A CLOSER LOOK: Jean Nordhaus

photo by Phil Cantor

Sometimes I think of these poems as handprints on the cave wall, my way of saying, "Hey, it's me. I was here."

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 Lore.


Nordhaus' listing on the Poetry Foundation's website:




Commentary and selections from reviews:


Michael Collier:


Jean 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.


Grace Cavalieri review of Innocence in The Montserrat Review:


Jean 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 Hudson Review:                                   


With The Porcelain Apes of Moses Mendelssohn, Jean Nordhaus has made a valuable contribution to the poetic sequence as spiritual biography.


Milne Holton, Prairie Schooner:


Nordhaus' . . . 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.

Jean Nordhaus 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 "charged."    


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, music, 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 Love


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 not

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

spaniel skittering

through the house, upending

baskets, toppling lamps.


My son brought home

a good report. A package

came. My sensitive tooth

stopped throbbing

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,

I hollered.

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.



Notes 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 call me

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.  

Peter 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

matrix, mother-lode

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.




On Sundays

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,

rhinestone stars.


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

whiskey breath

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.


Another day

in his delirium, the old man

tears his music box apart. He swears

there is a tiny woman

deep inside he wants

to touch.


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

pushing out.




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.



The 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.

The Aunts


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

hot, perjured.


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

Sunday afternoons

through second growth,

rivers of bluegrass

tumbling from the speaker.

Trees thwang past

like banjo strings, the crickets

frail.  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

threads downstream,

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

while imagination

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.



Curtain Call


If this is the afterlife, they must be angels

wading knee‑deep in golden dust

their hair and garments slightly mussed

from so much struggle.


Juliet's face 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

they'd stripped away their old identities

and not yet taken on the new.


Acrobats of love and hate, how readily

they threw themselves away.  And yet

they rise, as we do not.  Paris,

Mercutio, placid as paper dolls,

join hands across the stage

and bow — as if this bending down,

this holding on, might ask and grant

a mutual absolution.  And what of us


expelled from 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.



Under the Sign of Isadora,


my lonely mother taught me dancing. 

It was afternoon, her cleaning done.

We climbed to the carpeted room

under the roof.  Sunlight had entered

before us, warm prayer rugs unrolled

on the carpet.  We took off our shoes

and closed the door.


Whatever she did, I repeated.

When she raised her arms

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 infant steps

continuing the figures hers began.

Now the waves commenced whose origins

pulsed before music, a rocking

like the motion of a wing, the gesture

swelling through her body

into mine, out through my fingertips

into the world. 



String Quartet


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

it breaks—


Heads, fiddles, bows fling up

in one sharp, spasmodic throw.

Like a mad pie, the parlor piece explodes

and blackbirds—collars—wings—


In Nagasaki

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.

And 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 harm.

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

and history, between one woman's harrowing

and 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.



A 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 faithful

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,


Ruby of




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


as smoke.  With all my gaze

I follow it—






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