Arrivals and Departures
By Nina Berkhout
Reviewed by Kevin Spenst
As if a small museum of metaphor and simile, Nina Berkhout’s fourth collection of poetry, Arrivals and Departures, (BuschekBooks) displays a masterful framing narrative excavated from the emotions and moments at the end of a relationship. In a strikingly minimal approach, Berkhout’s poems range from a single quatrain to no more than four stanzas, with the white silence of the page highlighting the loneliness and fragility of the speaker’s heartbreak. The first poem in the collection introduces the tone and tropes of the book: “February. / The sky glows like polished bone. / It’s not spring yet. Far from it. / The groundhog has seen its shadow.” One of Berkhout’s strengths as a writer is her control of simile and metaphor and in this second line she compares the sky to polished bone, what we will soon see to be a piece of her ex-lover’s workworld. Indeed, archeology is all around her, reminding her of the man who has left her and it’s not until much later that she realizes “ Avoiding you / would have meant avoiding / the outdoors. High ground. / Open spaces.”
Berkhout not only digs for metaphor and simile in archeology but she contrasts this with animals placed in subtly surprising places. In one of the most powerful images in the book, the speaker states: “when I think of you, / the pulse at my neck / and wrists and other areas / gently taps beneath my skin / like bound lobster claws in a tank.” For such sparsity of style, a wealth of emotions are evoked with the speaker recalling the passion of love: “All the while my heart / is a butterfly zoo.” If there is the rare misstep into over-emotive language, “My words keep bleeding / off the page,” the strength of Berkhout’s craft, insight and narrative make up for it in a book worth several visits.