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Robert Campbell

Playing with the Dark: A Review of Oz by Nancy Eimers

     Some poetry collections seem to grow out of variations on a theme; others construct, slowly and subtly, a house in which the reader is suddenly standing, without knowing how or when s/he got there. The latter would describe Nancy Eimers’ recent collection, Oz, in which speakers meditate on various kinds of constructed and natural space, mortality, and the sometimes dark and strangely harrowing emptiness represented by toys. Oz is a collection that approaches large, often frightening questions through the window of carefully chosen metaphors, as in the following lines from “Future Parking Lot”:

          Does direction dissipate in a parking lot? What winds will blow over
          this place?

          Assuming the winters will be long, how bleak a light is required for
          the lot to be full? Half full? Will it ever, ever be empty? (15)

This skillful pivot from the poem’s object to its larger ambition—usually the reframing of some human construct as odd and feeble—is always graceful and incremental, never forced. Readers who are put off by poems that grasp at large ideas will find themselves disarmed by Eimers’ choice of everyday, unobtrusive metaphors, as in “Couplets: On a Mowed Lawn,” in which the “too neatly contained” grass serves as a window into the urge to manage the unmanageable (24). 

     Eimers’ use of sound and rhythm vary considerably. Sometimes the music is carefully paced with many end-stopped lines, as in:

          There is something furtive about the water here.

          It is most itself at dawn or dusk.
          It falls in a haze,

          it speaks to the grass in a whisper. (11)

Other times, the poems break from that composure entirely. Her approach to the line/sentence tension is balanced, used mostly to emphasize sound and shifts of subject, as in “Confession of a Luddite”:

          But dark was a folk art, dark was a primitive
          science composing the very wetness

          of bark. No government
          could have taken over
          so quietly… (62)

     The title of the collection is drawn from a particularly impressionistic prose poem in segments. In “Oz,” there emerges a relationship between the constructed spaces of capitalism, the body, and the shopper by means of a loosely connected narrative sequence describing a mother-daughter shopping trip. Eimers repositions L. Frank Baum’s imaginative power as a tool used to transform space into a sort of profitable machinery:

          L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz, also a retail art director
          dreamed up the idea that shops should be grand enough to intimidate
          shoppers, so they, so you and I would find ourselves unnerved and
          grope to speak with cash… (14)

The focus of this poem on the intentionality of constructed human spaces provides a useful context for every other poem in the collection. The reader is asked to consider both the implications of space as a personality and the possibility that our dream worlds contain more darkness than we might imagine.

      This urge to replicate the world in simpler, more manageable terms is another related subject Eimers returns to many times in the collection, and the frailty and hollowness of toys (and of so many other constructed things) as stand-ins occupies much of the speaker’s attention in section two, as in the following lines from “All the Toys Are Vanishing”:

                                                                               ...A toy is a veil, a toy
          is a scrim of falling snow, and as with all things that act as curtains, 
          there is the question of what is on the other side.  A cradle, a bed,
          a tree, the bones of the hand, a bird's nest, all of them, nothing? (37) 

The most apt example of this reach from the simplified world of toys to the adult world of complex problems and the search for meaning is to be found in poems exploring the works of artist Joseph Cornell (“How We Thought About Toys”) and the production of dollhouses with bomb shelters during the Cold War Era (“The Cold War Special: Tin Litho Dollhouse with Bomb Shelter, 1962”). Eimers plays with this juxtaposition repeatedly, and with great skill.

In addition, Eimers’ choice to contrast these meditations on strange human constructs with glimpses of the natural world adds another necessary layer to this collection’s conversation. In “Crawl Key Wind,” the wind itself becomes an all-inclusive presence that contains rather than blows the human world:

          Something you knew in your sleep, the wind
          had been blowing all night, like news
          turned down below its brawn

          of words. There were boats in it, and trees blowing sideways,
          trucks adrift in their static stretching to Key West
          from Miami… (31)

To similar effect, these lines from “Pelicans in a Time of War” bring with them an apt sense of the vastness of the landscape amidst a storm and the smallness of human endeavors:

things we do in this weather
seem a little unreal           even a little mad
driving to the store           turning left on the highway
trying to enter the zoom of traffic like trying to speak
rationally to an irrational universe (29)

     A few poems in the collection center on death, dying, or grief.  “Letter from Mrs. Graham Greene to Her Husband 62 Years after the Blitz” employs a particularly heart-breaking speaker, who opens her letter by saying “This is not me speaking, this is not you listening. Oh, to open the / door of my first Victorian dollhouse and enter, be small enough, / lock it behind me. You died…I will die…” (51). The unfolding narrative is very moving, and the connection drawn here between the desperate desire to reduce overwhelming circumstances to the level of toys is implicit. The persona is fully realized—Greene left his wife, Vivien, in 1948, and there is a strong sense of distance on the part of the speaker.  

     Occasionally, Oz exhibits a voice that is plain, but wandering. Rather than attempting to jolt the reader with unexpected syntax, these poems employ sentences that are loose and conversational, though they frequently push through to ambiguity. This voice is perhaps most fully realized in “Infant Sight, or Thirty-four Lines Set Adrift,” in which subjects and imagery are allowed to drift into one another, reframing the musical capabilities of the single line as poetic unit:

I was nine     Nogales     Mexico
was I don’t know how
careworn a town     now     here
a crowd of us turns our faces
up to the Infant of Prague… (17)

The effect is something like a waltz between memory and music, delivered phrase by phrase, riddled with memorable pivots between statements and caesuras in the form of textual negative space.

     All in all, readers will appreciate the stylistic scope and the larger themes of Oz, and many will find Eimers’ treatment of even the grimmest topics enjoyable for her smart observations. Others will be hypnotized by the voices of Oz, which seem to speak across landscapes and eras. The house that Eimers builds through this collection is a haunted one, full of subtle connections and secret passageways between and behind poems. It is often dark, but it is also a pleasure to explore.

Nancy Eimers. Oz. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2011.

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