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To See Who's There Paperback – August 23, 2017
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Paperback, August 23, 2017
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About the Author
Nonnie Augustine’s first collection of poems, "One Day Tells its Tale to Another" was chosen by Kirkus Review as one of the "Best of Indie 2013,” and she won the 16th Glass Woman prize in 2014 for her prose poem “All is Ready.” Her poetry and prose have appeared in PANK, The Amsterdam Quarterly, Tupelo Press, Salomé, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, The Mad Hatter’s Review, The Linnet’s Wings, Southern Hum, 2paragraphs, Mojave River Journal, The Olentangy Review, Blue Fifth Review Quarterly, and Great Jones Street. She edited poetry for The Linnet’s Wings, who published her first book (Ireland, 2012) from 2007 until spring, 2014. Former lives: professional dancer with a B.F.A. from The Juilliard School; teacher for children with emotional disturbances and learning disabilities in Florida, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Blog: http://www.augustinesconfessions.blogspot.com. “As this stunning collection explores Nonnie Augustine’s familial history, so many issues that resonate with us today come to the forefront: race and erasure; women’s rights and redactions; class strife and class climbs. Through the detailing of the physical act of dancing, the abstract sense of family connection shines through because readers intuit that dancing is not only what one does, but also how one can embody lineage. Building on the strengths of specificity, character creation, and the use of forms, this book resounds with readers and their own lineages, whatever they may be.” Charlotte Pence, author of Many Small Fires
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Thoroughly affecting, elegantly written in classic forms (sestina, villanelle, etc.) as well as prose poems and a bit of straight prose, Augustine fills in some of the blank spaces of the world of her ancestors and others, including French and Irish, with imaginative flourishes. But the work is grounded in the real. She is aware of the impact of fate (“Strength and Luck”), while there are pieces that consider those who pushed back hard against it, not passively accepting the hard times that others -- and to their minds The Creator -- was choosing to dish out. (“1888: Mrs. Sherwood”)
There are no opaque mystical/spiritual Poe-like poems in “To See Who’s There.” Poe’s theory that (and I paraphrase) “the most worthy poetic subject is the death of a beautiful woman” doesn’t hold sway in Augustine’s collection, as she faces the death of her forebears head-on, presenting it with a clear and earthy style, at times crying for its unfairness while ultimately accepting it, as one must.
Indeed, the cris du coeur from Augustine are not for herself, but for her distant forebears, some used as game pieces by the more powerful, whose agendas could be devoid of common humanity. (“1664: Sestina for 14 Year-Old Marie Grandin, Who Paces the Apple Orchard”) Such considerations contrast well with her own story, where she looks back ruefully on her innocence and experiences, in possession of much more agency than one who was perhaps an earlier version of herself. (“New York Port Authority”)
At times I was reminded of William Carlos Williams’ epic “Paterson” where the poet-doctor looked into the history of the people who made up the Paterson, N.J. community through the lens of old newspapers and paper trails created by records and other ephemera. Augustine’s poetic scrutiny of a past that sometimes treated her bloodline poorly and cruelly can take its place next to Williams’ work.
As the reader ultimately puts together the parts and parcels Augustine gives us, a full picture of the poet emerges and it becomes apparent -- if in fact it hasn’t been from the start -- that the one “who’s there” is herself.
I recommend this book to all who would like to write about their own ancestors but feel hampered by the invention such an undertaking requires. I would also recommend it to readers who love the magic of stories told in beautiful language, readers who love to see words truly create life.
The earliest, Nonnie's "27th great-grandparents" were Judith and Waltheof "the [rebellious] last Saxon earl." Judith betrayed Waltheof to her uncle, William the Conqueror, to save the lives of their children from William's wrath. She and their three small children watch from the stands as Waltheus's severed head continues reciting the Lord's Prayer as it rolls from the executioner's axe.
Nonnie admits to a certain amount of imaginative poetic license in bringing these ancestors, and others of similar backgrounds, to life. She found a young boy in Liverpool's 1851 census listed simply as "Thirteen years old, Irish. Occupation: beggar." She promises to "do more for him." Her poem gives him a name, James, and a brother, Martin. Their story warmed my heart.
Woven throughout her tributes to people long, long dead, are glimpses of her life in New York City, studying ballet at Julliard and learning the rules of life and love. She minces no words leading us across the stumbles and rough patches, though we’re soon aware of the strong heritage, the genes that keep her standing, nay, dancing. As a grand finale she brings them all together. Reunioned in heaven, they rejoice as “Madeleine” entertains them at the piano. Hundreds are missing, those who have more lives to live. Alice (the poisoner) and King Gilbert (the torturer) are among those not yet permitted to join the family’s final nap.