From beer and cigarettes to memory and loss
Donald Nitchie. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Donald Nitchie, "Driving Lessons." Pudding House Publications, $10. 25 pp.
Plenty of beer and cigarettes find their place in the poems of Donald Nitchie's new chapbook, "Driving Lessons." But these traditional emblems of male bravado clothe the more profound sensibilities of an accomplished poet.
Mr. Nitchie, who lives in Chilmark with his wife Beth Parker, has been writing poems since high school. He pursued independent studies in poetry during his undergraduate days at Evergreen State College and received a masters in fine arts in poetry from Columbia University. He is the editor of the Banjo Newsletter, a monthly.
One of Mr. Nitchie's strengths is his skill at selecting the concrete details that bring to life the imagined world of the poem. Many such details illustrate the kind of masculine symbols this poet likes to play with. The title poem, "Driving Lessons," has its "Shit Happens" bumper sticker and Playboy key chain; a peanut-shelled floor shows up in "Town Affairs"; and "This week's Cases in District Court" describes the ne'er-do-wells who hang out in Oak Bluffs in "Happy Hour at the Ritz Café."
But the careful reader will quickly discover that far more lies beneath this surface. One of the most poignant in this slender collection of 19 poems is "Students Getting Off a School Bus in October."
Here Nitchie works with the image of schoolboys - it's hard not to think of them as exclusively boys, although that may not be the case at all -- who "fall out of the folding door one by one." The poet turns this poem into a narrative of childhood freedom, concluding, "I want to freeze this late afternoon/shaft of sun through the leaves - which suddenly reek with fragrance/as if these days are burning, and we are on fire." The sense of loss that comes with youth's passing becomes palpable, along with the poet's sensitivity to life's transience.
Lost youth recurs as a motif in other poems as well. "Princess" remembers the teenaged jezebel named after her daddy's bass boat, who used to slip out and meet the boys. Even "Beetlebung," overtly a paean to that gnarly Island tree genus, closes with an account of the young man who bragged about his driving exploits until "It took/ a patch of ice and an immovable trunk/ to finally knock some sense in him."
And the poet's dogs in "The Prodigals Return," "slinking hang-tailed through the door," come across like two misbehaving boys. The poet makes the connection to himself explicit in the lines, "they cleared the wall on the same breeze/ that once filled my own sail,/lifting the hairs on the back of my head."
The connections of family and friends find their way into many of Nitchie's poems. "Why am I thinking of you after so long?" he asks a friend at the start of "Visitation," and "Up In The Chiricahuas" reassures the poem's hikers, "We've still got each other."
Such connections and memories of them can help provide consolation for the romantic's reality-fed disappointments, and as hard-bitten as the realism in many of the poems is, Nitchie is at heart a romantic. In "Lee Street," he remembers the companionship a painting buddy offered, "as if we were involved/ in something we thought would last."
In "Watching The House Fall Into The Sea," he incorporates his mother's memories of what an uneroded coastline once looked like, with rocks that rose "like turtle-backs at low tide." This memory leads Nitchie to an acceptance of time's ravages and a sense of resolution: "And the moment we call 'now,'/like a wafer in the mouth,/gently dissolves."
As personal as many of Nitchie's poems may be, he shows another, more public, side in "Security Check-in" and "American Embassy, Sudan." The former takes a sardonic view of airline security procedures and leaves realism behind to re-imagine the process as one of passing through the portals of eternity. "American Embassy, Sudan" transplants a homesick American's sense of place abroad with a wry awareness of our nation's imperialism.
I belong to a poetry group of which Donald is a member, and I have learned to admire his insights, skill, and distinct style. My favorite poem in this new chapbook is "Directions." Its evocation of the new-boy-in-class's fears and uncertainty at nap time, when "he holds his head/ in his arms/and listens to the breathing/as if it could tell him/where he is going," is heartrending. Its tenderness demonstrates the deftness and confidence of a talented poet. I hope he gives us many more poems.