The first poem in Nadia Colburn’s radiant and spacious debut collection, The High Shelf, opens with a door and ends with a question. “Any moment, the red door,” her wide-awake “Into Time” begins, and here we are, at the entryway to the structure that is this book (and here we are, too, facing a real door, sturdy and solid). We are, of course, reading—standing before the metaphorical red door—in a particular moment. And yet the poem assures us that any moment is a door: in any moment, a new way of perceiving and feeling and being is available to us. This assurance—that transformation is always possible—is one of the many gifts of The High Shelf.
“Into Time” continues:
Then, the leaves,
the many leaves, all yellow now,
they are so thin, I think I can feel them
ready to fall.
One breeze, and you:
or standing, alone—
What, what do we not become?
The poem’s elemental shapes—red door, yellow leaves, the solitary “you”—are illuminated by Colburn’s tender attention, enlarged and sharpened by the white space in which they float. In the final line, the poem’s images blossom into wondering: “What, what do we not become?” This question lies at the heart of The High Shelf, a book of trauma and healing; of pregnancy and mothering; of discovering happiness, even joy, in a threatened and suffering world.
“Into Time” provides a beautiful and apt introduction to the poems that follow. Colburn’s work is spare, graceful, and piercing in its emotional and perceptual clarity. Her poems feel as if they’ve arisen from a well of deep quiet, a practice of steady and sustained attention turned both inward and out. It’s no surprise to read, in her author bio, that Colburn is a student of the Buddhist teacher Thích Nhất Hạnh, as well as an activist for social and environmental justice.
Of the multiple threads that weave themselves through Colburn’s book, one of the most poignant and searing is that of trauma. Colburn’s afterword to The High Shelf references “the precipitous memories of an early childhood trauma that my body remembered but my mind did not.” This pre-verbal trauma is given a both a container and a language in a sequence of poems exploring the image of “the box.” Like the door of “Into Time,” the box appears as both tangible and metaphorical, a way to hold and examine questions of damage and survival. “Namelessness,” for example, begins, “In the box I put the body. There were no words / for what had happened,” and then immediately, within this wordless space, opens into an empathic recognition of other boxes, other forms of suffering: “Outside, all the other boxes. In some, no movement / at all. In some, dancing.” In “What Nature Cannot Make,” the poet distinguishes, deftly and piercingly, between the human-created realm inside the box, “[w]here nothing penetrates,” and the porous, permeable realm of the natural world:
Closed off (as not even the deepest forest in the most lush days of summer,
as not even the edge of the rock-lined lake)
closed off with intent (as not even the cat who cleans herself,
who walks so assuredly along the edge of the balcony,
who tilts back her ears at the call of the cardinal—leaps—
as not even she, with her wise, her elegant ways, would, of her own, trace—)
From the forest, the lake, the leaping cat—precise and lovely images of freedom and interconnectedness—the poem’s final section returns to the box, as the speaker returns to its enclosed world of safety and separation:
But with what only the human can make,
I enter, then re-enter.
Then shut the door to this well-ordered space
into which I fold first one limb
and then another, then the four-chambered heart . . .
This re-entry feels, to me, full of both necessity and ache. If the speaker must return to the box in order to heal, in doing so she also must separate herself from lakes and cardinals and beauty and movement. She knows the natural world as intimately as she knows the box, and her longing to remain part of the former is palpable.
The exploration of the box continues in “The Feeling of Trying to Express the Feeling I Can’t Even Name.” Here is the whole of that poem:
We assembled it. We made the corners tight, a box
that might hold all of us—
from everything we wanted to escape and creating
the idea of escape itself.
All of Colburn’s poems—but especially this one, I think—illuminate the complicated workings of our minds. The “we” who construct the box make it a place apart from danger, from “everything we wanted to escape.” And at the same time, in this construction, outside and inside are constructed too; the “we” are safe now, on the inside, yet now a different type of suffering has been created, the suffering of imagined separateness: “the idea of escape itself.”
In her afterword, Colburn considers the notions of before and after, musing, “To some extent these terms don’t matter. It is always both before and after.” The same holds true of the box, of safety, entrapment, and escape: all of these things are happening all the time, just as the red door is available to us “at any moment.” It is our minds that make distinctions—between this time and that, between suffering and healing. Colburn’s poems refrain from judging this human habit of separating and categorizing: they simply see. And they do so in a way that encompasses both intimacy and distance, the personal and the wide, level gaze of spirit or soul, of something vaster than the self. The speaker of “The Feeling of Trying to Express the Feeling I Can’t Even Name,” and so many other poems like it, clearly knows trauma from the inside. At the same time, she is able to step back to view the trauma and its aftermath from a great, calm distance, taking it in and holding it in language and silence.
But The High Shelf is not only a book of trauma. It encompasses, equally, joy and plenitude, particularly in its poems of motherhood, and suggests that it’s in opening ourselves to our experience, even to our suffering, that we find freedom. Here, for example, is “(Pregnancy)”:
I will not be scared, I said,
take of me, take of me—begin:
And like a tree. And like a tree
its arms outspread.
That the birds fly up to it.
And like the peeling bark. The twigs.
The dead leaves in the nest—
that something comes: that something comes
and takes my body: that what passes through it
The willingness to be permeable, to be made new, is a hallmark of the heart-mind of Colburn’s work, as is her recognition of the radical kinship between the human and the more-than-human realms. Here, the sensitively observed natural world offers the speaker a model of willingness and receptivity toward “what passes through.” As the speaker opens herself to tree, birds, and nest, she opens herself to transformation in her own life. After the safe-but-suffocating space of the box, this space of deep communion with the living beings around and within her feels healing and holy. Again, the red door stands open, allowing the world to enter.
In her essay “Learning to Speak with Them,” the poet Melissa Kwasny asks,
Can we respect both the concrete and symbolic reality of the forms of life before us? Can poetry do this, enact what is essentially a transference, a communion with another without weighing the encounter down with outworn systems, leaving the interpretation of the image up for grabs, or vacating the object altogether?
Kwasny’s question, I think, has to do with a poet’s ability to know the natural world as entirely itself, not only as a metaphor or way of framing human reality. Colburn’s poems seem to model the type of “communion” Kwasny describes. In The High Shelf, goats, prairie dogs, forsythia, and catbirds are rendered with spareness, respect, and precision, their lives overlapping with the life of the speaker but never co-opted by her. The poet’s steady and accurate seeing of her fellow beings, her refusal to romanticize or distort, feel like a form of love, much as Simone Weil asserted that absolute attention is a form of prayer.
In Colburn’s work, silence is also a form of love, a way of gesturing toward an enormity we cannot conceive of in words. So many of the poems in The High Shelf embody what Jane Hirshfield terms “the negative way.” In her essay “Facing the Lion,” Hirshfield writes of a poetic path that is
…rich with nondoing. It is found first in the relationship between speech and its steady companion and shadow-side, silence. Silence’s abyss holds out utter inadequacy to the task of marrying world and words… Yet silence… is birthbed as well as deathbed to meaning, the precursor and necessary ground for all concentrated speech.
Many of Colburn’s titles employ the type of negative constructions Hirshfield references in the same essay: “Weightlessness,” “Namelessness,” “Nothing We Say is Ever the Soul.” In their use of language to point beyond itself, to gesture toward what is not, the poems enter a realm of mystery and surprise, a new and startling way of perceiving.
Within the bodies of the poems, too, silence and “nondoing” resonate. Many of the poems are brief—one, “The World,” is only two lines long—and seem to hover or rest in the white space that surrounds them, a silence that amplifies the speaking of the “negative way” within their lines. In “What May Be Enough,” the poet writes of “giving myself over to the small spaces no- / between: with the words that were simple. Seamless.” Here is one of those spaces beyond human speech, a “no-between” which is neither the space of the box nor of the wide natural world, but which might encompass both. It’s a space the poet reaches toward “with the words that were simple,” a perfect description of Colburn’s poetics. “What May Be Enough” continues:
That all winter was wintering. And not the questions.
And when the words came: O Land of the very-seen:
alive and green: how even the hills were
Within these few lines, there’s transformation—that magical-but-ordinary red door—from winter to spring. And there’s transformation in the speaker, too, who at the start of the poem was “giving herself over to work” as well as “the small spaces no-between”—I read this as giving herself over to paying attention, perhaps in the form of making poems, perhaps as simply being—until “the words came” and she finds herself in relationship again with “the very-seen,” the natural world around her, in which “even the hills were / conspirators.” Through “the certain requirements” of attentiveness to inner and outer worlds, the poem seems to be saying, life returns, we re-enter the world, we conspire lovingly with the hills.
With attention, with openness, perhaps even the box can be transformed. “Morning” gives us the poet “with my hammer and nails. / With my brush and this new white paint” and continues:
so that in the painted box I too become not symbol,
not refuge, not emptiness,
but the unopposed, unopposable backdrop for
everything, even for this one red flower in the low grass
whose symmetry around its center we might almost call
How I love this idea of being “the unopposed, unopposable backdrop for / everything.” I love, too, Colburn’s suggestion that happiness lies in looking so closely at even the smallest things around us that we are able to find the “symmetry” in them. Is this what happens when we give ourselves to the world, all of it, from the box to the rivers, trees, and birds, the transformations enacted both by suffering and by love? The poem seems to gesture toward a “yes.”
Colburn’s sense of “happiness” probably isn’t what many people first imagine when they consider the word, but that’s no surprise. Throughout The High Shelf, poem after poem encourages us to re-see our received ideas of happiness, safety, suffering, escape… I could go on and on. But I want to end with happiness and Colburn’s poem with that title—incidentally, the first Nadia Colburn poem I fell in love with—which was originally published in Kenyon Review:
Wherever I looked something opened.
In the tree, a hole where the squirrel, all fall, brought its nuts.
Amid the sidewalk, the little blades of grass, still strong after the first snow.
Inside my house there was my body, nestled by the bodies of the ones I love.
How had I arrived? This measurable space, the stairs
so narrow that the bed frame needed to be sawed in half?
Or, in the dark, the inhalation the exhalation of what,
always escaping, always calling me back—
What do we not become? How do we arrive here? There may be no answer, but the questions are enough. The High Shelf offers us them to us: invitations to continue to open.
[Kasey Jeuds is now an editor at The Word Works, the press that published The High Shelf. At the time this review was written and accepted for publication, the reviewer had no affiliation with the press. – Ed.]