-Ma”).  In that poem, the author describes paying very good attention to cooking her soup while listening to music (“I shelter in, make soup, keep it to a simmer…”), but the last line startles us, like opening another doll, to reveal metaphorically, “The carefully controlled soup boils over.”  How many times did we believe the worst had to be over only to learn the end was far out of reach?

The language and vocabulary in this collection is enlightening, precise, and imaginative. In “Safe House” “a mystery virus inundates news as travelers cram / into planes hip to hip, in rows of ten.”  In “Songbird-Raptor” a precise verb sets the scene, “The farmhouse chair chirped on wooden planks…”  Her addition of a parenthetical observation captures the duality of a bar owner still trying to make a living while gathering people in a less than safe room.  “The bartender, mortgage overdue, / tries not to think of two regulars who died”.  In a more humorous tone, poet Austin in “COVID Camping” describes camping with a new truck bed.  “The air mattress inflates like a lifeboat, ” and “When one turns over the other is jostled into the air // Soon our bladders wake us. / No ledge to grab, no floor to place feet, we wrestle the whale… / My husband…inchworms his way out / Knees aching, we climb down into clogs, / follow a flashlight to and from the outhouse.”

However there is a “glint of hope” doll in this stack, and with poet Austin we believe “someday soon, I’ll set my stride to my grandson’s / two-year old legs…” and “After vaccine, I’ll happy hour around the lake / hitch everyone’s pontoon boat into a floating isle… // After vaccines I’ll squeeze my frail neighbor’s hand…” and she ends the last poem with, “Tonight I will open my blinds / embrace the hope moon as it rises.”

What Nancy Austin does in this volume is give us all a poetic and creative voice by sharing the same thoughts, fears, and alienation of those COVID times. She captures our lack of information, our separation from loved ones, our isolation, our doubts, but in the end our hope.

Fred Kreutz

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-fifty-years Karen.

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