Posted June 1, 2020.

The Leaf, by Nancy Christopherson, reviewed by Paul Telles

The Leaf by Nancy Christopherson

Nancy Christopherson (July 13, 2015), 66 pp $8

ISBN #: 978-0-692-42433-9

Available at:

In her 2015 book, The Leaf, Oregon poet Nancy Christopherson showcases uncommon poems about one of the most common human sufferings—the loss of a parent. In poems deployed throughout her self-published collection, Christopherson builds a loose thematic arc that poignantly explores her mother’s loss of independence, her death in an assisted care facility, and its implications for those she left behind.

This thematic development reaches its climax near the middle of the book with a series of six consecutive poems filled with keenly observed imagery that conveys deep feeling without lapsing into sentiment.

“Reconciliation on Blue Mountain,” for instance, finds Christopherson reviewing her relationship with her mother as the woman approaches her final days. The poem begins with Christopherson and her son looking for a spot to bury his pet rabbit in the mountains near their home in Eastern Oregon. Noting that her son was angry and bitter, / not about the rabbit, / but about other things, Christopherson gradually picks up on his mood as she drifts into reverie about her mother. At first, she shows fondness for the ailing woman, remembering how her lips tremble sometimes when / she searches my eyes with her gentle / blue eyes for her lost memories. As the poem proceeds, however, Christopherson turns to bleak recollections of betrayal and abandonment:

… On my thirteenth

birthday she married Dick, who hawked

insurance and everything else, took his

thick leather belt to my brother, then

took our mother away in his ugly

Jeep pickup, all the way to Alaska,

leaving my brother and me behind.

How could she do that? Go with him.

Reminding herself that these events occurred a long time ago, Christopherson finds reconciliation by recalling my mother’s pain. / My father’s pain and even Dick’s pain as he lay dying of cancer. She counsels her son that we must learn certain things like patience, / forgiveness, perseverance. After the rabbit is consigned to a grave festooned with wild flowers, the poem ends with imagery that suggests a new basis for Christopherson’s relationship with her dying mother.

And besides, I love to brush her hair, it’s thick

and white and soft.

“When My Mother Died,” arguably the climax of the entire book, begins with a stark observation:

When My Mother Died

Her right eyelid didn’t close all the way,

leaving a shallow band of opaque

at the bottom

Christopherson describes how she unsuccessfully tried to close her mother’s eye by using my right fingertips / the way they used to do in the movies. When her mother’s eye refused to stay closed, Christopherson pressed it back open, but the eyelid returned to its half-closed position.

It would only slide slowly back down,

leaving that same shallow band

of opaque at the bottom

In the end, Christopherson accepts her mother’s eye—and death—as they are:

not her choice, not mine,

but some other.

The last of the six poems, “Putting Things Right,” shows Christopherson’s family growing close after the mother’s death. Dedicated to Christopherson’s brother, Allen, the poem focuses on moments immediately after the funeral when the siblings sit on a lawn watching nieces and nephews play. Reminded how she and Allen played on lawns as children, Christopherson fondly recalls tumbling / head over heels and grass in our hair, / bits of thatch, / laughter. Sadly but inevitably, Christopherson’s thoughts turn back to the childhood trauma described in “Reconciliation.” This time, though, she pays tribute to Allen, who is described as tender and loving despite his suffering.

You, who were abandoned too soon

by your mother, who got down anyway

onto your hands

and knees to lower mom’s urn into dirt,

and who so patiently now

holds urn above dirt while I snap, briefly, the

necessary shutter.

The Leaf’s poems about death and dying are interwoven with skillful poems on other themes, such as the relationship between nature and human creativity, travel, and ars poetica. Many of the 38 poems in The Leaf portray moments when the Eastern Oregon landscape intersects meaningfully with Christopherson’s inner life. One of my favorites was “Master Heron,” one of three poems that contemplate the Great Blue Heron. This 13-line poem begins with Christopherson observing a Heron standing tall on the rocky bar / deep in his own contemplation of water / and of fish.

Calling the bird a monk / in smoky grey feathers, Christopherson admires its patience so much that she takes it as a spiritual master. She aspires to the same patience, watching him carefully with the hope she can become heron. The poet ends by observing the bird’s majestic aloofness: He sometimes allows this.

Unfortunately, despite the obvious quality of Christopherson’s work, I felt the collection lost some of its energy and focus in the second half. The first half of the book foreshadowed the climactic series with vivid, intimate poems. One of the most striking was “Mending My Mother’s Clothes,” an understated lament in which Christopherson lovingly recalls sewing sessions with her mother while performing simple repairs the woman can no longer do for herself. In the second half, however, poems approach death dramatically, historically, and symbolically. “Mona Lisa” and “Death on the Farm” are third-person poems about women grieving and confronting their own mortality. The final poem, “Blizzard at Ground Zero,” uses a rich description of a snow-filled landscape to warn of an impending white where the imagination falls silent. While each of these poems has its heartfelt virtues, they seemed to emotionally distance the collection from realities it had bravely confronted earlier.

This minor complaint did not detract from the genuine poetic pleasure I found on every page of The Leaf. Christopherson’s poems are sharply observed and musically composed. They convey a strong sense of place immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with Eastern Oregon. And they display genuine human feeling and wisdom in the face of one of our greatest shared sufferings.

Reviewer bio:

Paul Telles is a poet and Yoga teacher who lives in Beaverton, Oregon. His poems have appeared in Verseweavers, Children, Churches and Daddies, and Currents, a journal published by the Body-Mind Centering Association. He is a winner of multiple Oregon Poetry Association prizes, including an Honorable Mention in the Traditional Verse category in Fall 2019. He is a two-time finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association literary contest.

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