Nothing Fragmentary: Review of Fragments from the Biography of Nemesis by Lois Harrod

by Barbara Crooker

Fragments from the
Biography of Nemesis

by Lois Harrod
Cherry Grove Collections, 2013

The title of this book may be Fragments from the Biography of Nemesis, but there is nothing fragmentary or unfinished about Lois Harrod’s work.  These are poems cut from the whole cloth, whether Harrod is focusing her attention on the natural world, say exquisitely describing a mussel shell, or widening her gaze to larger issues, pondering the theory of the origin of the universe.  As we read from poem to poem, we realize that Harrod both has her feet firmly planted on the ground, yet at the same time is looking up at the firmament, taking us with her to gaze in wonder at the stars.

In “The Binoculars,” Harrod tells the reader to “peer through the wrong end, / see everything diminishing.”  Here are some of the small things Harrod asks us to notice:  “how water catches the heart  / and brings it to the surface,”  (“Firmament”) “how the lilac mourns for the stars,” (“Poem with Grave Words”)  “the vase . . . filling with moonlight.” (“Fragments from the Biography of Nemesis”)  In these examples, the lines shine with simplicity; there is nothing extraneous added.  In “The Litany of the Mussel Shell,” Harrod links her images in short brisk lines that march down the page:  “black water,” black / sunrise,” “exquisite Chinese ink,” “the inky shell.” Sonically, she gives us “the half-sound shall, / and bell, sharp / and flat, salt washed onto the gravelly beach, a bone / stuck in the throat,” then jump cuts to “the gull, clacking / to the sand crows” to “come and eat, / there is none like me.”  There’s an echo of liturgical language here,  as she tells us that the speaker is “broken as a feather. . . / broken like teeth, / broken / canyons, / broken rivers / that marrow the sea.”  And certainly, this is a message we’ve often heard, our human brokenness, but not one expressed so eloquently in images of the natural world.

Moving from Harrod’s sharp use of minute detail, let’s look at how these poems also open out to  larger themes as she widens her lens, making us think about “the great O of existence” (“Firmament”), “the cornucopia of grief” (“Day Lilies”), “the universe, // that little purse of nothing” (“Cosmogony).  Lois Harrod tells us to look up, mull the great imponderables:  “the earth is reeling / and the firmament [is] a bowl / of drunken milk.”(“Circumference”)   Sometimes, she rises above the poem, above the wrack and ruin of daily life:  “And I began to think of my heart as a ferris wheel / suddenly appearing above balloons and electric bulbs,” a carnival in a field where there was “nothing but a rusty shopping cart upended in the weeds.”  (“Voltages for Different Locations.”)  And isn’t this where we’re standing, too, on a lawn full of dandelions, wanting to rise above the diurnal grind, to see something magical and marvelous?  This is the great gift that Lois Harrod bestows, a view of the world through both micro and macro lenses, letting us go on our way singing because we have read and experienced these wonderful poems.


Published in Cider Press Review, 2013.

Barbara Crooker’s poems have appeared in magazines such as The Green Mountains Review,  The Hollins Critic, The Denver Quarterly, and anthologies such as The Bedford Introduction to Literature, Good Poems for Hard Times (Garrison Keillor, editor), and Common Wealth:  Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania.

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