Book Reviews | Literary Arts

Miraculous Knots: Nancy Takacs’ new volume of poetry is full of startling imagery and delicate revelations

If for a moment you imagine language as a length of rope, a poem forms when you start tying knots in the rope and pulling them tight, snugging them and squeezing all the air out. The poet may then submit to the reader that his imagination run over the knots like fingers over a set of prayer beads. I don’t know if Nancy Takacs knows this, but she knows this. And her new volume of poetry, The Worrier, is an astonishing collection studded with miraculous knots of imagery and revelation as startling and delicate as bird tracks in the snow.

Each poem in the book is titled “The Worrier,” with a subtitle appended that carefully focuses it. The poems are arranged in a question/answer pattern in which an unidentified speaker questions the poet, who responds in her own voice:

The Worrier—scars

What is that scar on your thumb?

It’s a gray desert road, with small tracks.

How is it wandering?

It goes far into a valley with pink mountains.

Who lives there?

The snake who is always eros.
The lizard who flexes
in my shadow.

Very quickly, I suspect, readers of The Worrier will identify this structure as catechism, a call and response learning ritual, an ancient model of teaching through rhythm and the emphatic declaration of belief.

We are likely to imagine at first glance that the title refers to worry in the quotidian sense: anxiety, perseverance over looming problems or pending catastrophe. On one level, the structure of the book replicates worry itself; the repeated title is a loop the mind follows as it worries, flowing from internal to personal, to external, global and existential. But we quickly understand that a subtler reading is demanded.

The poet has invited us to observe as she parses the many questions posed here, combing through them in order to unravel—to try or worry out of them—a central comprehension: What is it that makes—and keeps—us alive? According to one reading of the poems in The Worrier, one answer is resilience in the face of human mystery, from which emerges an unending challenge to what we take as truth.

And Takacs is in unrelenting pursuit of the answers—reworking, re-asking, reconsidering and demanding the reader’s unyielding attention. She’s asking each of us to join her in pulling apart our collective mortal experience, strand by strand, in order to understand what is at its heart.

And the indomitable voice we follow throughout these poems resonates with a visionary, hypnotic and absorbing force, as in “The Worrier—skin”:

What lives on the skin?

A mirror and a cloud of tumbleweed.

Why a mirror?

It’s the way he can touch me.

And in a later stanza:

In a brazen

Here is a central device of the poems in The Worrier: a dramatic shift in scale. The finite boundaries of the skin yielding to the imponderable breadth of a star cluster deep in the galaxy. And when we arrive, what is there? More questions, to be sure, but always an array of arresting responses.

Here, too, is an imperishable voice, running like a harmonic thread through the incantatory landscape of these poems. Takacs successfully labors to get at our urgent, implacable impulse to dig beneath the surface—any surface that might conceal an answer that will assuage our wonder.

In “The Worrier—old woman,” we witness the parallel of an aging woman and an elm, a majestic but dying species. The poem urges the reader to think about love as something fierce and mad but healing:

She was crazy. She
would circle the block
while I was playing with friends
or riding my bike.

What did she do?

She turned and turned to look at me.

Why did she do this?

She loved me.

This is ritual dialogue that transcends skin, bone and brain, leaving the reader with a query of his own. From where do the questions emerge? Are these questions she is asking herself, or is a numinous, secondary voice probing her understanding, involving us in her explorations of a universal self? The answers challenge the questions, and the reader is urged to decide just how welcome these demanding and unforgiving voices truly are.

Takacs has a deeply feminine and generative voice—forceful and clear, registering internal and minute detail and connecting herself and her readers with the natural world against which we examine ourselves.

Although the volume and its individual poems are all titled, “The Worrier,” they reveal, in fact, a deeply affirming voice. Takacs is recording the impermanence of a life that is, nonetheless, one dimension of an inexorable, restorative cycle, grounded in our communal struggle with haunting, existential loss.

Though the questions tear continually at our human longing for recognition, Takacs—as well as her poems—has a spine, and she stands fast in the face of our collective global terror. Such is the case in “The Worrier—volunteer,” where her responses are distinguished by an unwavering declarative:

What will you do?

I won’t turn away
from the dead whose
arms lie above their heads
as if still in sleep.

I won’t turn away
from the living,
their bodies maimed,
the skin shining
over hollow places.

Again, the questions are relentless, but the poet isn’t interested in relenting, and nothing is going to shove her off the mark until this business is settled.

In The Worrier, Takacs uses color in near volumes to evoke layer upon layer of cognitive artifact. For her, colors are indispensible totems of comprehension, and in nearly every poem the vocabulary evokes them in startling visual events as in “The Worrier—sculptor”:

Cinnamon clay,
Western light suggesting
Violet-green under an eye,
Rose in a dimple,
Indigo behind an ear

Black or turquoise, purple or red, emerald, rose, mango, cerulean, ivory, madder and cobalt green. Takacs’s palette is thick with breathtaking, shimmering hues offered as a way to number and illuminate the many surfaces of the sensory experience by which we continue to shape our identity.

Takacs tells us that color is form, and form is cognition. Here’s the poet in “The Worrier—watercolors”:

What will you use for the fenceline?

I’ll paint the gate Mars Violet.

I’ll paint the gate open.

So now we see, as well, that colors open doors. For Takacs, as well as for all of us, she would suggest, perception is power.

Among the poet’s dizzying vocabulary are multiple references to gemstones evoking the immense, inexorable force of gravity on minerals that turns them into gems. There’s a persistent sense of the ancient heart of the earth, of geological and psychic bedrock. There are references to silver, copper, iron, gold: metals forged, like human endeavor, through the immense weight of time and submitted to flame, crafting something obdurate, imperative:

The Worrier—husband

What was his father like?

He was quiet,
cut fire opals
in his lapidary.

He set a moonstone
for his wife.

I saw the copper
cuffs he wove
for his children.

All of Takacs’s evocation of stone, gems, minerals, fossils remind us that consciousness—both human and non-human—is an antediluvian dynamic impossible to vanquish. It is inside everything we do, utter and imagine, and it determines who we are. Here’s Takacs in “The Worrier—failure”:

The poem continues:

Where are you?

A thousand feet up
on a ledge
without a guardrail.

Near caldera explosions,
domes capping sediment,
lavender figures,
a veil of stones.

In the sea’s
bathtub rings where
I can still feel the ripples.

Where does failure come from?

Trilobites, corals,
dinosaur footprints,
ice-aged mammoths.

Even failure—tragic, implacable, torturous—nonetheless is a power to be welcomed as an ultimately nurturing and determinative force. This is a chief declaration in The Worrier: failure is just another dimension of making.

Time and the universe will finally hack us down and unmake everything we’ve done and known, but it changes nothing; the human imperative—faulty, strident, impatient, bewildered—is of the Earth, and the Earth, as seen so often in these poems, can be nonetheless immeasurably generous and enduring.

Takacs’s language is elegiac but affirming:

The Worrier—freesia

To be curious,
silent. I want to open.
I want to be red
but hidden.

In The Worrier, Nancy Takacs has said everything that needs saying about the body’s infinite relationship to its owner, and our inseparable communion with the natural world that contains, embraces and labors, ultimately, to undo it. This is the essential mortal battle, the worrying of the human corpus into its multiple strands of meaning.

Takacs has given us a guide to our place in a deeply luminous world, and its implications for infinite relationship and comprehension.

Finally, the reader is left to wonder: who, exactly, is asking the questions? Answer: we are. Through the poems in this remarkable collection, Nancy Takacs has given us all a voice.

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