Nancy Willard (1936 -)

Life and Works


Nancy Willard's poetry has inexplicably managed to elude the Spanish public. With a markedly vernacular idiom, at its best strikingly resembling of Elizabeth Bishop's solipsistic--and deceptive--triviality, Willard has created a parallel set of mythologies that brings us back to a world of folktales and fairytales: "The very old and the very young are natural storytellers. When you are very old, you narrate your past and it sounds like fiction. And when you are very young, you invent a past and it sounds like fact. Either way, all it takes is a listener to get you going" (Reader 156). While perhaps she has been most successful at children's literature, the way this childlike curiosity has permeated her adult poetry is truly remarkable. She asks all the right questions and provides implausible answers for every possible one, and those answers trigger yet deeper questions that plunge the readers into a blissful world of innocence where adult answers are not necessarily challenged, merely used as inexhaustible sources for further questioning. These are some of her "Questions My Son Asked Me, Answers I Never Gave Him":

		2. Do butterflies make a noise? 
		   The wire in the butterfly's tongue
		   hums gold.
		   Some men hear butterflies
		   even in winter.
		3. Are they part of our family?
		   They forgot us, who forgot how to fly.
		8. Could we Xerox the moon?
		   This is the first commandment:
		   I am the moon, thy moon.
		   Thou shalt have no other moons before thee.  (Swimming 119-20)


Her mythologies resemble Elizabeth Bishop's (very) early poetry, where the poetic and the nonsensical are finely tuned to each other. We could speak of sister universes. Willard's books are populated by God, angels, and speaking animals, fantastic creatures or ordinary ones made fantastic by the poet's defamiliarizing eye. In "The Ballad of the Subway Train" (1926-27), a teenager Bishop produced a lighthearted but intelligent fairytale, showing indeed good manners and a subtle irony improper of such early age. This unusual "myth of creation" explains the origins of subway trains as dragons that fell from Grace with God. The first line is a textbook fairytale opening, only God is not just a time referent but a character as well. As the poem is built on antithesis and contrast, the first half is devoted to the careless joy and free play of the dragons until the moment of their mischief:

		Long, long ago when God was young,
		Earth hadn't found its place.
		Great dragons lived among the moons
		And crawled and crept through space.
		They bunted meteors with their heads
		While unseen worlds dropped by;
		Until one night they chanced to eat
		A swarm of stars new-made.
		And when God saw them all full gorged,
		Their scaly bellies fed,
		His anger made the planets shake
		And this is what he said:
		"You have been feeding, greedy beasts,
		Upon the bright young stars.
		For gluttony as deep as yours-- 
		Be changed to subway cars!


These stars, still hot from the oven, are Bishop's playful equivalent to the apple from the Garden of Eden. The original sin and the fallen angels merge in this fable, and God's punishment is to change the dragons to subway cars, reducing them to servants of the human race and severely limiting their mobility. Bishop, the defamiliarizing crusader, refuses to accept subterranean life with utilitarian monotony. All sorts of connotations float around the poem without actually crystallizing, but decidedly enriching it. Subway tunnels represent the "hell" to which the fallen dragons are sent, but they also stand--today almost fossilized into a cliché--for our labyrinthine unconscious, and the tunnels are in fact channels conducting all that repressed dragon energy. To a great degree these connotations inform Bishop's later use of subway cars and tunnels in "The Man-Moth," in the play of oppositions ruling the subterranean life versus the moon. The sorrowful description of the dragons' fate seems inspired by an inversion of Blake's "Chimney Sweepers," (incidentally a common referent for both Bishop and Willard) as the innocent play and light of the beginning now turn to imprisonment inside narrow, sooty tunnels. The series of opposites now take control over the poem: infinite space/narrow hole, dragon/mole, light/darkness, sky or heaven/earth, and most playfully, sun/traffic lights:

		Creatures that the gorgeous sun
		Face to face had seen,
		Now are lighted by thin darts
		Of limpid red and green.
		And when you're grinding through the dark 
		Aboard those "devilish cars,"
		They really are the dragons who 
		Licked up the swarm of stars.


The closing stanza retakes very aptly--and typically--a fairytale structure, addressing an audience with a warning or admonition but--less typically--no explicit moral. It seems to be more a remainder of the thrill they may be missing, than a proper moral lesson to be derived from the fate of the fallen dragons.

Willard, too, deliberately foregrounds the artificial, man-made quality of objects, again only in order to subvert it. Particularly fond of the moon as source of inspiration--something she shares with of course not just Bishop but many others--she is pretty capable of rejecting the infantile moon/cheese association in "Night Light" merely in order to take it even further, to emphasize the Japanese origin (at least it's oriental) of a mass-produced ordinary lamp (much like John Ashbery's lotus flower in "Elephant Visitors" [Hotel Lautréamont 96]). In the end she manages to subvert the negative connotations simply by sticking to the romantic idea that we can turn on and off the moon at will:

		The moon is not green cheese.
		It is china and stands in this room.
		It has a ten-watt bulb and a motto:
		Made in Japan.
		The box did not say Moon.
		It said This side up.
		I tucked the moon into my basket
		It is time to turn on the moon.
		It is time to live by a different light. (Swimming 121-22)

The relationship between poet and moon is also a problematic one for Willard (again as in Bishop's "The Man-Moth"). In "The Poet Tracks Down the Moon" the poet-hunter soon becomes the prey, caught through the use of yet another clever visual metaphor, the crescent as a hook. The poet-hunter (noticeably male in the pronoun) does not possess the moon; he is obsessed/possessed by it:

		To the river she throws the first letter
		of her language, the crescent, the open trap.
		It stands for canny and clever. She throws it
		like bread to catch the poet who at once 
		swims into her net. When he walks, the moon
		hangs her thin wire around his ankle, 
		hangs her tiny hook in the gills of his heart. (Swimming 86)


Even the choice of poetic forms is often similar: ballads, nursery rhymes, and all sorts of minor forms elaborated with a gifted, easy-flowing free verse sporadically highlighted with the odd rhymed couplet. Perhaps Willard could be said to be openly fond of rhyme as a device (when she chooses to follow a rhymed pattern, that is, which often has to do with deliberately evoking childhood) whereas in Bishop rhyme seems to be apologizing for its own existence.

With Bishop, Willard also shares a most Magrittean penchant for exposing the absurdity in what we call everyday life. Often her choice of poetic excuses is indeed intriguing and most original; among these we may single out the clever poems springing from headlines found in the sports pages. This kind of inspirational borrowing is a clear evocation of Bishop's "Man-Moth" (triggered by a newspaper misprint for mammoth). By taking these headlines literally Willard produces poetry on how "Saints Lose Back," "Buffalo Climbs Out of Cellar," or "Tigers Shake up Pitchers Again." She deliberately forces herself to imagine (needless to say, highly unlikely) scenarios where these headlines would make sense, where these situations could be possible, and the background story.

A remarkable original visual quality is present in much of her poetry too, sometimes with simple traditional resources like identifying familiar objects ("seeing things") in cloud shapes, as in "I have seen fish in the sky and a dog / that sank into a sheep pursuing a bird / at so majestic a pace they hung like a frieze // of carved smoke" (Salt Marsh 28); but not rarely with decidedly more elaborate schemes. Complex visual metaphors abound and enliven the poetry:

		Start with what you know, I tell my students.
		Detroit, New York, Ann Arbor, Battle Creek--
		the roads that spider off from towns I know
		are red as arteries that serve the heart
		and bring fresh news to all its distant cities (Swimming 195-96)


In this sense, such titles as "The Migration of Bicycles" or "The Absence at the Swing"speak for themselves. But perhaps she is at her most Bishopian when her visual connections are formulated in terms of simple comparisons between the most disparate everyday objects and totally impossible ones. In order to praise Aladdin's lamp she felt it was necessary to introduce this simile. Enjoy the brutal transition from the first to the second couplet:

		Admire this lamp, hammered
		from copper. It's odd
		as an orthopedic shoe
		or a coffin for bananas. (Salt Marsh 25)


More conventionally--but also displaying more sophistication--in "Onionlight" Willard characterizes these bulbs as luminous in spite of their subterranean nature, on account of their condition as, precisely, 'bulbs.' This in any case does not hold her progress from one metaphor to another based on the internal, multilayered structure of the onion, from the textile to the calendar:

Sacks crammed with light, layer on luminous layer,
an underworld calendar, the peeled pages faintly lined
but printed without month or measure
and pure as the damp kisses of a pearl  (Swimming 176) 


Avid reader of the classics, with special predilection for Carroll and the Grimm brothers, Willard will not fail to include her particular homage to such icons of folk tales as the apple. Apple-shaped clouds appear in her already mentioned "Sky. Clouds. Apples" poem, in typical Magritte fashion. Her "Apple" proudly states: "I am the Mistress of Secrets. / Poison me. My flesh keeps quiet / and shows only its good side" (Salt Marsh 22).

But Willard is perhaps most interesting when she turns complicated. After reading her "Camera Obscura" (Swimming 56-57) the reader is left in doubt as to whether she really intends her critique of photography to be taken seriously. Her emphasis on the unnatural character of photographs is hardly negligible. Negative connotations spring from almost every term used, and still this sudden antipathy simply does not fit with what we have read in her poetry. The term "resurrections" alone would not necessarily imply anything negative; on the contrary, it could perfectly pass for appraisal. But premodified by "unnatural" (what is a natural resurrection?) there is little choice for the reader. The following stanza is even less ambiguous, and the photographer-midwife turns assassin against natural law:

		to the beautiful and the stillborn,
		when you have covered the windows
		against all natural light
		you are ready to begin
		these unnatural resurrections.
		The tray of acid hisses.
		The red safe light shows
		the hands of an assassin
		and their fastidious crime
		against memory, against natural law.


It is only several lines below that the craft is redeemed somewhat by the vocabulary used. Such terms as "born" and the reference to "the ones we loved" seem to contrast with the negative perception of photography that we have received so far. Again at her most creative, Willard likens the process of development of film to the waiting at a séance summoning the presence of those now gone:

		You dip the blank page
		into the fluid
		from which these things are born
		and we wait
		like sitters at a seance, 
		calling the image of one we loved.


The image of those we loved, though, is not necessarily what turns up (if at all) at a séance. "Image" is demanded by photography. What is problematic is the way the gradual development of definition and detail in the final image are subsequently described as two different (if somewhat related) natural processes: "Like green fruit ripening /... / darkening, gaining strength and depth / like an excellent wine."

In the course of this brief survey through Willard's poetry we have seen the numerous parallelisms between her poetry and Elizabeth Bishop's, marked by the return to a universe of innocence once lost and now recovered in her pages. Folktales and fairytales are given a new life in her poetry, and her acute visual imagination produces connections between even the most disparate common objects and situations. With an idiom and diction not too far away from her own production for children, Willard manages to bring us back to a childhood that is substantially less tortuous than Bishop's and marked by a seemingly inexhaustible fantasy where everything is possible.


Autor:Ernesto Suárez Toste (Universidad de Castilla la Mancha)