The true nature of poetry is to first give us an insight into the heart and consciousness of the poet, then the collective consciousness of the society that influenced and nurtured that poet.
With his latest collection ‘Heartbreak Ridge (and other Poems)’ Bill Nevins fulfills both of these criteria. His influences stare back from the pages of this collection: the poet’s Catholic upbringing, his Irish roots, his immersion in the popular culture, his sense of justice, and the ideas of his time, inform all that appears between the covers of ‘Heartbreak Ridge(and other Poems)’.
Nevins also draws on the American civil rights and peace movements. When the writers, poets, musicians and artists of the “Times They Are A-Changin” generation opposed wars, domestic and foreign, Nevins was positioned at the vanguard of the excitement: he relished their enthusiasm, idealism and the promise of change.
He leads us gently into where the heart of the poet lies, and for Bill Nevins that heart speaks both from the ancient stones of an ancestral land, and a new cultural landscape, with different mores and values where the public voice of discourse impinges heavily on the consciousness of the individual. ‘Heartbreak Ridge (and other Poems)’ explores how all of these emotions interact, from the deeply personal to the public. Nevins shares with the reader an understanding of how this melting pot moulded him as both person and writer.
“…so that’s how they sang back in the bad old days, for Erin’s sake.”
While referencing the famous early verse of Patrick Carpenter, that gives us insight into the cruel days of famine and penal taxes, Nevins quickly moves to a very modern notion of Ireland: the homeland of his ancestors, populated by articulate people.
While still engaged in a fight and a deep longing for independence, the Irish manage to emancipate themselves through the most powerful of personal freedoms: that of free expression, expounded through singers and songs, through writers, poets, and other freedom fighters:
“Bobby Sands, the dying soldier-prisoner-poet….”
In the poem ‘New Skibbereen’ we see Nevins’ ancestral home Éire once again finding voice and healing through its spiritual and artistic heritage, as it had done through the late nineteenth, and early twentieth century writers and poets of the Gaelic Literary Revival.
To understand the soul of America, we need to read ‘Heartbreak Ridge (and other Poems)’ where the private citizen comes face to face with the noble ideals of a nation conscious of its role as the defender of freedoms: a role labored on the backs of Americans by the wider world, who lambast and laud it, all in the one breath.
To this ideal Bill Nevins and his family paid the ultimate personal sacrifice, losing their son Liam in combat in Afghanistan:
“Embracing, we kiss thy lips, thy wounds in peace, even in death, even in teeth of your death prayers upon us, we ash-cross your brow.” (Why Are We In Afghanistan?)
Echoing Rudyard Kipling’s call to a son lost in a different war, Bill Nevins and his family now yearn “When do you think he’ll come home?” yet the poet does not display any bitterness for this personal loss. Instead he very ably expresses his absolute dismay, utter confusion and anger about the way successive administrations have misrepresented the true feelings of the American people, at home and abroad, in times of crisis.
In poems like ‘Heartbreak Ridge’, ‘Why Are We In Afghanistan?’, ‘Dover Base’ and ‘Warrior Transition Units’ Bill Nevins repeatedly asks whether war and rage are giving America the answers and the healing that it needs.
It gradually becomes clear that Bill Nevins believes peace is attainable more through peaceful means rather than war, or other ‘security options’ that have been so favored by US administrations in recent times. In ‘Days of Death Letters,’ he throws a cynical glance to the military and its empty post-death rituals. Steeped in military glory and its trappings, these rituals of war and death represent little but the re-affirmation of American military power. They serve only to condemn families to a state of continuous grief:
“I have the folded flags and medals to remind me of that.”(Days of Death Letters)
In ‘Fateful Lightning: The Hoodie and The Republic’ Nevins remembers the injustice of Trayvon Martin’s death, which was to herald a number of similar deaths of African-Americans in racially-related incidents:
“Speak to holy rage in Jesus
To the emptied temple and the empty tomb
To the peace in Trayvon’s soul”
In this collection Bill Nevins points constantly to the ability of our artistic souls to express pain, anger and rage. This is what keeps us from revenge; this is what keeps us from violence; this is what keeps us functioning as human beings:
“…poets make everybody else
taste what they taste.” (No Prisoners).
The residual effects of a Catholic upbringing and religious power are strong and moving forces in Nevins’ writing. When best to take control than at the very first sacrament after baptism, the very first personal encounter between the Church through its priest, and the very impressionable young boy at first confession, who has come to be relieved of the burden of his sins:
“…staring at the cold stone Christ whipped by Romans
when Fenton in his stiff Jansenist cassock found me wanting in dogma
expelled me from first confession” (Transubstantiation)
‘Heartbreak Ridge (and other Poems)’ clearly shows us the sacrifice of American families to the universal values and ideals of a free and democratic world. It takes us on a journey through symbols and symbolism, of ideas and ideals, of the artistic, and the spiritual self, that creates a healing space, but most of all we are on a journey with the poet seeking a personal truth.
Bill Nevins opens for us the conscience of a nation deeply confused about its ideals, its history of a noble purpose, and the role foisted upon it by the world. Through Bill Nevins’ poetry and personal loss, we glimpse the real soul of America. There is the private and the public; both are intertwined in stories of love, peace, death, tragedy and the truly personal biography of a lost child to war.
He questions the idea of war and the whole culture and mythology built around it. As did Springsteen years ago with ‘Born in the USA’ Nevins lets us in on more of the truth about this almost mythical place that means different things to so many. Like Springsteen before him, Bill Nevins gives us a glimpse into the consciousness of the individual, and thereby, into the soul of a nation.
Through Bill Nevins’ poetry the reader pieces together a multi-layered depiction of citizen, and country. His historic, spiritual and cultural references reveal how from tough and harsh realities, the American Dream has sustained its people so well; giving birth to an idealism and a sense of purpose, that is unique to itself in the world.
At his best Nevins brings us face to face with our deepest selves, challenging each reader to look into their own value system: to note how society nurtures or impinges on those values and in turn on our lives and how we are allowed to live them. We are measured in the end by our response to how our society and big government corrupts our personal value system.
While ‘Heartbreak Ridge (and other Poems)’ deals with the loss of a beloved son to a war with uncertain objectives, Nevins never allows his great personal loss to dominate the collection. Rather, this great loss influences every question he asks about the value and the sacredness of life.
“The Spring will come,
joyful births will happen again,
the kids will dance
the gifting dance,
every bit as happily as ever young Jesus danced” (If We Make it Through December)
Reviewed by Seamus Ruttledge (May 2015)