Nancy Jo Cullen’s collection of poems, Nothing Will Save Your Life, is rooted in everyday rhythms and routines, during what has become an extraordinary time in human history. She searches for meaning in a world that sometimes seems to have lost its way. In “Humans on Mars,” she writes of the climate crisis: “And now, the hottest month yet recorded/While fire creates its own wind & takes flight/And the eternal shore waits, endangered/And (again) we have sinned through our own faults.” The children of climate change and crisis have “become students of commerce.” In “Nothing Beside Remains,” Cullen writes of a generation of children who “have Instagrammed themselves,” forgetting what was here “before we were the lost,” when “we were the living things.” In “Bubble,” she examines the solipsism that is central to social media these days, the superficial illusions of lives that are carefully curated: “Everything we want is on our timeline/& all our fifty thousand thoughts per day/are a limbic reactivity feed.” This sense of how we have fallen, at the work of our own hands, and how we destroy not only ourselves but the world within which we live, is a thematic thread that runs clearly through Nothing Will Save Your Life.
A series of poems that are all titled “Current Mood” are placed throughout the collection, as if the poet is taking a temperature, checking in on state of being or thinking. In the first, the poet writes of the “collision of songbird with windscreen/Immanent or occurring thunderstorms/A dog, alone and shaking in the dark.” All images are signs of impending or current upset, a frisson of static electricity before something woeful arrives or happens. Further in the collection, another “Current Mood” poem asks: “Who gets to be angry, Fish Face, why you so sad?/This grey weather will be the end of you//Yes, there are women all over the Internet/Yes, there are mothers immersed in nostalgia/But you have to stop thinking/Whatever!” It would be easier to not worry as much, to not notice the world falling apart, but it is impossible not to care. Part of our humanness, the poet seems to be saying, is that we must care, even if it upsets us.
The title poem, “Nothing Will Save Your Life,” is a reminder that humans—despite wanting desperately to be in control of our lives—never will be. It begins with a statement of fact: “Fifty percent of the Beatles are dead.” A meditation on youth and aging, and on how we are shaped by our parents’ and families’ beliefs and expectations, “Nothing Will Save Your Life” is full of beautiful echoes as the poet reflects on the fact that “I lost the one faith I thought I had./but first I was a child of devotion.” References to Catholicity are present throughout the book, and this is reflected in the archetype of a statue of Mary on the cover itself. If you have been raised Catholic, whether you practice now or not, you’ll recognize the references and nod to yourself. In the final stanza, the poet writes: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, we danced & we were redeemed/but not even poetry will save our lives.” Poetry will perhaps help us get through them, though, especially in difficult times such as these ones.
In “Slip,” the poet creates a reflective meditation about the passage of time, writing: “In less time than you can imagine I was four years old; was I five?” And then there is a reference to being fourteen, and later, the speaker talks of how loneliness “can travel for generations in a pair of commonsense shoes.” In “A Thing of Beauty,” there is a consideration of aging and how women must deal with society’s erasure of their worth, based on how their physical body ages: “You, now without the qualities that are typical of beauty,/find your individual unit of capital is no longer in demand…Your individual unit of capital is no longer in demand/& women have been burned for far less than that hair on your chin.” Despite this natural aging process that we are all a part of, “each year the birds get drunk on summer.” There is a return, a natural cycle and system, that we cannot ignore or defeat. Better to learn to accept the aging process, but still fight against the misogynistic stereotypes that a patriarchal society has fashioned around women and aging. Better to speak up, through poetry and art, than to be silent.
The poems in Nancy Jo Cullen’s Nothing Will Save Your Life are full of references to pinpoints in memory, with specific references to tiny details of lives lived. In the specific images, the reader sees time passing, people living and dying, all of us passing through this place and not being here for long. There is an awareness of how family influences personal evolution, and how the women we come from form us, and how we must also push back against those patterns that were introduced to us by family, as well as by patriarchal structures of school, church, and society. The final poem, “Evensong,” as a counterpoint to the warnings in the collection, offering hope for the present and the future. Cullen writes: “—on the other hand, we’re still alive &/lilacs, behind the elm, are uncurling…The monks move slowly into the temple/& our hands, our mouths, rise in exaltation.” Yes, this is a key lesson of the poems Cullen offers us here: despite the struggle—despite our falling repeatedly—we must also always get up afterwards. That’s what poetry does. It helps us rise.
Kim Fahner lives and writes in Sudbury, Ontario. Her new book of poems, Emptying the Ocean, was just released by Frontenac House in October. She’s a member of the League of Canadian Poets, the Ontario Representative of The Writers’ Union of Canada (2020-24), and a supporting member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada. Kim may be reached via her author website at www.kimfahner.com