Anne Harding Woodworth on Jean Nordhaus

Memos from the Broken World by Jean Nordhaus. Mayapple Press, 2016.

In Memos from the Broken World, each poem is a shard, and Jean Nordhaus carefully rebuilds to find shape and meaning. These poems, many of which are actually called memos, are reminders of the past, with which we have all broken, whether it’s a childhood, a home, a war, music, a story or history, to name only a few of the themes that this astute listener/observer contemplates. I know Jean Nordhaus and her work. With consummate craft she has been moving over the years toward the zenith that this book represents, which isn’t to say there won’t be more in the future.


The breakage in this collection is sometimes audible. In “Breaking Dishes” women carry unglazed plates down to where they will be glazed, and they bring the glazed bowls up. Kafka has inserted himself into this poem—and later in a second one by the same title—first by means of an epigraph about “girls in porcelain factories who incessantly throw themselves down the stairs with mounds of dishware” and then in the body of the poem. Broken dishware becomes the fractured light of a dark world. A married worker shatters platters in the night. Her patient husband sweeps up the smithereens. Moses threw the tablets down, and his laws were and are broken. Kafka is having coffee. The factory girls’ dishes are in pieces, as is the light, or the world, as the twentieth century reveals itself. “How to glue it back?” the poet asks.


And in this broken world, there are broken bodies, marriages, families, faiths, and broken or partitioned nations. “On the Road to Qumran,” Nordhaus gives us lovely fragments from Jerusalem and the desert of the West Bank, where she captures the mixture of cultures and religions. Within the fragments there are empty vessels, enemy dogs, a dead sea, a diaspora. With an echo of broken dishes, there is a crumbling that results from dehydration:


I am becoming dry and holy,

brittle as parchment

stored in a jar.


In those three short lines we are led inexorably to the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran Cave and the common cultural breakthrough that was discovery of the scrolls. In several of these fragments there’s the suggestion of war that breaks any society. On Bialik Street the house of poet Chaim Nahman Bialik is closed. A closed door breaks one’s intention of going inside. But outside, childhoods are broken by war—


A soldier carries a baby

in his arms, its fat legs

straddling his gun.


In the section called “Memo from the Grave” Nordhaus looks at herself from all angles, almost as if she’s looking in a cracked mirror. She sees herself as child, daughter, cousin, sister, mother, and grandmother. To her infant granddaughter, she writes:


On the evening you were born,

after the tremendous churning

that brought you forth, an owl

flew onto the rail of the balcony

where we sat . . .


*   *   *

 . . . Shades of my mother,

I thought, half-believing—the wide-

set eyes and level gaze.


*   *   *

                        . . . The dead are all around us

feathering the air with their wings.


And in their own way the dead—and memory—glue the pieces of a broken world. In almost all the memo poems, a line exhorts: “Do not forget.” This collection documents the broken world we live in. Nordhaus seeks to glue the pieces, but she will not let us forget that it is through fracture that we see the whole.

Anne Harding Woodworth is the author of five books of poetry, most recently, Unattached Male (Poetry Salzburg, 2014).



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Anne Harding Woodworth on Jean Nordhaus

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