Her pitch is invariably direct, her images (water, fire, weight and pressure, refuge, fish bones, snow and cold) recurrent and spare, her themes (addiction, love, eating disorder) evident, her phrasings plain and tending toward rigid—she's the rare contemporary poet who I wish would enjamb more—and her endings are invariably low-key. Yet all the same it's hard to pin down Nina Puro's poetry. She's not evasive, but something is escaping her, and the achievement of her language lies in how it enlists the reader in the pursuit of this absent figure even while hinting, openly and often, that given what they both know of the past, success is impossible.
It ought to be, and is, a crushing recognition. Still, what the chase provides is, if not relief from that weight, at least a chance to activate it, make it fluent and contingent. This describes a function of laughter, but Nina's poetry is unrelentingly serious—not as if humor were beneath it, but beyond it for the time being, too destabilizing or else too cruel. The rudimentary aspect of the poems' speech reflects, I think, a convalescent spirit, one too concerned with recovering definition, its own and that of others, to disrupt it. If they intrigue the reader, they do so by other means: the beauty of sound and phrasing (most prominent, I think, in “Outlived” and “Bitters”) is one such means, the economy of phrasing, present through the selection, is another. But perhaps most interesting is her unfolding of specific homonyms: the crook that could be a thief, but also a bend, the fluke that could be an accident, fish, or anchor. The radiation of potential meanings which at once commits to all and none is among the sweetest prerogatives of poetry, and Nina's cautious baring of the artifice does not detract from its power or delight, and may even heighten them. In any case, it helps her “get her act together” by clarifying her decision (nonexistent prior to her exercise of language) between the ways things could be, as opposed to the imposition of how they have been (with the implication that they must and will be so) upon her.
The nervy, somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere of the poems, though reminiscent of certain strains of confessional poetry, still differs fundamentally from the aura that emerges from the poems of Olds or Sexton: in Nina's work, the theatrical, thrill-seeking impulses of “first-wave” confessionalism have been peeled back, scaled down, punctured even; such tendencies, such habits are precisely what the speakers of the poems are attempting to break away from. They don't quite get out, but they are, at the very least, on their way; the poems' images, which cannot be reduced to ciphers of a single self or body, testify to that, and their close, sometimes depleted physical environments nonetheless provide sufficient vantage to observe that something more than the observer's breaking down. Guarded, wanting, and intrepid, the poems have a stability born from the acknowledgment of all that is, for worse and for better, unstable in the world.
A recent graduate of the MFA program at Syracuse University, Nina Puro works part-time at Persea Books and George Braziller, Inc. and writes free-lance. I'm very happy to introduce her.