In her poem "Argument with My Mother," North Carolina poet Nancy Simpson describes autumn with brilliant brushstrokes: "My passion/ was the psychedelia of scarlet maples/ flashing on the mountainsides." The older woman prefers springtime: "I don't like fall./ Trees are shedding tears."
Simpson manages to turn her lovely description of a countryside drive into a poetic exploration of the relationship between mother and daughter. Many of the poems in her new book, Living Above the Frost Line, grab onto some detail in the natural world and internalize it, as in the lines "Leaves curl on the forest floor like wrens./ My mind must collect itself."
The book is a collection of new and selected poems, ordered chronologically and spanning 32 years of the poet's work. The most recent former poet laureate, Kathryn Stripling Byer, selected the book as the inaugural publication in the new Laureate Series published by Carolina Wren Press. The press, which is supported by a grant from the North Carolina Arts Council, plans to publish both prose and poetry by underrepresented writers in the series, selected by poets laureate and other esteemed writers from the state. Simpson, a longtime member of the North Carolina Writers' network, co-founded Netwest to serve the literary community in the westernmost counties of North Carolina.
From the first page, you can see Simpson shares many poetic qualities with Elizabeth Bishop: an eye for detail, keen observation and a proclivity for nature poetry, in Simpson's case, mixed with a North Carolina flair. On the very first page is a poem titled "Driven into the Interior," which is very similar to Bishop's "In the Waiting Room." It is a coming-of-age poem, or the portrait of an artist as a young girl, where the child observes a bare-breasted woman in "Geographic" magazine and likens her to a stone carving, which infuses the girl with a "new respect/ for bowls and the oven in her kitchen." The girl in the poem doesn't travel as far as the places in Geographic; she grows up, instead, to live in Appalachia. As the first poem, it sets the tone for a book that is grounded in a sense of place, celebrating the domestic, the personal and everything else that makes up life in North Carolina.
The title poem of the book perhaps best describes that sense of place and the connection between nature and the personal: "Living above the frost line, I get a slanted view./ Cleome still blooms, but time is running out." This poem has a sense of urgency to show the importance of the view from the mountains, to hold on to the beauty of nature or even to defy the odds: "'Frost line' is not definitive, but I discuss it/ with old-timers who believe and say, Grow Apples." There is a pun at play here: That quintessential nature poet Robert Frost also loved to pun on the words frost and line. Simpson takes nature poetry beyond the lines of Robert Frost into the realm of personal expression, imbuing her world with heart: "Here in my garden,/ knockout roses still bloom their hearts out."