Jim Westergard (illustrator), James Reaney (author); A SUIT OF NETTLES; The Porcupine's Quill (Poetry) $14.95 ISBN: 9780889843301
Byline: Paul Franz
The title of James Reaney's (1926-2008) book-length poem cycle, A Suit of Nettles, may ring a bell. Some may recall its acclaimed first publication in 1958; others will have read excerpts in the recent Essential James Reaney, also from Porcupine's Quill (and shortlisted for the 2010 ForeWord Book of the Year prize). Still others will think of a tale from the Brothers Grimm -- about a princess who weaves suits of nettles to return six enchanted swans to human form. Yet if this allusion informs Reaney's work, it is partly by way of contrast. For one thing, his protagonists are geese, not swans. For another, they never were human and never want to be. As the goose Mopsus sardonically puts it: "Here look at man. I'll draw him in this dung."
The joke ends up being on Mopsus, of course, when he and several other geese are butchered for Christmas dinner. But if this ending's implications reflect the work's scatological bent, they also play into its emphasis on cycles (vicious and otherwise). Echoing Edmund Spenser's sixteenth-century Shepherd's Calendar, Reaney divides his work into twelve chapters, one for each month. In keeping with pastoral protocol, these chapters display formally diverse poetic dialogues on a range of themes. Love features prominently, but so do...