Introduction by Seph Rodney
The poems of Nina Pick selected for this issue of The Nomadic Journal demonstrate the powers Pick brings to the page: some are acts of startled witness, others confessional quests for comprehension, still others describe the movement of the speaker toward a romantic other. What makes Pick’s poems memorable is the drama that plays out as the speaker judges her own desire, its legitimacy, and its consequences against an implacable god who she has come to know through familial traditions and through dreams. One result is that her knowledge becomes a measure, a barometer of her connections to others. The divine model of encounter becomes a guiding principle or a burden — the tension between the two remains unresolved.
Pick varies the speaker’s voice from dreamlike and Delphic to poems grounded in particular times and places, recalling memories that linger (at times to the speaker’s bewilderment) because of the potency of personal connection. She occasionally returns to an abstracted voice, the details sparse but the realizations prickly bright.
At times the speaker is appalled by the work of the body, and looks at her own desire as though expecting ruination. This expectation is nearly fulfilled in moments when she recognizes her failure to empathize with another’s hurt, another’s needs. Desire makes its own dead ends; yet, the speaker continues to pay close attention to those moments of encounter when her own desires, her own models of transcendence come into contact with someone or something material and consequential. Pick lets us see these collisions and lets them inform her speaker’s ways of seeing, and thus informs the reader of what remains compelling and lovely in the realm of the flesh.
As she writes, “The beauty meets the horror how the sea meets the sky: / In blinding light.”
We went to get the horse
We went to a place I had never gone
I had long desired
The hills were green and golden
Though the horse was old
And had fractured her hock
And her grey mane hung uncombed
Its beauty like the beauty of the sea
Though she would pin back her ears
And clench her jaw to refuse the bit
And balloon her ribs to stretch the girth
We bought her and took her home
I stole into the stable and into her stall
I brought her my body in flakes and pellets
My life as a barrel of water
And gave it to her in an attempt to fill
Her stark withers, her distended belly
And she accepted the gift
Of my life and my flesh
And in return stepped from her own
And left it vacant before me
The horse-body stood open as
A warm hotel, its door ajar, its red pulse beating
In a central room
I stepped into its flesh, its cavernous heart
And looked down at my own hoof legs
I could crush blood
Surely the Lord is present in this place
And I did not know it. Standing in a
Green field in the shimmering
Stalks of frost knee-deep in the
Cold river all right I could know it. But
Here—And here—Here where the pain
Is a jagged edge. Wider than countries and
Absolute. A jagged edge tearing at the center
Like a wolf tooth, a monstrous pregnancy.
Here I did not know or trust in
The largeness of God. I knew God was
Greater than all but there was still
That one thing. There was one thing
Greater than God.
Down in the cave of the body lies
Hunger, deeper than love and
Wider than the bowl made
To hold it, and true
To its nature, it consumes
Its own shore and
Flooding over, becomes
Starvation, the pool at
The body’s center that
The body drowns in.
Here in this place God is no light-
Being but a wolf-mother eating
Her cubs and she gives and she
Takes away she takes away she
Takes away until there is no
God left but remainders.
Buzzards circling the bay we drive
Through a light falling like knives
Until crossing into the luminous floodplain
Just when we thought we’d rather leave
And be done with it forever
We reach at last the heart of the matter
The light is alive its thousand vicious
Its dark belly spinning with flies
I know to run from this sharp-edged
Monster called the
This is how God shows up when we’re
So easily mistaken
For something human and desired
It is by your longing
You will be destroyed, says God in
Desire, His most fearsome sign.
The waves ratchet higher.
The glass-seeds splinter. It is a windy day
This, the end of the world. The children
Playing in their flooded pens.
When I speak you say nothing.
When I speak you say nothing at all.
When finally you speak you unleash
A huge wave of silence
Like spilling honey. It is
To lead us through the maze
Of the sublime.
Here at the apocalypse
Everything is growing
Smaller and softer.
I pick from the bin a
Its green flesh rotting
Under broken skin. Oh dream, it is
Clearly my heart.
Don’t press too hard, you say
Just hold it lightly.
Well, too late now.
It is made of flesh. It is
Law of Motion
It seemed the light was streaming in
Through the window like a summer afternoon
Or a rosy dawn or the blushing fingers of God
And so lovely that for a second I didn’t
Wonder what it could be or mean but only lay there
Staring as ruddy ballerinas danced over the ceiling and
Down the walls like I was alive
And in a kaleidoscope or floating
In a tidepool belly-up and
Dead at last
And it wasn’t until I saw the clock and heard
The sudden unfamiliar crunch of steel on snow
That I understood that it was four a.m.
And everything I believed in
Was, in fact, wrong.
I rose stumbling from his warm body and threw on his hoodie
Which went down to my knees
And thus clothed and stinking
Of stale smoke and Old Spice
I ran outside
To find the car high in the bed of a tow truck
Bundled in chains.
And as the car was raised higher and
Higher and therefore progressively
More difficult to retrieve, I became
In equal magnitude and opposite direction
Less and less high until
Abruptly sober, my bare legs
Burning, I stood in the drift in the night
In a truth stark as air:
I couldn’t figure out I simply did not know
How I had gotten from there to here
With some guy from high school my car
parked on his curb in the way of the plow
Gotten home from the bar and
So many miles away from
The crow in fascination
Eats his shadow and becomes it.
So do I, and so do I become.
My claw at your claw, my beak
At your beak. I do know
That to eat is a form of loving.
My grandmother served
Grey lumps of meat, pallid
In vitriol like a brine,
White bread, despair.
And though the chicken
Might be poison, and
Though she had pulled
The margarine, veined
With mold, out from
Under the sofa cushions,
I would eat willingly
Every bite, so as not to
Waste a crumb of
All that fury.
Because you were kin, I came.
Brother, lover, mirror, I held you to me.
I laid my head down, nonetheless, in a stranger’s palms.
I said, let me love like this.
If I could love like you I could love:
As two hands clasped to the ax.
This tangle of breakable bones, cracked skin,
can strike a match, break glass.
Underneath, the sap runs sweet.
World, where should I turn?
Here, always here.
Even water burns.
Sea-smoke rising from a driftwood house.
Every love has heartbreak buried within it.
Either there is no great love, and it ends.
Or there is a great love, and it ends later.
Or there is a great love, and it ends after a lifetime of loving, in death.
Or there is a great love, and it never ends but breaks, like water.
Nina Pick is an editor at Princeton Architectural Press and the author of two chapbooks, À Luz and Leaving the Lecture on Dance. She is an Oral History Fellow with the Yiddish Book Center, the recipient of a Mesa Refuge Poetry Fellowship, and a finalist for the Anna Davidson Award for Poems on the Jewish Experience. The poems featured here are from her unpublished collection At the Edge of the Dirac Sea, which interweaves personal and ancestral narrative to consider the spiritual crises provoked by the trauma of the Holocaust and its lingering intergenerational reverberations. The project asks, how do we inhabit place when place is an absence, an annihilation, and a vacuum? And how do we inhabit the body when the body is the ill-lit home of all that is still unmourned?
Copyright Nina Pick.
Earlier versions of some of these poems first appeared as part of the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project.