Poet Jean Nordhaus distills a lifetime of experience in her ninth collection.
The title of Jean Nordhaus’s new collection suggests something light and lyrical – until you read the title poem and find yourself among the corpses in a concentration camp, at which point you understand that while the music of being is often harsh, atonal, dissonant, still we are meant for resolution, “to go on.” A lifetime of experience is distilled here, of all the things she recounts having been (“swaddled bundle,” “love quake,” “gestator”) or will go on to be (“a cane dibbler, a doughty dowager,” “a whisper / a breath among leaves”) in “I Was One”. This includes the chance that “Four Visas” might have made all the difference had hers been the family leaving loved ones behind to board “the final train” and lie among the corpses. Even so, she bids farewell to the tragic and troubled prior century with almost jaunty celebration of “your / restless hemlines, / your vaccines / and holocausts, / your trail / of obsolescent maps.” One section recounts the death of her husband after long marriage, forcing her to learn a new “Grammar of Grief,” but once more she finds perfect words to recall her former life, describing it as “a country / with a language only I speak. // It was a large enough space.” Even contemplating her own death, she determines “I mean to grow / a larger, shinier body” and to enter an endless past, “a kingdom crammed / with everything that ever was.” So in the end, even if not light these poems indeed are lyrical, filled with the music of being, “whether the voices / hold flowers or flames.”
Poetry. Family & Relationships. Jewish Studies.
”The poems in Jean Nordhaus’s ninth collection arise from a sensibility that is at once astute in its particulars and ample in its reach, arising as it does from a childhood lived in the shadow and aftermath of the Second World War and then by subsequent rites of passage deftly observed alongside external events—marriage and family, the hover of ancestral memory, ardent reading, late widowhood, and calm contemplation of her eventual end as “a death-canoe drifting asleep on my back.” In these times that bristle with young voices rightfully demanding their say, and with diverse histories fighting for a place in a divided culture even as many lessons of history are being denied or forgotten, this collection offers a long view rendered with elegant restraint, each poem fine-boned, wise, and inclusive—a still point amid the swirl.” —Leslie Ullman
”We can all find ourselves in the poetry of this captivating book, THE MUSIC OF BEING. In it, Jean Nordhaus dances, sings, grieves, listens and observes with boundless and unique imagination. She tells us of the tender voices she hears, ‘each one absolute in grief or joy.’ The voices are in a minor key, she says, while the poetry they enter, I say, is majorly enthralling from start to finish, through poems about childhood, family, marriage, friendship, history, spirituality, and loss. The heartbreaking title poem about the atrocities of genocide and war is testimony to the human desire for the continuation of life, which is the very music of being.” —Anne Harding Woodworth
”’The body / wants to go on, wants to take up the music / of being and go on,’ Jean Nordhaus tells us in the title poem of her remarkable new book which shows how ‘chant and song,’ a simple but fluent ‘grammar of grief,’ and unswerving persistence give us the courage and resilience to contend with the countermanding forces of ‘darkness and light.’ THE MUSIC OF BEING is written with clear and direct urgency, the result of Nordhaus’s own persistent attention to the forceful melodies of her experience.” —Michael Collier
Jean Nordhaus's previous books of poetry include MEMOS FROM THE BROKEN WORLD (Mayapple Press, 2016), My Life in Hiding (Quarterly Review of Literature, 1991), The Porcelain Apes of Moses Mendelssohn (Milkweed Editions, 2002), and Innocence, winner of the Charles B. Wheeler Award (Ohio State University Press, 2006). She has served as poetry coordinator at the Folger Shakespeare Library, President of Washington Writers' Publishing House, and, for eight years, as Review Editor of Poet Lore. She lives in Washington, DC.