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Not Black and White

Nadine St. Louis’ striking new book of poetry, Zebra

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by Kinzy Janssen photos by Andrea Paulseth

Imagine a banister’s absence. That feeling – of suddenly discovered space, of catching one’s breath, of crucial balance – is akin to reading the poems of Nadine St. Louis, who challenges us to leave our roles as mere observers and test our feet on thin tightropes, which afford “support so slender / it could cut.”

Zebra, the retired English professor’s second book of poems, was released last October. The title refers to the old medical school aphorism, “If you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” In other words, doctors should assume common causes rather than hastily diagnose rare diseases.

In 2002, after experiencing a slew of unusual symptoms, physicians determined that St. Louis was, in fact, a “medical zebra.” For seven years, St. Louis has lived with neuro-endocrine cancer.

Of the diagnosis, St. Louis says, “It was complicated and maddening. Some people may be able to pretend it isn’t there, or follow through the treatments silently, but I’m too controlling.”

She confronts these new subjects with her steely words, explaining that the restraint of the poetic line affords her even more control over a “world in chaos,” than, say, creative prose. Formulating poetry has always allowed her to hold a subject at arm’s length so she can “see it clearer … see what makes it tick.”

Though her illness is a new theme, St. Louis’s reasons for writing poetry have not changed since her first book of poems, Weird Sisters, was published in 2000. Her writing, she suspects, has matured. St. Louis aims for (and succeeds in) writing poems that are honest, tough, and that combine ideas to uncover meaning naturally. Characteristically, her poems follow a narrative structure and often examine human (and non-human) relationships and encounters. One poem, entitled Shadow, personifies cancer itself as an icy, unwavering presence that “shadows” the speaker.

“You put her / out of your mind, but she follows you, / spilling the salt when you scramble eggs, / overfilling the coffeemaker, / burning toast.”

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