By Nancy Owen Nelson
Kelsay Books; 2022
Reviewed by Edward Journey
Nancy Owen Nelson’s Five Points South: Poems from an Alabama Pilgrimage is a compact volume of impressionistic poems of memory, longing, love, family, regret, and reckoning. The poems trace the author’s evocative May 2019 journey from the southernmost part of Alabama to its northern reaches. While Nelson grew up as a “military brat,” her family regularly visited Alabama relatives. She lived in Alabama, after her father’s retirement from the military, from high school through college and graduate school. The poet now lives in Michigan but regards Alabama as a “home.”
In a brief preface, Nelson reveals that the Alabama trip was inspired by a reading of Barracoon, Zora Neale Hurston’s 1920s interviews with Cudjo Lewis, one of the last survivors of the last slave ship, Clotilda. The trip was taken with her husband, “under the shadow of my mortality,” a month after she had surgery for breast cancer. Five Points South is Alabama State Poetry Society’s 2022 Book of the Year.
In a book marked by liminal exploration, it is fitting that references to roads and pathways are frequent and varied throughout the poems. At Auburn, it is remembered that “Out of misty dreams our paths emerge, / then close again within a dream.” From interstates to dirt roads to brick sidewalks, paths veer, amble, are bumpy and “labyrinthine.” These poems ponder “the road taken, not the one dreamed of” and, later, “roads leading / nowhere.” In “Fairhope, Village of Rising Roots,” the distraction of uneven sidewalks provides an opportunity for uneasy metaphor.
Nelson’s poetic style affords her the opportunity for nuanced allusion in matters of memory and past. This often applies to her search for her role in Alabama’s troubled racial history. “I was born into Dixie,” she declares, “of blood but not of / the same soul that drove the hate around me.” In “May 14: Africatown,” the ghost of Cudjo Lewis still haunts the place where he died, as do the named and nameless spirits to be found in Montgomery’s monuments and memorials. The peace of a cemetery in “May 26: Decoration Day” is strained by the sight of the Stars and Bars on relatives’ graves: “Will we never / be free of this divisive war?”
These are poems of memory and perception that include past loves, family, high school and college, memorable people, present-day realities, and long-gone places. All impacted the poet’s life and are remembered with dignity and respect. A surprisingly loving and detailed description of a pilfered brick from the ruins of an ancestor’s dry goods store in Decatur is followed by a poem about a grandfather making a living hauling bricks with a one-horse wagon. It is in those most personal moments that the poems find their greatest resonance.
Five Points South opens with a Proust quote: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” In Nancy Owen Nelson’s two-week pilgrimage, she views a somewhat familiar landscape with new eyes and new insights. In the poem “May 23: Ode to a Desert Island Supply Company, Birmingham, Alabama” (she likes very long titles), Nelson writes, “I can listen. I can honor. / I can indeed speak.” The past is both examined and honored in these poems.
Edward Journey, a retired educator and theatre professional living in Birmingham, regularly shares his essays in the online journal “Professional Southerner” (www.professionalsoutherner.com).