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Bellingham poet borrows, deconstructs, reinvents

“Once Removed” by Nancy Pagh

For the past few weeks, I have been tussling with the poems in “Once Removed,” the latest poetry collection by Nancy Pagh. I am a bit hesitant to write a review at this point, because I feel I have only scratched the surface of these complicated poems. But with April stretching out in front of us as National Poetry Month, I thought this could help start things off with a jolt — no simpering celebration of poetic treacle here, but a high-octane kick in the teeth.

Pagh is a well-regarded poet and author who is based in Bellingham and teaches at Western Washington University. She also participates widely in reading series and workshops all over the country.

“Once Removed” is her third published volume of poetry. Presented in three sections, it is a work of audacious wordplay.

Pagh’s process is quickly evident in the first section, titled “After.” For each poem in this set, she borrows a few lines from another poet, then improvises her responses the way a jazz musician might riff with a musical phrase. Drawing from poets as different as Emily Dickinson and Marge Piercy, Pablo Neruda and Peter Pereira, Pagh rephrases and reframes, developing kaleidoscopic tumbles of words that glitter with bitterness or keen with grief. The poems in “After” will lure you in with the well-known name, the familiar line — then metamorphose into dark ruminations on danger or decay.

In the second section, “Fraudulent Creatures,” Pagh invents a literary adaptation of the taxidermic folly of combining body parts from different creatures to create a new species — a taxidermist might develop a jackalope out of a jackrabbit and an antelope, for example.

Pagh’s version is “textidermy”: She revisits her first published collection, “No Sweeter Fat” (Autumn House Press, 2007), selecting lines and juxtaposing them with text from writers whose work influenced her early on — May Swenson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Theodore Roethke, and so on.

It is an intriguing approach — one that may be of particular interest to serious students of poetry who have time to reference the alluded-to works and contemplate Pagh’s process.

The casual reader won’t get these connections, but may still be scorched by some of Pagh’s searing imagery of collapsing bodies, roadkill, memorial crosses along the highway, and red-tail hawks “posturing their James Dean shoulders.”

The final section, “Once Removed,” contains the most accessible and least overtly referential poems, although in a note at the back of the book, Pagh describes using a modification of the “exquisite corpse” technique to generate these pieces, and acknowledges the kinship that these poems have to the work of other poets.

Perhaps so, but these also are poems you can connect with directly.

The description of pears on the windowsill, the knowledge in the joint of a thumb, the description of a timeworn restaurant, the bleached moon in the afternoon — these lines kindle recognition and invite contemplation. These poems, at last, engage.

“Once Removed” is published by MoonPath Press, the excellent, Kingston-based publisher of poetry.

The Bookmonger review appears each week in Take Five. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.

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