Book Review: You Can Make Your Own Rose (Andrea Nicki)
Reviewed by Michael Northen
The title of Andrea Nicki's third book of poetry You Can Make Your Own Rose contains within it hints of the contradictory nature of the book itself. Roses – at least until the advent of CRISPR – are not made things, but living organisms that grow. Even before opening to the first page, the author's ambivalent metaphor prepares the reader for much of what they will encounter in this volume.
After the initial paragraph in which she catalogs the many topics and sources of her poems, Nicki's "Foreword" focuses in on the need for writing about incest rape: "my main motivation was to emphasize girls' innocence and agency and present girls as resilient, intelligent and reasonable." In our current political climate, this is both a laudable and ambitious, goal. One immediately thinks of organizations such as Split This Rock that forefront such poetry of response and resistance. Indeed, in the same paragraph, Nicki labels her work "poems about social justice issues" and rejects the notion that such poems are primarily therapeutic. Fair enough. The problem is that most of the poems in You Can Make Your Own Rose come across as therapeutic.
It is unfortunate that Nicki seems to feel that poems serving a therapeutic function are somehow "less than" poems that announce themselves as having a political purposes. Certainly writers like Sylvia Plath didn't think so. Indeed, most poems written, other than those whose primary purpose is exploration of language or poetry aesthetics in themselves tend to be therapeutic in that they are the working out of individual issues, concerns and questions. This is not to deny that the personal can be political, but in the case of this volume, two other aspects of the book argue that the primary purpose is therapeutic. The first is the book's subtitle: poems and meditations. Meditation is a deeply personal activity and rarely a call for common cause. The second is that the narrative trajectory of the book. Despite the four section division, it essentially follows the poet's personal life experiences. One really wishes that the author had simply foregone the "Foreword" and let readers decide for themselves what the poems had to say to them.
Having said that, the primary value of You Can Make Your Own Rose is probably not that it will raise social consciousness or further women's rights, but that the ambivalence in individual poems may cause readers to think about how they might have articulated those concerns or issues themselves.
As mentioned, the book is divided into four parts that more or less follow events in the author's life. True to its title, the first section "Girl" contains poems about Nicki's childhood. It is also the section that most closely adheres to what she promised in the "Foreword" and contains the majority of the book's poems about childhood incest and abuse. These are among the strongest poems in the book. Nicki is at her best when she is simply describing and the first lines of the book's first poem set up a nice ironic contrast to what is to follow:
Room with pink walls
The poem around which all of the others in this section revolve is "Nightcrawlers" in which the author describes to a therapist the first instance of her father's sexual abuse. Her analogy of her father's penis as "the snake that caused Adam and Eve to lose Paradise" is an evocative one, and certainly the possible starting point for many a discussion. The closing poem of the section nicely titled "Family Stories" contrasts the childhood family gatherings in which she has to listen to others, holding in all of her own personal experiences, and the small gatherings for incest survivors in where she can tell her own story. It is a poem that sets the reader up to understand much of the tension between public persona and private uneasiness that pervades the remainder of the book.
Contrary to what most readers of poetry have come to expect, the second section and title section of the book is probably its least satisfying. It is a miscellany of several random poems including three "Blond Mirage" poems that vaguely deal with conventional male concepts of feminine beauty. Perhaps the most interesting poem in this group is "Dear Goddess" in which Nicki appropriates a traditional Medieval Christian style invocation for forgiveness to claim that she has let herself suffer too much at the hands of others. Though the goddess is unnamed, the last poem in the section would lead us to believe it is Artemis – an appropriate choice under the circumstances. Have quiver, will travel.
The volume's third section "Academic Dialogue" picks up the author's life story again, this time covering the years of her teaching career and pivoting around her dismissal from a university. This section gives readers several chances to consider what it is that makes a good poem. My favorite in the group is "Student Evaluations: Woman Professor." It consists of a list of sentences that appear to actually be from student evaluations forms. The reason that this poem works is that in the body of the poem itself, Nicki makes no attempt to interpret for the reader nor has she tried to stack the deck in her favor. It is a case where – on the surface at least - readers are allowed to draw their own conclusion. Unfortunately, the author undermines the process, by the inclusion of "Woman Professor" in the title when there is nothing in the poem itself to suggest that any of the concerns of the students had to do with her being a woman. Whether this is simply the lack of restraint or a deliberate attempt to suggest that the reason she was let goes is that she is a woman, it detracts from the poem. Adding to the interest of "Student Evaluations" is the poem "Existentialism" from the book's final section where she critiques one her former teachers:
In his courses he made us re-enact the myth of Sisyphus
In the spirit of "what goes around comes around" this parallelism creates a certain irony in her own situation.
I want to cite one other poem that offers another example of what, for me, is problematic in many of the poems in this book. It is in the poem called "Academic Dialogue":
He wants me to listen to
Here again the title creates a nice irony. I love this image of the freezer with the cold issuing forth; it is powerful "in your face" reply to the dismissive attitude that prompts it. The bad news is the poet could not stop the poem here. She had to tack on three additional self-serving lines that trivialized what she had just accomplished. This tendency to undercut what she has built up poetically by commenting on it in the last few lines is one of the major stumbling blocks to achieving poems with real emotional force.
The book's final section "Midway to Cronehood" picks up after the poet's dismissal from her teaching position and looks towards ways of recreating herself. Though there is kind of a New Age feel to most of her activities, she seems primarily to find direction in nature and dance, with the last few poems returning to themes around her father and her childhood experiences. The final poem aims at Trump, an easy but deserved target.
Among the many questions that You Can Make Your Own Rose allows writers to ask them is the age old one, what makes a piece of writing a poem? Perhaps it is a straw question to which the facile answer is that a poem is a poem if its author calls it one. Most people with an interest in poetry, though, do have a sense of what constitutes a poem for them. "Existence" which I referred to as a poem previously begins:
When I was young I was hungry for book knowledge
Regardless of how well they are written, do these lines look as though they are building to a poem? If we met them in a conversation on the street or formatted as a paragraph in a notebook, would we recognize them as one? Nicki herself avoids the need to make that claim with her subtitle "Poems and Meditations." It's a blurring of lines that in many contexts frees writer from categories, allowing good writing to come into being regardless of how it is classified. At the same time, for those who call themselves poets it is one of the occasions the book provides to examine the underpinnings of their own aesthetic.
One of endorsements on the back cover of You Can Make Your Own Rose includes a quote from Toni Cade Bambara, "The job of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible." It is clear from Andrea Nicki's "Foreword" that she concurs with Bambara's view. The problem for the author is that after she has taken them on them on this journey through her life, the reader is still left to ask, "but how does a poet accomplish that?"
Title: You Can Make Your Own Rose