May Read of the Month: “A Part of Me,” by Julia Nunnally Duncan

Julia Nunnally Duncan

Reviewed by Joseph Bathanti

Julia Nunnally Duncan’s incantatory new volume of poems, A Part of Me, is the lyric inventory of all that has passed before the poet’s eye, committed deftly to the page, a litany of praise-songs and elegies.

If Memory (Mnemosyne, the Greek Titan Goddess) is indeed the Mother of the Muses, then Duncan invests richly in her as well as the allure of what resides most authentically in what we choose to commemorate and the language employed to conjure it.

Duncan is keenly aware that the footing of memory is every bit as tricky as the often vertical geography of her beloved Southern Appalachians, the backdrop for these finely wrought poems, fraught with emotional terrain, the head-on collision of what one loves best and the imprimatur of truth. These poems were forged beneath a steady hand and clear-eyed gaze, the jurisprudence of what Faulkner called “the human heart in conflict with itself.”

While Duncan invokes the past, and the people and events that populate it – her husband and daughter, mother, her students, forbears known and unknown, the music and mountain spires that inform her own voice – she also tells her story. At heart, Part of Me is an autobiography, a rich mining of all the component scraps and curios, cenotaphs and monuments, that furnish, even clutter, the mind of the poet. Despite the peril, Duncan beautifully navigates the chaos, fashioning from it, through language pitched perfectly and vernacularly to her subjects, an abiding cosmos. Everyone who’s crossed her past has a cameo in this book. It’s reminiscent in all the best ways of Edgar Lee Masters’ The Spoon River Anthology, the reverential, near-formalized portraits, each of which charts the intersection of the poet with her quicksilver subjects.

If this is autobiography, then it’s ethnography and genealogy in the bargain, a dogged and elegant proclamation that the poet has staked out her territory on this mysterious earth and dared cast it into words. The dizzying quilt of memory assembles itself in a pattern wholly unexpected: the numen of imagination, the transformational and miraculous rite of memorare. “Words are all we have,” Samuel Beckett famously stated; and, in this vein, one might hazard that memory is its own language. What’s more, it’s essential to underscore memory is not only notoriously unreliable, but frequently booby-trapped with sentimentality. Yet Duncan keeps any unearned sentiment at bay. The image is her sword and buckler, her flaming torch. She is the scribe whom we not only trust, but invest in. She has a fine ear. It’s no accident Duncan is a musician as well as a poet. The sonic clout of these poems rings in every line, including disarming rhymes and off rhymes, the cadence of ceremonial invocation.

And, if autobiography is in fact, by necessity, an excavation project (to wit, the poet as archeologist) – a Herculean task of reconstructive memory, well-meant, but unreliable – then she’s piecing herself together as well. As she writes in the Prologue, which serves as well as the volume’s title poem, she’s reassembling the past, in essence resurrecting the dead, with the fraught but sometimes necessary hubris of the poet, surrounding herself with all that’s been lost, but not forgotten: “Those who have died and gone on to another place, / whose forgotten faces become clear in dreams; / childhood friends, who in my memory, / seem to call me again to play; / strangers who passed quickly through my life, /  but touched me in ways I can’t explain …”

It is “through a glass, darkly” that the past frequently surfaces. Duncan traffics brilliantly in that metaphor, that murky, but often brilliantly prismatic, lens. Paradoxically, only through “dreams” are what’s lost retrieved, through “memory” that childhood resurfaces, that we are often faced with what “[seems]” rather than what is. What is especially seductive about this book, and there are so many things to point to, is that Duncan is well aware of the precarious nature of recollection. The poet has been “touched … in ways [she] can’t explain,” yet she conjures extraordinary language to desist the amnesia that silence signals, to give shape and sound to the ineffable.

Perhaps the most breathtaking verse of A Part of Me is the suite of eight ekphrastic poems that comprise the final section of the volume, titled Photographs of Misfortune. In these poems, Duncan records the documentary past, the poet’s life before consciousness, the thick pane of memory through which she gazes, without recollection, but with decided recognition, and in shared humanity. She makes out, in a Civil War photograph, “the stack of discarded soldiers’ feet”; in another poem an “elderly woman’s head [resting] upon / her deathbed pillow.” In the poem, “Gangrene of the Legs as a Complication of Diphtheria 1892,” she yearns to “go back in time / and hold this boy’s hands in [hers], / like a mother would her son’s, / and press his small fingers in my clasp.” She claims them all as kin in an ancestry that embraces an inscrutable world made bearable through poems that refuse to look away, and a language that names everything upon which her generous gaze falls.

Click here to purchase:

Leave a Reply