‘Pacific Walkers’ by Nance Van Winckel

  • COLDFRONT RATING: four-half
  • PUBLISHED BY: University of Washington Press
  • REVIEW BY: Elizabeth McLagan


“Who wasn’t cold / in the old life?”


PWalkersThe poems in Pacific Walkers, Nance Van Winckel’s sixth volume of poetry, revisit the landscape of death and forgetting in two sections: those who’ve died nameless and orphaned possessions scattered in the cemetery of thrift shops and antique stores. Her verbal dexterities, precise and playful, make each poem a high-style pleasure—short, dropped lines trade with caesura, buoyed by language steeped in imaginative leaps and surprises, at once tough and engaging, lit by the fires of grief and consolation. Throughout this collection, we experience the self yearning for connections, even if it is only, as in so much of our lives, anonymous, accidental, and brief.

Considering the washed-up bodies found at a river’s edge or in culverts—mostly male, occasionally premature infants—we encounter a cub reporter speaking in the first poem, “Signing on with the Daily Sun,” who promises technical competence (“I can type/to your health”) and objectivity (“I can keep my prayer mat/under wraps”). The poem concludes: “I can stay anon. I can live anon./I can keep anon in my heart.” Here language is the agent of sanitized information, casting these deaths into oblivion. And yet.

Multiple speakers step forward as we read on: that reporter, mature poet (sometimes both, as in “The River Pulls Awake a Morning”), mother of a dead baby (“Annunciation”), or the dead themselves, as in “Afraid of my Rays, No One Comes Near,” concluding:

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The mature voice of the poet listens hard, leaning in. From journalistic procedure to questioning to the assumption of the lost ones’ voices, an empathic transformation occurs, poem by poem. Many pieces pair the texts with actual death records; among the details frequently recorded are the subject’s height and weight and the name brand and size of the shoes they wore—hence the title of the section and the book itself. Detailed descriptions of clothing and brand names, wear mark information (“frayed” “broken,” “held together by a paperclip”), tattoos, and the like fill out the text, ending each entry with notations about fingerprints and dental records (in one case: “This man had no real teeth;” often, “no match found”). It’s clinical, formulaic music, occasionally clumsy, adding anonymous texture and haunting weight to the stories of those abandoned to a solitary death.

The second section, “Rain On,” chronicles such orphaned possessions as photographs that should have been passed down, now the stuff of secondhand stores. It’s a reminder of how easily the past is erased, even within families, and yet how a sense of the past remains in things. We wear the clothes, handle the images, and let them whisper to us.

“Rained On” finds the speaker inside after a wet walk to feel her own legs “as though they belonged to someone else/and wouldn’t last.” Having made her own last will, she looks around the room. Here is the second stanza:

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The speaker’s own sorrow is always peripheral and hidden but cumulative, a reminder of how the practice of close attention can comfort and console grief, as the speaker discovers in “Who Died and Made You Our Foreigner?:” “I am so very me/in you: invisible seams, buoyant bodice.” The speaker’s empathic imagination extends beyond the human. There is an ode to a stuffed eagle (“Stopped in the Midst of Going On”), a fox stole (“Stole (Wedding Photograph, 1911))”, and a moth. Here is the conclusion of “A Last Moth of August:”

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The poems in Pacific Walkers carve a double arc, marked by internal divisions within the sections: On—In—Out. This could be the passage of a body through a river, first floating, then sinking, then spit out. Or surface, depth, recovery: stages of identity, experience, and grief. The motif of water, most present in the first half (specifically the rivers around Spokane, Washington) extends to its frozen state, as in the previously quoted “Happy and Terrified When We Wake:” “The ice creaked. We could/hear it still.”

But water is present also in the second half, especially in the final two poems, a kind of double elegy of grief and recovery. In the first, “Shut Up & Row,” two sisters attempt to illegally scatter ashes in a lake—only the ash won’t sink. The banks whisper and weep: “It’s their business–/the balm before embalming.” A bit later, “lightning plants its gilt kiss” while “the gnarled fingers of creeks/inch down and poke at the lake’s flat chest.” The lake becomes “their sunken city/of childhood,” and ultimately, after remarking “the sky’s flames bogus,” the last stanza:

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The final poem, “No Sign of My Passing,” finds the speaker alone on a secret beach, without a radio’s “discernible station,” only white space in the white space, waves which “furrowed out and folded whitely in.” The speaker sits calmly, eating an apple, “unsure/at the last about the center,/then polishing off even the stem/and the small black seeds.”