Several years ago an 800-year-old pot was found on a Native American reservation in Wisconsin. Inside the pot were seeds from a now-extinct squash plant. However, when the seeds were planted they yielded a large and vibrant squash. The poems in Nance Van Winckel’s Our Foreigner remind us, not only of bygone eras, but also of people and things that might lie dormant for a while only to be re-awakened into a newer and perhaps more “foreign” world.
Van Winckel invokes the return home of Rip Van Winkle (reminiscent of her own name) in the poem “A Man Comes Down” and remarks, “And how odd you’ve come down still / dressed in the ratty furs you wore up.” She is interested in things like these “ratty furs” and other stuff of lives that may seem obsolete yet retain a sense of selfhood and relevance. The idea of Rip Van Winkle’s nostos (or homecoming) leads Van Winckel toward other sorts of reckonings with the past.
She unearths the unused, the forgotten: “the iron valve’s been / shut off so hard, / it’s henceforth / unopenable. The thing / is bottom drawered. You’d / been its tourist / and now it’s yours.” It’s as if we, as readers, are aliens or sleepers who have become estranged to the practices of the quotidian. In “Larder” she rescues this word–a room or cupboard for storing food–that used to be commonplace and describes it while transforming it into a metaphysical realm:
Hatchery of this for then and that for now.
On the package of Moon Flakes: the Sea
Of Tranquility. Jugs, jars—balls to bat
toward the belly of infinity . . .
Embracing apocryphal lore, she holds us captive in her realms even as she might unexpectedly jump the tracks, but we trust her, we know it’s how we get there. In the poem “Talk-Talk, Ambulance Style” she guides us through a rough and tumble rescue, which feels more like purgatory than treatment, with a wisecracking and shifty voice: “Remove the mask and you won’t breathe./ Sure, the mysteries intersect at this stoplight / but we always run it, Honey.” This fourteen-line sonnet-like poem she fuels with her idiomatic wit and snapped-up syntax.
For many years, Nance Van Winckel has been attentive to vintage Americana in the fabric of her poems. Through this approach she reveals our appetite for a kind of melodrama: “The murders, the heists, / the rapidly heaving breasts.” Her poems behave as portals letting us peer through to the other side. Several are set within funeral scenarios, and her speakers yearn for a sign, something to let them know: “Lord send in a real / wind. Send in a new winged whatever / for each what’s-it expelled from the ethosphere.”
Van Winckel helps us decipher the signs on the bumpy journey, as we may be met with miraculous events. She professes her faith with an infidel spirit. And like an itinerant trader who wandered around a once-early America, she’s a notion peddler, offering her ephemera and her wisdoms. In the wonderful poem “The Apophatic” she asks, “How can it not be / about engine, / secret blaze behind / the wheels?” Indeed, how can we pass by all these things, this evidence, and not acknowledge the presence of a hidden power? She ends this collection with “Gone to Get More Stuff” and declares, “May it be told we packed our dream mule / and drove him around.” No doubt that mule was packed with a stash of seeds.
Molly Bendall is the author five collections of poetry, most recently Watchful from Omnidawn. She has won the Eunice Tietjens Prize from Poetry magazine, the Lynda Hull award from Denver Quarterly and two Pushcart Prizes. Her poems and reviews have appeared in many literary journals. Currently she teaches at the University of Southern California.