Nostalgia for the Criminal Past by Kathleen Winter

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Despite the homogenizing efforts of culture, society, and mass media, there is a fundamental separation between individuals. As we live, we are shaped by what happens to us, what we think about what happens to us, what we conclude, what we remember, and what we assume based on the conclusions we remember. And not just what happens to us, but everything we see, read, listen to, overhear on the train, catch out of the corner of our eyes, and dream. When Mr. Rogers says everyone is unique, he is describing this process of accumulating difference. And some of us want to write about all that. The writer works obsessively on an expression until she reaches a state where exhaustion and satisfaction are indistinguishable and then presents that expression to the world. Written with the accumulated difference of one person, it is then read with the accumulated difference of another. From the memories, ideas, and assumptions of the writer, to the memories, ideas and assumptions of the reader. Different assumptions. Different definitions. Different emotional associations. Given the infinite number of ways the source of an expression can differ from the source of a reading experience, it is a miracle we communicate at all. And yet we communicate, not just within the same culture, but across cultures, across nations, across languages, and across time.

Though writers must have faith in their words despite the accumulated difference, be true to their visions, ultimately write only for themselves, they use techniques to exert some control over what types of memories readers leverage in the reading experience, what shared cultural knowledge is relevant, and which reading assumptions are applied. The title is one of those techniques. By referencing shared cultural knowledge like another book, historic figure, movie, etc., directing readers to a specific passage in the work, or leveraging an archetype, the writer uses the title to trigger particular reactions in the reader. The title is the first sign post on the journey of the book.

Nostalgia for the Criminal Past leaped out at me from the list of available titles. It is evocative of so much of my literary thinking. I imagined intellectual outlaws and outlaw intellectuals. I saw wise men and women reflecting on triumphs and failures. I saw conflict. I saw docks and bars. Forests. Caves. 1940s fedoras. 2000s laptops. If I keep looking I can see cowboys and ronin, punks and riot grrls. Beats and Dadas. None of which are in Kathleen Winters’ collection. I misread the sign post. For me “Criminal Past,” was the trigger I thought would guide my reading experience, whereas, “Nostalgia” is the actual key to the collection. Winters’ collection is not concerned with specific images or events per se, but with the act of looking, considering stable images from a distant perspective. The titular and opening poem touches on those themes, and in that way, makes sense as a title for the collection, but I have to question Winters’ choice. Though it refers to a specific poem that establishes themes, I wonder what she assumed readers would do with “Criminal Past.” How could she assume we would focus on “Nostalgia” with such an enticing phrase sitting right next to it?

In this collection, Winters writes paintings, simple scenes and images aiming for the evocative and dynamic. But, for me, what is supposed to be simple and evocative feels boring and derivative, the simplicity less a technique for galvanizing focus and more an avoidance of difficulty and motion. The ideas and images felt half-finished. Often I turned the page, expecting the poem to continue. Sometimes this effect, especially in poetry, can be brilliant, leading the reader to finish the scene or idea with their own imagination, to see the possibility beyond the page, but, with few exceptions, Winters poems didn’t inspire me to imagine further.

One of those exceptions ins the beautiful and haunting “West Lake Hills.” Winters writes an Andrew Wyeth painting. With “the far west ridge/ silhouetted,” and the “calcite edge,” and the “mineral in the potent/ chemical immersion,” Winters creates a sense of gray emotions, of sparse life in distant vistas, of a figure in heat-haze you think you can see if you squint hard enough. She captures how the past expands into the distance and how it collapses into a pinpoint. “In twenty years, everything you’ve said/ about your childhood makes just/ the jagged outline riding dark beneath,/ where the rest of the story silently/ petrifies…” In “West Lake Hills,” Winters paints a dynamic scene, giving us a stable landscape that radiates with the emotions of the speaker.

The one poem that matched my assumptions evoked by the book’s title is “Gulf of Mexico.” Winters gives us the sense, without travel, that we have taken a wrong turn down a bad road; “The only glamorous thing/ on the Pumpville road/ is a Crested Caracara, black/ and white and crimson,/ pairs of them stalled/ in the attics of mesquites, hungry for disaster.” It isn’t crime itself that draws me to the ideas and images of “outlaws,” but a sense of traveling through some infrequent limn between the social contract and the individual’s desire. “Flesh-colored mouth of the snake/ blossoming in the border patrol’s/ limestone mind, confederates/ in boredom.” “The Gulf of Mexico” celebrates and appreciates a separation we can simulate as temporary outlaws on long stretches of desolate roads.

kathleen winterBut there’s a chance the reason why this poem alone matches what I hoped for from Nostalgia for the Criminal Past is more mystifying and more random than whatever meaning can be found in close reading. It has a banjo. If you pursue the source of your preferences far enough, eventually you’ll get to an inexplicable, unreasonable, illogical, all-powerful association between a term and an emotion. It doesn’t make sense. It can’t be explained. It can’t be avoided. To me “banjo” is associated with a whole range of emotions and experiences, images and ideas, associated in my mind with “outlaw” and thus “criminal past.” Folk ballads. Campfires. Amateurs. Frontier. Self-made men. A little bit of music on the run. Dangerous Americana. If I’m being honest, I have to wonder how my reading of this collection would have changed, if Winters had written a banjo or some other mysterious automatic association into the titular and opening poem.

There is quality writing in Nostalgia for the Criminal Past and readers who enjoy or prefer poem paintings will find a lot to like in this collection. Along with the poems discussed, “Yuma Evening,” “Postcard 1923: Detail of a Laundress,” “Grey Muzzle,” and others will find praise. But, to me, Winters almost never takes her poems far enough. The subjects of the poems don’t interest me, and Winters doesn’t convince me of the value of those subjects with her language. And I believe I would feel this way about the collection without my confusion about the title. But the mystery of how reading creates meaning and how different readers come to appreciate different poems persists, which means there is always the chance I might have had a different assessment of Nostalgia for the Criminal Past if there had been more “banjo twang” and less “dogs snoring/ on the beds,” in the opening poem.

Josh Cook is a bookseller at Porter Square Books, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who grew up in Lewiston, Maine. His fiction, criticism, and poetry have appeared in numerous magazines and journals. He blogs for Porter Square Books, and at In Order of Importance, and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. An Exaggerated Murder his first novel. More from this author →