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Witnessing History 

by Sheri Boggs


The images are at first incongruous: a river grown dark from too much blood in it, an old woman slowly creeping home with a window on her back, a lover's black slip as "cool as the hoped-for storm," a moment of heavy breathing in a taxi. Are these poems of war, of civil unrest, or are they poems of love, particularly impassioned, illicit love?


It turns out the answer is "both," as a reading of Spokane poet Nance Van Winckel's new collection, Beside Ourselves, reveals.


"I think what poetry does -- maybe even all art does -- is it allows things that are truly contradictory to each other to coexist," Van Winckel says. "Things that can be so contradictory and yet both true at the same time. Poetry makes room for that, for the opposing desires that we all have."


Informed by her travels in Eastern Europe during the tumultuous 1980s, the poems that comprise Beside Ourselves form a loose narrative, but it's a narrative as disjointed and image-laden as memory.


"When I was there, it was in the mid-1980s and there was a transition going on between the end of Soviet rule and whatever new incarnations these countries were going to become," she recalls. "I took a lot of notes, but I didn't think I was going to write any poems out of any of it. I didn't even really look at any of them until 15 years later."


As she began to re-examine her experiences in the newly emerging Eastern Europe, other life lessons started to horn in on the creative process.


"I started working on the first four or five poems, and I couldn't figure out why this very sad, nutty love affair that I had had -- not in Eastern Europe but somewhere else -- kept sticking to the poems. Finally I just gave up and realized it just wants to be a part of this book," she says. "As I got about three-quarters of the way into the material, I realized that the feeling I had of being out of control, of being passionately in love so that you feel you have no control over your own destiny any more, that was what the political climate was like then, too."


Van Winckel knows her way around both metaphor and simile -- she's also written the poetry volumes The Dirt; Bad Girl, With Hawk; and After a Spell, as well as the short story collections Quake, Limited Lifetime Warranty and Curtain Creek Farm. She's been on the faculty of EWU's Creative Writing Program since 1990 and continues to be invigorated by transmitting everything she's learned.


"I can really immerse myself in some very little area of poetry, and in order to share it with my students I have to make it very clear in my head what it is about the poems I'm trying to convey," she says. "And they often prompt this process, I find myself thinking, 'Why do I have this attitude or understanding about what makes poetry work?' So I go and find a bunch of poems that exemplify what I'm talking about."


It's interesting timing that Beside Ourselves is being released at this particular juncture, where our evening news consists of hours of broadcasting focused on the war with Iraq. For every poem with a kiss, a whisper or a tangled bedsheet, there is a poem with an unforgettable image of war -- a couple realizes their rented car, hotel room and dinner table are bugged; a man sells pens from the stump where his hand used to be. While Van Winckel sometimes finds it challenging to justify being a poet right now, she evokes the timeless connections that art makes.


"Poetry seems to not speak as much as it should or could to people's everyday lives. But I think work of the imagination is vital. It validates the inner life," she says. "And perhaps that's what connects us -- that moment when we see someone else sharing something more, a bit of their inner life. That's the bond."





Publication date: 03/27/03

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