Book Review: Roundabout Directions to Lincoln Center by Renee K. Nicholson
Poetry as ballet is an apt, if easy, analogy. Both rely on precise movement. Both struggle for balance between ambiguity and exposition, between the lyrical and the narrative. West Virginia dancer-turned-writer Renee Nicholson finds comparable balance with her debut book of poems, Roundabout Directions to Lincoln Center. It is frisky without frivolity, thoughtful without too much weight.
Ballet still clearly occupies much of the poet’s attention. Of the forty-two poems in the collection, ten explore dance as a theme. Several more contain music and dance jargon. In her dance poems, Nicholson succeeds in creating a world that few of her readers have experienced by focusing on the relatable, physical aspect of dance and by portraying her lifelong dance lessons as a fundamental transformation of self. “Level One” employs the voice of a dance instructor to reveal the unmaking of personal identity in the training of a ballerina.
Do not abandon
the center line, infuse
balance with a sense
of style. You are/are not:
a toy soldier
Roundabout Directions is also full of the everyday—food and drinks, porch-sitting and family. Nostalgia and longing. And lots of sex. “What I Didn’t Need To Know” portrays an equivocal relationship with desire. By contrasting extended metaphor with stark directness, the poem highlights the disconnect between expectation and reality—a thematic staple connecting all of Nicholson’s work.
The week after I left the island,
It was Shark Week on Discovery.
Sure, I’d chosen to forget; in salty
surf, murky waters, there were apex
predators, the same way sex
is impossible, scallop-edged, sad.
For all of their ambivalences, these poems overflow with funny, biting lines that strike straight to the throat of a subject. Take the persona poem, “Vargas Girl,” which gives a voice to the image of the pinup girl.
I have an ass worthy of being painted
on the nose of fighter planes…
But I’ve got weaponry of my own:
a bon-bon, a vibrator, a birth control pill
In the short poem “Adagio,” the tongue leaves the cheek. When it does, the style moves toward the lyrical. “Adagio”—meaning slow, graceful movement and specifically the part of a ballet featuring dance partnering—pulses with erotic metaphor.
Hands, rough enough to work
a saw, soft against the small
of my back. Delight, sparks behind your eyes:
I dreamt of flying fish. Your pupil
The center of the moon. I offered
My pale sliver-body to the dusky shaft of light;
I offered stardust from the night’s last comet.
Roundabout Directions to Lincoln Center ends with another introspective adagio. In “Stay” Nicholson writes, “Tamped light, Monday night, when the words are locked inside me until they are not.” Lovers of good poetry should rejoice that her words have found their way out.
Jake Maynard lives and writes in West Virginia. You can find his work in recent or forthcoming issues of Duende, Souvenir, and Pennsylvania Magazine.