Book review of Talking Diamonds

A Review of Talking Diamonds, Linda Nemec Foster’s new collection of poems.

By Oriana Ivy

The typical poem in this beautiful collection by Linda Nemec Foster, her eighth book, is quiet, elegant, and wise. These poems do not shout; they whisper – about aging and dying, a mother’s frightful dementia (the mother no longer recognizes her daughter and calls her “Mom”), deformed children who are nevertheless a gift, and dead stars whose light still travels to us. They are filled with small, uncanny observations, for instance the demented mother saying “What a glorious burden” to the living room wall.

It is the poet’s gift of compassion that makes such poems not only bearable, but a pleasure to read. For instance, we learn that the mother’s own mother died when her daughter was only fifteen.

But me, I heard my mother calling
my name every day long after
we buried her . . . Always
the same voice from that dark place.
`Helen, Helen.’ Her voice so clear
as if she was in the basement
calling me down to help her fold
clean, white sheets.

This is heartbreak presented in the most intimate, quiet voice. In a later poem, just as quietly, we are told her mother was conceived to take the place of two daughters who previously died. It’s all muted colors and gray sky. A new kind of trinity presides over this volume: Mother, Daughter, and the Spirit “where everything begins and nothing ends.”

Linda Nemec Foster’s other great gift is her sensitivity to the astonishing in unlikely settings.

. . . nothing prepares you for this vision:
Our Lady of Guadalupe on Waikiki.
A blue ocean away from where she
first appeared to that dirt-poor
Indian peasant on Tepeyac Hill,
you can’t miss her shape of glorious
colors coming toward you: deep teal,
bright vermilion, bronzed gold tattooed
on the chest of a huge Mexican from Baja.
Even his back is emblazoned with her back
and you’re stunned by the accuracy
of detail; the little angel at her feet
holding a sliver of the crescent moon
as if she were a living, breathing icon.
. . .
This ocean, this beach at your feet
as if she were Boticelli’s Venus
washed ashore with the sea foam,
washed ashore for your approval.
And you tell yourself this isn’t a miracle,
only a tattoo; this isn’t anything
extraordinary, only your life

Here is a poet who is always prepared for miracles, and who recognizes the deep affinity between Venus on her shell and Our Lady on the Crescent, typical of the icons of the Black Madonna. In another unforgettable poem, “The Blind and the Lame Swim at the Y,” the transformation is even more startling:

But it’s the crippled girl
with a slash for a mouth
that amazes the water. Tiny
deformed feet that curl
like tender shells forgotten
on some deserted beach,
become the shining, sleek fins
of a mermaid’s tail.

The poem ends with a stanza of skillfully wrought wisdom: mothers will accept their handicapped children “without regret” –

Because the secret heart of every
fairy tale is locked deep within
these children. Because this heart
beats in goodness which is rarer
than perfection. Because this heart
is like water: uncaring yet
kind, transparent yet full.

Among my favorite poems is “Red Amaryllis, 1937,” honoring an art lover, a man who even in a strip joint behaves in a courtly manner:

When a black girl
with erect nipples came to dance inches from your face,
you stood up, took her hand, and began to waltz.
. . . After the waltz, you kissed her hand.
She said her name was Jasmine. Flower of night air
and moonlight, you replied.

Another favorite is “The Nature of the Beast,” with these lines about a cat bringing its offering of a nestling it killed:

But remember how it holds the gift
tenderly in its mouth, approaching
you like a child, a lover who wants
to give you the gift of its wildness.

Poetry is not the things themselves, it is in how we respond to them – quietly, lovingly, without judgment or bitterness, only with compassion and understanding, Linda Nemec Foster teaches us. In spite of heartbreak, there is beauty and grace in life. Everything can be transformed, transfigured into brilliance. In the title poem of the collection, she imagines diamonds talking

about their lives underground.
Never are they bitter or angry. Nor do they
even curse those dark
memories of suffocating black. They know
every facet of their brilliance began as mere
coal – a mere dark fist waiting
for a chance to be something
other than ordinary.

But then it turns out that nothing is merely ordinary. Simply to wake up to another day is already extraordinary, if we have the eyes to see. Linda Nemec Foster certainly has the eyes that are always ready for miracles, and the words with which to describe them. Through her, we see that life is indeed a glorious burden – with equal emphasis on “burden” and “glorious.”

____________________

The book is available from Amazon and New Issues Press. To see more about Linda Nemec Foster, I encourage readers to checkout her website.

Poet Oriana Ivy blogs about poetry at Oriana-Poetry. Her translations of Zbigniew Herbert are available at Scream Online. Some of her poems are also available. online. A powerful sequence about her Polish grandmother appears here. Her poem “My America” about discovering America for herself is available at her blog.

Originally Published by Writing the Polish Diaspora, click here to view article.

Linda Nemec Foster’s poetry collection ‘Talking Diamonds’ sparkles with brilliance

“Talking Diamonds” proves to be a fitting title for Linda Nemec Foster’s latest collection of poetry as the poems within sparkle with brilliance.

Honored as a finalist in ForeWord Magazine’s 2010 Book of the Year Award in Poetry, “Talking Diamonds” is arguably Foster’s strongest collection yet — quite a feat for Grand Rapids’ former poet laureate, who adds this, her ninth collection of poems, to her lengthy list of literary accomplishments.

“This was such a labor of love for me, to do this particular book,” Foster said. “When I was putting the manuscript together, I was thinking, ‘There are a lot of dark poems here — about death, my mother’s dementia.’ … Whenever I hear reactions, it makes me feel so good, because it was a challenge to put the book together, some of the poems were not easy to write.”

Although Foster rightly describes the collection as dark, the warmth of her works brings light to the darkness. The poetry here is emotional and moving, the way Lake Michigan moves, slowly and gracefully, a blend of cool swirls bearing shimmers of sunlight.

Among her best here is “Red Amaryllis, 1937,” named for the title of a painting by Georgia O’Keefe and representative of Foster’s gift for ekphrastic writing.

Written for a friend who died 15 years ago, the poem details a real-life experience in which her friend accepted an exotic dancer’s request to dance for him by taking her hand and leading her in a waltz.

The poem for which the collection was named, “Talking Diamonds,” is a pensive piece, bearing a sense of rebirth and desire to be extraordinary:

“They know every facet of their brilliance began as mere/coal — a mere dark fist waiting/for a chance to be something other than ordinary.”

In the final words of the poem, it is revealed that not just diamonds underground become greater than they are, but so do we in the human realm, who similarly wait to awaken.

Filtering through the collection are glimmers of Foster, herself. Although “Talking Diamonds” is filled with poems for people in her life and works of art that served as inspirations for her poems, we still see the artist standing beside the finished work.

“I Enter my Mother’s Dementia” explores her relationship with her mother, through mention of the present and a reflection back to 1974. “The Third Secret of Fatima” reveals her Catholic background (Foster is an Aquinas College alumna).

Another glimpse of the artist here is reminiscent of her book, “Amber Necklace from Gdansk.” We see pieces of amber scattered throughout this newest collection, a reminder of Foster’s rich, Polish heritage.

Even longtime devotees of Foster’s will close the cover of “Talking Diamonds” impressed by how sharply the local poet has honed her craft.

Her works here are exceptional and gleaming, serving as a reminder that even experts can excel beyond their own greatness.

“I chose every word. Every word is meant to be there,” Foster said.

E-mail the author of this story: [email protected]

Originally Published by The Grand Rapids Press, click here to view article. 

Featured Poet Linda Nemec Foster on Through the 3rd Eye

The Fear of Vacuum Cleaners

Ah, little one of the deep fish-eye,
little dreamer of the night and the day

and the night. You stare at this new
world of air, earth, and light,

wonder at the simplest things.
How a green tendril can sprout

from black ground. The deafening
sound a vacuum cleaner makes.

A sound you cannot bear
to hear: terror of the deep wind

sucking you up into a dark
place that holds no memory.

Legend says the still unborn
can see with closed eyes, possess

a look of surprise as they
peer from thin sacs covering

their shrunken bodies like shrouds
or wedding veils. Ah, little one,

when the vacuum cleaner looms
from its black closet-home

and you cannot blink your eyes,
do you remember the legend?

Climbing Harney Peak, Black Hills, South Dakota

The rain lasted all morning,
ending in a mist, its silence
more complete than the rocks.

We start the climb after
the clouds break, leaving a blue
that defines the very edge of things.

Half-way to the summit, we stop,
drink clear water with cupped hands,
our mouths touching the stream.

For the Lakota tribe,
this barren place of black trees
was the center of the world.

At the top, we finger its scars:
graffiti, broken glass. The abandoned
air and dark pines breathe through us.

Below, the world is invisible.
Our children, all those we have named,
impossible to know from this height.

As we descend, the mist returns
to claim us. How it knows our voices,
our very shapes. So little have we changed.

Housework

The fact that your mother loves it
automatically makes you hate it:

her obsession for ironing underwear
and hankies and bed sheeets. She cared
whether or not you had a crisp crease

in your white panties. No matter
that it was invisible to everyone else.

Scrubbing the attic floor once a week
and the dishes five times a day
left time for nothing else, which suited
her just fine. And the fact that you
spent infinite hours composing term papers
and got a master’s degree from some
uppity New England college that no one
in Ohio has heard of means nothing

to her. Who cares if you can read well
or write better? The window sills in your
house are still cluttered with dying
plants, dust, chipped porcelain.
No husband. She reminds you with every
refusal to come and check for herself.

Poet and writer Linda Nemec Foster is the author of seven poetry collections, including the critically acclaimed Amber Necklace from Gdansk. She recently served a two-year term as Poet Laureate of the City of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Originally Published by Lucid Rhythms, click here to view page.

Linda Nemec Foster: Zbigniew Herbert in My Life

Linda Nemec Foster: Zbigniew Herbert in My Life

I first read the poetry of Zbigniew Herbert in the late 1970’s when I was in graduate school studying for my MFA in creative writing at Goddard College in Vermont. As part of the degree requirement, students had to teach a graduate level course to their fellow students and faculty members. My master’s thesis was on the poet Rainer Maria Rilke and my first thought was to teach a class on a subject I really knew well–Rilke. But my faculty adviser, Stephen Dobyns, told me that was “the easy way out.” When Dobyns discovered that I was of Polish heritage, he told me to teach a class on what he considered to be the best poetry being written on the planet: contemporary Polish poetry. So I immersed myself in reading all the Polish poetry in translation I could get my hands on and decided to concentrate on teaching Milosz, Rozewicz, and Herbert for my class. The experience was a touchstone for my graduate work and my poetry. Although Milosz won the Nobel Prize in Literature the following year (1980), my favorite was always Herbert. Herbert–with his historical irony and precarious equilibrium that (as Milosz has stated) “endows the patterns of civilization with meanings, in spite of all its horrors.” Herbert’s poem, “Apollo and Marsyas,” is the perfect example of this precarious balance. In 2000 I visited Warsaw for the first time. There, at the Adam Mickiewicz Museum of Literature, I saw a remarkable exhibition devoted to Zbigniew Herbert’s life and work, his poems and critical writings. In a glass case–inches from my hands–I saw first drafts of some of Herbert’s more famous poems. In his own handwriting, there was “Apollo and Marsyas.” Right before my eyes. I was so overwhelmed, it literally took my breath away.

Linda Nemec Foster
A Man Praying in a Field
He could be dead, this man praying in the open
field between Warsaw and Poznan. He doesn’t
merely kneel, but lies down and places his
whole body against the body of the earth: as if
he’s listening for some small breath to match his
own. This is how people must have prayed
to their gods before the idea of God forced them
into small country churches and ornate urban
cathedrals. Before the invention of pulpit and
incense and the creation of man on a ceiling
in Rome. Here there is only the hard earth and
a man lying down to pray to it. He wears a dark
suit, black shoes, his hands open in supplication.
You cannot see his face, hidden as it is by
the coarse wild grass he worships. Soon dusk
will approach the man and call his name. Only then
will he rise from his prayer as if startled from sleep.
Barely remembering who he is, he walks away–
each foot lightly touching the ground.

(This piece was first published in Witness, vol. XXI, 2007)

After the Thunderstorm: For Zbigniew Herbert
After the thunderstorm, your city is filled with a glaring sun
and devastating blue sky. After the thunderstorm, no more gray
clouds: only old men with talking parrots entertaining
the tourists. After the thunderstorm, Polish percussion groups
play American music: vibes, drums, and xylophones
from Lublin perform West Side Story. After the thunderstorm,
buildings are rebuilt according to the original medieval plan
and people return to the city to inhabit them again: to live,
breathe, love, hate, die. After the thunderstorm, we eat special
noodles cooked with chipped beef and fresh vegetables.
We drink iced water and strong beer. We’re given an exorbitant
tab for the meal, but pay without complaint. After the thunderstorm,
we don’t mind. After the thunderstorm, we don’t care about history
or consequence. Only about love: who has it and who doesn’t.
After the thunderstorm, we marvel every day at the rising of the sun,
the clarity of the moon, the distant brilliance of the stars.
After the thunderstorm, we keep looking at our hands to see
if we’re still alive. And, yes, by the most smallest of miracles,
we are. We are.

Originally Published by The Scream Online

Linda Nemec Foster on Verse Daily

Linda Nemec Foster received her M.F.A. in creative writing from Goddard College in Vermont. She is the author of eight collections of poetry including Living in the Fire Nest, Amber Necklace from Gdansk, and Listen to the Landscape. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals including The Georgia Review, Nimrod, Quarterly West, New American Writing, and North American Review. Foster’s work has also been translated and published in Europe, exhibited in art galleries, and produced for the stage. She has won awards from the Michigan Council for the Arts, ArtServe Michigan, the Arts Foundation of Michigan, the National Writer’s Voice, and the Academy of American Poets. From 2003-05 she was selected to serve as the first poet laureate of Grand Rapids, Michigan.Other poems by Linda Nemec Foster in Verse Daily:
September 15, 2003: “After the War: Purple Flowers Spilling from the Windows” “In Poland, the land takes over everything…”

About Talking Diamonds:

“In ‘Vision,’ one of many arresting poems in Talking Diamonds, Linda Nemec Foster’s protagonist sees Our Lady of Guadalupe in an unlikely Hawaiian setting. Half-waking from reverie, “she recognizes that the Virgin is in fact tattooed, front and back, on a native man: `And you tell yourself this isn’t a miracle,’ she writes, `only a tattoo; this isn’t anything/extraordinary, only your life …’ But that is precisely what makes her new collection so compelling: from what Wordsworth called the simple produce of the common day-a child’s piano recital, a family photograph, a wretched piece of motel art-Foster exacts an energy that is, precisely, visionary, even miraculous. This is an effort so widespread in contemporary poetry as itself to seem a commonplace, and one that generally fails. Not so in Talking Diamonds, which challenges, intrigues, awes, and ultimately gratifies, poem after excellent poem.”
—Sydney Lea

“A humanist at heart, Linda Nemec Foster has demanded from her poetry an artfulness that engages ordinary life. With each new book her work has continued to mature, deepen, console, surprise, and Talking Diamonds is as wise as it is lovely.”
—Stuart Dybek

“In this luminous new book of poems, Linda Nemec Foster shows us that there are no `ordinary’ lives, that each life is meaningful ansl even magical, whether we know itor not.-The brilliance and power of Foster’s language, which has been evident in earlier volumes, is even stronger in this book.”
—Lisel Mueller

Originally Published by Verse Daily, click here to view article.