Touch of Grace, poems by Craig Nelson

Review by Martha Quillen

Poetry – March 2006 -Colorado Central Magazine

Touch of Grace
Poems by Craig Nelson
Published by Ghost Road Press in 2005
ISBN 0-9760729-5-5

Ordinarily, Ed and I avoid reviewing poetry collections. I don’t know why Ed avoids it, but I usually pass the buck because I’m not sure how to evaluate poetry. Of course, there’s always that sage old adage, “You know what you like.”

And that’s true –sort of. Or at least I usually know when I hate a poem. But a lot of poetry merely strikes me as kind of pretty, or O.K., or nice enough.

And a fairly high percentage of the poems in The Atlantic, New Yorker, and Bloomsbury strike me as pretentious, baffling, and intentionally incomprehensible. In fact, the only reason I can imagine for publishing such verse is to make the reader feel inferior to the editors. No matter what words are compounded, the overwhelming message always strikes me as: “You don’t get this because we’re smarter.”

As I see it, local poets are considerably more interested in sharing their ideas and emotions, and that makes for better poetry. So why do national magazines publish so many poets whose primary strategy is to avoid meaning and emotion?

Well…. Maybe it’s because imagery is so intrinsically emotional that it’s safer to pick the cool, cryptic variety rather than risk appearing unsophisticated, sentimental or melodramatic.

Poetry is more like music than prose, in that a person’s reaction to it generally reflects how he feels more than what he thinks. And that makes poetry hard to review –especially since it is not nearly as well-defined as music. In music you’ve got folk, jazz, blues, pop, techno, rap, country, reggae, gospel, rock –hard rock, acid rock, country rock, classic rock…. A reviewer can say: “Like Elvis,” “Reminiscent of Bob Marley,” or “as energizing as a Rolling Stones concert.”

Likewise, there are sonnets and ballads, anapests and terza rima, rhymed and unrhymed, performance, nature, salsa, beat, Romantic, Victorian, and contemporary poetry. But not only do such words fail to adequately describe any specific poetry, it is also very difficult to know what other people will like –and why.

Thus Ed and I routinely pass poetry on to Lynda La Rocca, who generally seems confident about declaring a volume of poetry good (or not). But Lynda edited Touch of Grace, so having her review it wasn’t an option. Therefore the task fell to me, and I was a little hesitant about it. But I needn’t have worried.

The truth is, Lynda is far more passionate about poetry than I am. About half of the poetry she loves, I view as O.K. And about half of the poetry she hates, I view as O.K. And almost every time I think a poem is emotionally compelling and rich in imagery but really badly written, Lynda thinks it’s great. (Apparently, I have a greater intolerance for erratic meter than she does).

Which brings me to Touch of Grace. I liked it. I liked the imagery, the meter, the ideas, and the sound of it. I liked the variety of the selections. I was moved by the vivid depiction of tradition and tragedy in “Emigration Canyon Eulogy,” and laughed at the quirky wisdom in “Death Of My Hundred-Dollar Sunglasses.”

The form, the meter, and the sense of horror and heartache in “Emigration Canyon Eulogy” coalesce in the first stanza:

Maybe the narrow line of the canyon blocked too much of

the light. Maybe the houses were built too close to the creek,

where the dark water would steal away the small eyes of our

souls with soft, beckoning ripples and carry them toward the

bright city below where they would suddenly open wide and

peer into the mechanical womb of all that concrete and heat.

Whereas “Death Of My Hundred-Dollar Sunglasses” is lighter in form and intent:


I loved my hundred-dollar sunglasses.

They were the cool kind

with interchangeable lenses

and rubber-tipped arms.

I had the yellow lenses in when it happened.


Oh how I looked

for those blessed shades —

looked through bushes and finely manicured yards,

looked in the leaf-lined gutters

in the thick carpet of Chem-lawn bluegrass,

in the planters of the hospital,

on the streets three blocks away,

in the empty hands of passersby.

“No!” I cried out.

“They can’t be gone!

But they were.

My hundred-dollar sunglasses had vanished.”

Many of Nielson’s poems are about local people and places. Here’s an except from “Burning Paradise.”

It took three-and-a-half years to renovate the hundred-year-old

farmhouse in Paradise.

I had to strip it down

to its bones;

had to peel away

five generations

of material progress,

five generations

of ideas about home.

I had to find a way back to the frame,

back to its heart.

I hauled the layers to a great pile,

burning what I could in the backyard….

Craig Nielson’s collection includes poems about Utah and Colorado, about nature, towns, home, people, ideas, and Wal-Mart. Some are simple, some complex, some comic, some thought-provoking, and all are metrically true and well-presented.

Clearly, whether a poetry aficionado will like any given poem is unpredictable. Some poetry lovers hate rhyme. Some disdain performance poetry, preferring more formal composition. Some despise those sentimental old parlor poets –Frost, Tennyson, Wordsworth, etc. –whom I regard as masters. Art Goodtimes once told me that great performance poetry doesn’t always translate well on the written page. Another performance poet admitted that she didn’t usually like “regular” poetry because it seemed insipid and pallid. And those who love Baxter Black probably admire lariats over most laureates.

But after reading Touch of Grace, I talked to Lynda La Rocca and both of us were really enthusiastic about Craig Nielson’s work, and that’s extraordinarily rare. In fact, I can only remember a few poets that we’ve both been totally sold on, and with the exception of Aaron Abeyta, they’ve both been dead for more than 100 years. Thus, whether you prefer performance poetry, or classics, Shakespeare, Ginsberg, Neruda, Peggy Godfrey, or TVs and two fingers, I suspect that many of the poems in Touch of Grace are bound to move you, too.