Nostalgia for the Criminal Past by Kathleen Winter
From the opening, title poem in her debut collection, Nostalgia for the Criminal Past, Kathleen Winter seems to revel in the past, for a time when “Like the children, we were naked,” longing for the kind of innocence wherein “We let our hair grow wild, we never paid taxes,” and we drowned in “silos of time.” But throughout the collection that innocence, through memory, is cut by the sharp edge of adulthood. Winter projects her adult psyche onto the memories creating a childhood that is free of life’s burdens but not naïve. In her poem, “Escape From Eden,” the pre-knowledge, the naïve, world is boring, Adam’s chest rising in sleep “with mind-numbing regularity,” where “nothing [is] at/ stake. We didn’t feel pain, so if there was pleasure/ how were we to know it?” Without knowing mortality or evil, we can’t appreciate pleasure—that is to say as children, we don’t know how good we have it. The moment Eve sees the snake “swallowing the pig beneath an apple tree” and how “That pig made a change in the snake’s flat line,” she becomes aware of death and mortality, and life suddenly becomes thrilling.
But although Winter evokes the familiar Edenic Fall as a symbol for loss of innocence/coming of age, these poems often animalize humans from the get-go, refusing to elevate us above the “beasts,” as in “Animal Philosophy”: “& still you growl as though this chill/ were meant for you, American dog…licking, licking away at your/ self, persisting.” Our very existence “is troubled in a way/ that means no harm to anyone” (“Snapshot of a Boxer”): we have at once individual memories as well as a collective human memory of creation—in both, the relationship between the human and non-human world is fluid as is the relationship between life and death. Indeed, Winter “keep[s] going/ back to dead animals” (“December Pastoral”), like rotting memories, the pungent smell lingering; how “like live ones, they take us.” We can’t escape the past, nor can we return to it—at least not as the same people we were then.
Where Winter does make a more rigid distinction, however, is the separation between the female and male experience. Many of these feminist moments ring too loud to miss, as in the earlier discussed “Escape From Eden” where Eve, not the snake, instigates the Fall. Similarly, the very title of the poem “I Sleep with Patriarchy” makes a clear mark as does its content; Winter asserts “Patriarchy must mark everything/ with intention. His tail/ wakens at the base of my spine.” Winter populates the collection with women who buck the patriarchal system and our expectations: Aunt Noreen who not only kisses but bites Elvis during a movie kiss, a speaker who accidentally kills someone, an Eve who smokes cigarettes after getting Adam and herself “towed out” (“Eve Smoking”) of “That garden.”
While Winter proves deft at juxtaposing strange images and turning a surprising phrase, she occasionally falls upon a flat, overly-familiar line. It is perhaps her deftness at the former that calls such attention to the latter, raising the reader’s expectations. However, despite the disappointment here and there at familiar lines and images such as “a bunch of sour grapes” (“Jellyfish Elvis”) or a symbolic dog “[sinking] his new teeth into [a coyote]” (“Terroir”), overall, Winter’s images and language are surprising and original.
Winter’s first poetry collection suspends time as we know it at turns “ripping us again and again/ out of our upholstered moment” (“Eschatology”), “going backwards” (“Terroir”) through a lifetime of memories, and weaving in and out of timeless mythology and imagination. Identity is fluid in these poems, the individual always part of and made up of the collective human experience. But for all the shifting ground in these poems, one thing is certain: “Even innocence/ has consequences” (“Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc”).
Kathleen Winter’s first collection of poems, Nostalgia for the Criminal Past (Elixir Press, 2012), won the Antivenom Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in The New Republic, FIELD, Tin House, The Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. She recently completed an MFA at Arizona State University, where she edited poetry for Hayden’s Ferry Review.
April Manteris has published poems in The National Poetry Review and Connotation Press: An Online Artifact. She received her M.F.A. in creative writing from Florida State University where she is currently a Ph.D. student and instructor.