Jean Nordhaus was born in Baltimore,
Maryland, studied philosophy at Barnard College, and received her doctorate in
modern German literature from Yale University. Her most recent book of poems, Innocence, won the Charles B. Wheeler prize from
The Ohio State University Press and was published in November 2006. Milkweed
Editions published her previous book, The Porcelain Apes of Moses
Mendelssohn in November
2002. Other books include My Life in Hiding (Quarterly Review of Literature, 1991), A
Bracelet of Lies (Washington
Writers' Publishing House, 1987) and two chapbooks, A Purchase of Porcelain and A Language of Hands.
Her poems have appeared in many journals,
including American Poetry Review,
The Hudson Review, The
New Republic, Ploughshares,
Poet Lore, Poetry, and Prairie
Schooner, and were
chosen for Best American Poetry 2000 and the
2007 Pushcart Prize Anthology.
In addition, she has published numerous articles, essays, and dance reviews in
the Washington Post,
the Washington Review, Poet Lore,
and the PSA Bulletin.
From 1980 to 1983, and again in
1991-1992, she administered the poetry programs at the Folger Shakespeare
Library in Washington, D.C. While at the Folger in 1982-83, she also
administered the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. From 1988 through the spring
of 1994, she served as President of Washington Writers' Publishing House, a
cooperative poetry press. A selection of her Moses Mendelssohn poems won the
1997 Edward Stanley Award from Prairie Schooner. She is currently Prose Editor for Poet
listing on the Poetry Foundation's website:
Commentary and selections
Nordhaus' poems are characterized by a quiet humility of attention, a dedication
to the truthfulness of memory which allows the details of experience to rise .
. . . Her poems seem to have
ridden the wake of a great silence or calm before they're begun.
review of Innocence in
The Montserrat Review:
Nordhaus writes poems in an arrangement of stillness. She finds favor with
serenity. Maybe this is because Nordhaus knows what to leave out of a poem.
Only the seasoned writer trusts the reader, believes in invisible bridges, and
knows the reader of poetry is as smart as the writer. Jean Nordhaus is a deeply
intuitive poet. She moves to the center of the hearth without clutter or
clumsiness. And it is hearth, the Latin root word for "focus," that
is in her poems. Jean writes from matrimony, monogamy, daughterhood, and those
cultural experiences so many of us share. What remains on the page, however,
makes Jean her own poet, and so the poem remains uninfluenced by outside
conditions. She may write about the world, but the work remains private and
untouched by the forces pulling on her. Perhaps what we have here is an independent
woman. Complexity is made simple in a speech aloof from the ordinary. Whatever
the outer life is or was—we have dignity, detachment and the necessary strength
to be autonomous.
Mark Jarman, The
The Porcelain Apes of Moses Mendelssohn, Jean Nordhaus has made a valuable contribution to the
poetic sequence as spiritual biography.
Milne Holton, Prairie
. . . knowledge of German poetry (her doctoral dissertation at Yale was on
Brecht)—of poets like Kleist and Trakl—has brought to her own writing something
of their capability in the ordering of symbolic image . . . in the fineness of
her ear, in her graceful and appropriate rhythms, and in the perfection of her
lining there is every evidence of an acute awareness of . . . the musical
dimension in poetry.
introduces her selection of poems from her books:
There is a
certain "poem feeling" I've come to recognize, not unlike the
physical sensations by which Emily Dickinson knew poetry or those symptoms
which A.E. Housman complained kept him from shaving. It can sometimes feel
like a rush of malevolent glee—the madness of Max in the night kitchen—or the
jolt you get at a school reunion when you recognize a face you hadn't seen in
years, as if you'd been carrying it around unknowingly inside your brain all
this time and only been waiting for the stimulus that would fire off that
particular set of neurons. In many cases there is a congruence of something
outside—a word or a smell or a taste—with something internal and long hidden.
The sensation is not always the same, and not necessarily the same now as when
I started to write, but always there is a physical excitement—a sense of being
I think it is
this sense of congruence, of recognition, that charges the poem, and I think
that recognition occurs, in the best cases, at both ends of the process: in the
writer at the outset of the poem and, if the poem is successful, in the reader
as well. I don't know exactly what this process has to do with "making it
new" in the grander sense, but I do know that if I follow the thread of this
feeling—and follow it truly—through the verbal maze which it constructs as I go
along, it will lead me to a place that is both new and strangely familiar.
Many of the
poems chosen below (most of them from earlier books) reflect a mood of profound
astonishment, a mood I recall from earliest childhood and retain to this day,
puzzlement at how strange, to borrow a word from Elizabeth Bishop, "how
'unlikely'" this life seems: the trajectory of the body through time, the
volatility and unreliability of emotion, the fragility of human happiness.
Many, I notice, are about art: theater,
literature as tools of the spirit, ways of responding to the mystery of our
life in time.
I've just seen Cave
of Forgotten Dreams,
Werner Herzog's documentary film about the 32,000-year-old Chauvet cave
paintings, a brilliant meditation on time and art. In the final frame, the
camera lingers movingly on an image of the imprint of a human hand. Sometimes I
think of these poems as handprints on the cave wall, my way of saying, "Hey,
it's me. I was here."
Selections from Jean Nordhaus' books of poetry:
I Am Talking to You about
The butcher has gone mad and begun to write.
He has taped a yellow envelope of poems
to his meat-case window with a sign
saying, Take one. And if you obey,
you will find yourself collared
by a man with rumpled hair, a cleaver of light
in his pale blue eyes. See? He will say.
Do you see? His poems are pencilled
in a rough hand, signed like gospel:
Mark, and this is Mark,
who stops you, breathing like a bull
from two soft nostrils, who perspires, who
is talking to you about Love, who is happy,
whose happiness feels like hunger and if you do
accede on the spot, he might
love you too hard, he might stuff you
back down in the sausage. Yes.
In the shadowy meat-case his ham hocks
and knuckles lie bloodless, pale. Voices
have entered this man and fill him
beyond skin's endurance. And now,
you too hear voices: Back away! Away!
As you ride home, an irate traffic sign
shouts STOP. A bright red canister
of chemicals abandoned on your doorstep
reads: IN CASE OF FIRE. For the butcher,
you think. And then, Have mercy.
Last night happiness
got loose, a clumsy
through the house, upending
baskets, toppling lamps.
My son brought home
a good report. A package
came. My sensitive tooth
and accepted hunger
welcoming warm and cold.
Abandoning their ancient
feud, the children turned
and kissed each other
bumping tooth and gum.
Happiness! Keep the lid on,
The pots replied
with a flourish of cymbals
and all the good times gone
came flooding back.
The dead rose lively as a wind
scoured the house
and entered the garden
ravaging the cabbages in rows.
The carrots spread their tendrils in the dirt
and burrowed deeper. And the radishes,
the ruby radishes
shut their red eyes in the dark
and began to weep.
from the Cave
Crouched at the top,
I can see only the bottoms of things
cut in half by a turn of the stair—
a rank of olive carpet treads,
half a doorway and the skirts
of chairs, my mother's shoes and ankles
as she passes deviled eggs, the crystal
chandelier dispensing trapezoids
of amethyst and amber light.
I hear my parents and their friends
conversing in a strange, new tongue, voices
rising to a fierce crescendo.
Bernie Goldbloom barks like a seal.
A low growl blossoms into gibbon-shrieks.
They are telling dirty jokes.
I am clean, maidenly
in my flannel gown, avid
to know. My perfect feet
encased in slippers. Soft down
covering my arms and legs.
Wolf Ears, they will
when they find me here. My father
has black hair all over his body.
I love him hopelessly, without reason
or measure. Sometimes when my mother passes close,
I catch the pungent scent of bear.
Now I take my turn in the lit room
at the oval table, reciting
my name. I have breasts.
I break bread with my hands.
I pass the platter of chicken or lamb.
At the punch-line, I laugh
with the others. What little
I know, I know
indirectly. Outside are shadows
and sirens. Cars and searchbeams
cast the only light. Eyes wild
with fear, the stunned doe
sinks to her knees, offers a throat
to the rain.
Above the Mines
This time you live
in a mining camp
a child among men
consigned to darkness--Czechs,
Bulgarians, Swedes, Norwegians
hard lives pressed
under leagues of shale, rock
the common tongue. Dakota
Mining and Mineral plucked them
from the hills of Europe, from lichen
villages curling like smoke
along rock ledges, snatched them
from carved wood houses, from
ladders of kinship and custom
and set them like checkers
on squared lots. Day.
Night. Half a life underground,
half a life sleeping. Buffalo
wind in the hinges. Dreams rising
in a dozen languages.
You are the one who knows English, the fingerling
born to it, fish in a stream
that lowers itself over rocks on clear ropes
to the lake below, bearing crayfish and bottlecaps
orange pebbles veined with silver. Reaching
your hand, large under water,
you lead these immigrants, groping
into your language, breaking a path
of raft, rope, shuttle, and flight
with your small breath. With your small breath
you are luck's canary, alive to the tiniest whispers,
ramps of light.
In gratitude they bring you raisins
and sour candies, perfect arrowheads
of flint or chert. They bring thumbtricks
and whistles, a turtle closed
tight as a fist, loose loops of a snake
sliding over your wrist, green
bracelets for Peter, translator
to miners with sledgehammer hands.
they take you along
past gray slag
heaps to where the scaffolding
begins—a line of banks and windows, doors
on hinges, balustrades,
smear of color on rain-washed billboards,
She waits in her cubby, a sweet-
shop Hecuba circled
with trinkets and news
wearing stripes that follow
the curve of her body in waves.
She is puffed like a pigeon.
They want to lie down and sleep
but they are afraid
of her soft, white arms
the pouter-folds of skin around her elbows.
Coming over on the ship
they watched green water swelling
mile on mile of jagged glass
first small and sharp, then looming
heaving them up
and letting them fall; her body
is like that.
Because of the waves
and their heavy tongues
because their hands are shovels
you must speak for them.
Dispatched with a coin and a wink,
you are careful when you pay
to touch her hand.
To the east, the Bear
is rising, and the air
deepens from quartz
to cobalt as you start back
past balusters and fading lights
to where the scaffold ends—
sudden as a well.
You become a frog and sink, deeper,
deeper until, halfway home, the sky
is black as the inside of a mine
and from your shaft
you watch the Virgin and the Huntsman
speechless rivals, wheeling
over the valley.
Eyes large as soup bowls
bones light as prayer
how do you leap, boy
weighed with stones
so many souls, the armies
in your care?
Over a charred field
through scurvy grasses, water-
and-light-starved you go
following music. Accordion
Music sits on the back porch
bald among lilies
an old man with hair on his face
a carnival between his hands.
He sucks in the hot
yellow air and lets it out again
cool and blue as evening. Inland
he draws an ocean sound.
And you at his knees in the ebb and swirl
are part of everything that moves,
a membrane vibrating and expanding.
Wind catches in your mouth
and swells your lungs
until you breathe with it:
in- out- in- out-
Some years from now your one-reed voice
will open like a fan.
Your chest, a bellows
will make sounds like these.
On days when Music's
was full of curses, sounds
rushed back into the box
like wind and rain.
While Music slept, his notes
lay scattered in darkness,
small white bones.
Curious, you fingered the keys.
No boats. No water.
in his delirium, the old man
tears his music box apart. He swears
there is a tiny woman
deep inside he wants
Now he hurls the box
against the rail, and now
he stomps it, stomps.
Rough dark groans
push up from the bellows.
Your own man-voice
Though you are half a child
and leaving soon, you know
what you must do. It is like swimming down
through warm currents and cold
to find a coin, the same dream every night
as if our lives depended on it.
Pushing through vines
you find the narrow entrance
to the shaft and struggle down
from chamber to chamber—
She waits suspended
wreathed in white
a figure of perfect repose
weaving a net or spinning
or simply rehearsing
a tune in her mind.
You know if you can touch her hand
the music will begin again
so you push on, deeper,
through dark tunnels
toward the lighted room
the nickel clutched tight in your palm.
Sound: Seventeen Year Cicadas
The sound was sultry, loud, a steady
sexual hum, swelling, receding, swelling again,
the whole world throbbing like a single animal,
the clumsy creatures, everywhere emerging—winged
beings, monstrous, but gentle, their bodiless shells,
translucent and perfect, littering the walk. Where
was my own sloughed carapace? I stood in my confused
flesh, new breasts budding against my will. The sound
was outside and inside at once—like plunging
into a warm sea not knowing skin from water.
All the next year, I could not get enough
of sleeping, rising briefly, sinking back down—
less depression than a larval lethargy. I lay on the beach,
my new curves nested in sand, heat baking my limbs.
My young brothers buried me. I let them.
They made a long corpse of me, a mummy case.
I barely stirred. I wanted to tunnel down
into the earth, a blind grub burrowing
without sense or thought or music toward the day when I'd awaken to my winged life.
When they came
breathing jasmine and raspberry,
tinkling the charms on their bracelets,
money and sweets
in the folds of their skirts,
heads haloed in lamps,
voices high and sweet as rosewater,
shedding powder and perfumed fur,
the wild smells gone
When bathed and barefoot
I curled in their caverns of fur
drowning in sweet,
foxes bit themselves
into chains around their shoulders,
jade eyes tracing the circle of years:
emphysema, insomnia, bad faith
powdered faces puckered, eyes
Turning into tigers
yellow as tallow
they chased each other
around the tree, tooth to tail
running faster, faster
blur of heat and wind until they—
butter, oh butter would, butter would
melt in the sweet, sweet caverns
of their mouths.
We drive to water
through second growth,
rivers of bluegrass
tumbling from the speaker.
Trees thwang past
like banjo strings, the crickets
Climbing with a camera,
as when carrying a child or trying out
a new, vulnerable limb,
we relearn the perils of walking,
cautious over rock. The trail
gropes for water,
runs ahead down blind
alleys of rock toward a promise
of green, climbs to reach
another outcrop, clear
at last. Along the bank, the rocks
lean out and point upstream
like cannon, single‑sighted
edging toward the rim
creeps forward hand by hand
then falters where the heart
drops away like a cliff
to a rope of silt‑green river
twisting in the gorge.
Hiking home through spangled woods,
we pass young couples
starting out with ropes.
They will lower themselves
like grasshoppers just for sport
over the sheerest cliffs,
the ones we couldn't contemplate,
run lightly up and down the strings.
If this is the
afterlife, they must be angels
in golden dust
their hair and
garments slightly mussed
from so much
still streaked with tears
Romeo, pale and
bemused, they do not seem,
now that they've
broken from the dream,
much more than
casual acquaintances, as if
away their old identities
and not yet
taken on the new.
Acrobats of love
and hate, how readily
themselves away. And yet
they rise, as we
do not. Paris,
as paper dolls,
across the stage
and bow — as if
this bending down,
this holding on,
might ask and grant
a mutual absolution.
And what of us
wedding night and tomb
into this after‑life
of everyday, the cold
walk home, our
stumbling words, the body
with its fear of
pain, its dread of annihilation.
How often have
we failed in love
as they did not.
Sign of Isadora,
my lonely mother
taught me dancing.
afternoon, her cleaning done.
We climbed to
the carpeted room
roof. Sunlight had entered
before us, warm
prayer rugs unrolled
carpet. We took off our shoes
and closed the
did, I repeated.
When she raised
to touch the
sky, I lifted mine.
If she bent low,
sweeping the grass
with her arms, I
did the same.
I would be
water. In me
she would watch
herself move between past
and future, my
figures hers began.
Now the waves
commenced whose origins
music, a rocking
like the motion
of a wing, the gesture
into mine, out
through my fingertips
Under the music tables and the sprung
black chairs, their shoes quiver and flap
like blackbirds' wings and the bowties
underneath their high wing collars
tremble like messages or things
that want to fly away.
The measure doubles, trebles,
thickens to a braid.
They pass it back and forth
across the table, weaving single strands
until the four dark men are bound fast
in wraps they have wound themselves
and struggle against thick ropes of sound.
They sway like rabbis, pull surprises
bending sharp as time heats up
and sixes rush to twenty-fours.
They counnt like misers. Blending
up and down the scale,
they pass through every shade
of innuendo, race from key to key,
try window, lock, and door until
Heads, fiddles, bows fling up
in one sharp, spasmodic throw.
Like a mad pie, the parlor piece explodes
All the boats are bobbing in Nagasaki harbor.
Butterfly is waiting on her hill
for the Americans to come. Her obi
flutters in a breeze that gently stills as if
all breathing in the world had stopped.
yet the boats bounce gaily in the chop,
waving their colored flags. The tall Americans
will bring appalling news. Butterfly
will bend in grief to meet her knife.
All the boats are gone from Nagasaki harbor.
All the boats and all the water, all the faces
with their names. The Yanks have landed
with their sturdy "can-do," their capacity for
The people of Nagasaki have seen a great light
surrounded by a greater darkness. Here we might pause
to speak of irony, the difference between art
history, between one woman's harrowing
holocaust. Such niceties are neither here nor there
to Butterfly. For her, the heart is absolute,
and knowledge means obliteration.
All she needs to know of irony, she knows.
Widow Reads Robinson Crusoe
Islanded, he must have been surprised
as she to find herself alone
in a season when even the winged
seeds of the maple come paired.
She admires his ingenuity
and how, bereft, he never lacks for comfort
how from the wreckage of hope, he framed
a habitation, fortified it
with a palisade of still-green sticks
that rooted in a self-renewing wall.
How slowly, taking pains, he taught himself
to fire cooking pots of clay, grind flour
for bread. Inventing agriculture,
rediscovering animal husbandry
and tailoring, he built a life
not so unlike the life he'd left. Once
from a felled tree, he carved a boat
so big he couldn't drag it to the water.
Starting over, he dug a smaller
vessel he could launch—for time
was what he had—twenty-eight
years, long enough to marry
and to raise a child . . . .
It's night. The telephone lies still.
Beside her looms the empty bed
unmapped and dangerous
as sleep. And so she pulls the afghan close
settles her glasses on her nose and reads.
Richard Casting a Melon
First, the melon itself, a huge brain,
interior network of nerve and vein
externalized. Then, Richard's hands,
blunt, square, capable, mixing the powder,
slapping and smoothing the paste as if gently
spanking a baby's butt, hurrying
before the plaster sets. Now we wait
while the great, lobed fruit in its bandages
heats and cools, as if that primitive mind
were giving birth to a new idea—say, the Genius
of Fire, or the Notion of the Soul. Next
Baptism, total immersion in water,
the mummy raised in its coffin,
a cautious tapping along the seams, our delicate
intake of breath as the shell falls open
in three segments and the melon
is lifted out, lovelier than ever,
leaving its own memorial behind, a hollow
to this perfect, one-time-only melonness,
which can be filled and cast and filled
and so on down successive galleries
of absence and remembrance. Meanwhile the melon itself
is sliced and eaten. We do this
in the summer of our mother's death,
in the sweetness of flesh and the sharpness
of memory, here in the kitchen
where making begins.
Ladder and well
I know that I will never
reach that land
where word and world
are one, where a man
can lean out
like a ladle over water
and see clear to the bottom.
Stars and grains of sand
were promised, countless
generations. But I tell you
to be chosen is to live forever
in a state of longing.
And if I build the road
cobble by cobble,
I will never arrive. It is here
I must live, among chipped stones
and flints, weapons of need,
the mind's make-shift inventions.
Jewel in the eye,
Ladder stretching from
the floor of loneliness,
Milk of memory
and mercy's tide.
I have set my lookout here
upon the mountain
where I watch a fox-cloud
crossing over, blue
With all my gaze
I follow it—