A Likely Story, by Robbi Nester
Published by Moon Tide Press
Reviewed by: April Salzano
Though closely sewn around the theme of the power of narrative, Robbi Nester’s collection, A Likely Story, presents poems that are eclectic in style, form, and tone, utilizing everything from ekphrastia to myth, parable, and parody. In a nine-part organization, Nester examines the natural world, and the observer’s place therein. The pieces are rich with imagery and demonstrate our interconnectedness with the world, with our histories, and with each other.
“I can’t be sure my source was factual,” the speaker tells us in “Chronicle,” the second poem in the opening section, Tall Ones. The narrator makes this disclaimer only after repeating tales of goat-sized rats and a woman eaten by her anaconda. “So tell/your stories and avert your eyes,” the poem concludes, as if to say that seeing is her duty, adding detail to narrative to examine personal myth. She expresses a distinct refusal to “return to pitiless time” from the position above the earth she has held since she was five. From here, her world will be examined, at times against her own will.
This notion of bearing witness and functioning as storyteller is expanded on to indeed include “a cast of thousands,” the subtitle of the second section. “Anyone can be a messenger./Survival may rely on an extended hand,” 9/11 survivor Usman Farman tells us in the poem inspired by the PBS Documentary. Nester still gives the sense that perspective is everything. “And what I saw—or think I did,” as she says in the poem aptly title “Witness” expresses her own doubt in determining what is real from what is projection. In “Night Patrol,” her shadow-self sits in a room that exists only at night, “and then only/halfway between/inside and out.” In a kind of Jamesian “Jolly Corner” fashion, she creates a place where identity is born only through encounter with the self, that “alien other” we observe but never engage in dialogue.
Nester also demonstrates that the notion of where the story takes place is as crucial to perspective as who is relaying the message and who is involved. Memory deserves a palace, however, metaphorical, as she says of a childhood home repeatedly renovated and “multiplied in memory.” Section IV, In the Canyon, a short series of poems that functions almost as an extension of the previous section Location, Location, examines woman’s place in the natural world. Here we find ourselves “where daylight shadow shrinks and hides/and every rock proclaims ‘I am.’”
The relationship with nature continues as the poet reflects on the juxtaposition of self and other in the section Natural Bonds. This is most profoundly expressed in “Newcomers,” where the “tree of heaven [is] growing spindly/through the sewer grate.” Internal thoughts and the external world are examined as they relate to one another, the biology of a world going on under watchful eye, unaware of the trespass, or sometimes, like the million beings of “The Pond,” at once “aware,” and “oblivious” of each other.
In the poem “Autobiography,” the author segues into the celebration of her own history by way of contrast. She is nothing like her home’s previous inhabitant, who removed the faces of his relatives from photos with “the clear desire/to blot out everything.” In Section VI, The Circle, she shows that she is instead astute historian and scribe, paying homage to the now faceless relatives who shaped her: distant cousins, father, grandfather, and grandmother, who, “carries Russia like a loaf,/beneath her arm.”
Like personal histories, cultural history must also be brought to us through witness. In the section Suspending Belief, Nester shows that the world, with all its unexplained power, is humbling. We are awestruck by the very questions that lack solid answers: “Does choice or chance decide/who they will be, these witnesses?” she asks. The imagery for this very suspension of belief is most acute when the author explores “a world we cannot see,” where “together and alone,” the narrator, fellow meditators, and readers “descend/backward on ladders,” our “restless senses tethered/to a task, we can begin again.” Nester adds a brief section In the Telling, that poses and extension of the discussion on witness to include the medium through which we tell our tales, asking “what does this mean?” in the poem “What Are Poems For?”
The last section, Train of Thought, employs the extended metaphor of a vehicle travelling into the world. One of the major themes of the section and the collection as a whole is contained in the trains windows, passengers, even the names of train stops, all serving as metaphor for what carries those of us who are alive and awake with the power of perception, the task of history. Our stories are “likely” because our myths and parables are the fabric of who we are, our images and our truths.