Letter from Dale Hendrix
Book Review – September 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine
Or maybe even worse than disappointing
Martha Quillen’s admission in your August issue that she was not the right person to review Living on the Spine by Christina Nealson is surely the most perceptive insight she came up with. And yet she pressed on. Why didn’t you people wait? I had just finished the book when I read the review and never can I remember seeing in print a reader so far off the mark of what a writer was hitting. To call some of the most beautiful and inspiring prose-poetry to come out of this country in years “this stuff” says it all. But perhaps it is the ultimate seriousness of this work which has thrown Quillen. Such writing is so rare in the literature of our time.
And so is prose-poetry so rare in our time. But certainly it is the seriousness of Nealson’s project which dictated this form. The book is a narrative (the prose) of five years in Nealson’s life and yet it must be mythically (the poetry) told. It has to be mythic because this is nothing less than Nealson’s search for the origins of the holy, and the holy cannot be approached head on. It cannot be approached literally. It can only be experienced. Nealson experienced it on her land as she lived alone with her dog and her horse in the Sangre de Cristos. But to tell us about it she, like any poet, has to approach it sideways. Asking her to do otherwise is like sending archaeologists to find the remains of Noah’s Ark. It means you’ve missed the point. To look for the holy literally is to profane it.
Nealson’s question throughout is “How do we open ourselves to the experience of the sacred?” How does one experience the “unnameable” without all the conceptual overlay that ends up with theologians arguing over the number of angels on the heads of pins, or whether homosexuality is a sin? Her answer, the one that her sojourn “on the spine” teaches her, is that we have to start with our own bodies. We have to get back to our bodies. Most specifically, women have got to return to their female bodies. There is an underlying theme I detect in this book that modern women have reneged on their responsibility to society, to the men in their lives, to their children: their responsibility to provide the gateway. They are the ones who can open, who can open themselves and those around them into … into creation.
That is the reason for Nealson’s return time and again to the theme of the womb, the bleeding of the woman, the penetration by the man. It all has to do with the opening up of the woman and the giving of new form to life. That is, if the woman can truly open.
And how does she learn to open? Nealson’s experience tells her that a woman has to remember and re-establish her special relationship to that mother of us all, the earth.
Thus her organization of the book around the seasons and their mythic celebrations of old, when the goddesses were as important as the gods. When the tales of the goddesses were as important as the gods. When the tales of the goddesses were a constant reminder of the mystic connections between women and the earth, a reminder that only woman, when she is being the eternal woman, can lead man down to the deep mysteries of our origins.
What a man finds when he goes there is his own personal adventure. Artists throughout the centuries, in every medium, have tried to express it. Thus the need of the muse. And thus, when the artists are successful, we have the myriad of new forms which give civilization its reason for being. What Nealson finds down in the mysteries I’ll leave the reader to discover. But don’t look for it to hit you on the head.
May Christina Nealson continue to keep squeezing in the cracks. If you’ll pare yourself down just a little she’ll take you with her.
Dale Hendrix Twin Lakes