Linda Nemec Foster’s Talking Diamonds Expresses Both the Joy and Heartache of the Human Experience

Linda Nemec Foster is one of Michigan’s most seasoned and widely-respected poets. Although she was born in Ohio, she has lived in Michigan for over thirty years and continues to earn deserved public praise and extensive professional acknowledgement for her prolific writing. In Nemec Foster’s ninth and most recent collection of poetry, Talking Diamonds, words flow effortlessly into fluid phrases that evoke deep emotional responses. While Nemec Foster has been known to write poetry on all subjects, in this collection published in 2009, she exhibits a darker, more cynical side to her writing. She does not waste words telling idealistic love stories or writing feel-good fairy tales. This is a book full of reality.
Because of this realism, the collection immediately engages the reader, who can directly relate to the stories of struggle and heartache. The poems ring with the authenticity of experience that cannot be feigned. The familiar feeling of loss, the fragility of life, and the inevitability of death are frequent subjects of the collection. However, all is not dark and gloomy. The book also contains hints of hope, and poems often resolve with an overall message suggesting the everlasting nature of the earth, and the ability of life to overcome destruction and death. Like in many of her other collections, nature is a key theme in Talking Diamonds. The natural world provides both a reoccurring subject and allows for a great deal of metaphoric richness throughout the collection. The underlying message of the book may be the idea that beauty and love can mingle with pain and help someone struggling with loss to persevere past their grief and progress into healing.
In her poem “Copper Harbor: Early October,” Nemec Foster describes the collapse of summer flowers in the first cold weeks of Autumn: “every wildflower signals its own death— / … all their colors will effortlessly change / to vague gray before the deep cold begins.” She then uses this image as a starting point to comment on the transient and cyclical nature of all life, and to point out that humans are not the center of existence, but simply part of the big picture of all of creation: “And look at us, with our intense observations, / as if we were spectators that really mattered.” She uses this idea throughout the collection to remind readers that instead of trying to control and manipulate the world around us, it would be more fruitful for humans to pursue a peaceful coexistence with nature, to appreciate all that it offers us in beauty and life, and to look to the natural world for hope and proof of a divine presence in the universe.
Nemec Foster concludes this poem with a surprising metaphor which extends the comparison of life cycles and seasons to include all life on earth throughout history, and the question of eternal life after death.
We witness the brief high-color season
when even the weeds enter a state
of self-realization and it stuns us. The hope
that at the end—at the very moment we leave
all that we have become to enter
the coldest of seasons—our colors will be true.
This “high-color” season, or period of time on earth pulsing with the existence of human beings and the “self-realization” of even the smallest forms of life, is “brief,” and when death, the “coldest of seasons” finally claims us, it is natural to hope we have lived up to our potential as individuals and as a people. Whether or not human beings have had a positive or negative influence over the earth during their existence is another matter that seems to be open for interpretation in many of the poems in the collection. The question of the long-lasting effects of humans on the natural world and on the earth, and the necessity of humans to take responsibility for their environment is a common thread in many of Nemec Foster’s poems.
In “Total Eclipse,” the insignificance of humanity on the grand scale of the universe is again emphasized by the poignant description of the everlasting and dependable rising and setting of the moon.
...the moon can leave and come back
to still find us with our whole bodies intact,
unchanged; except for our deaths, a little closer.
Compared to the whole of creation, in the steady march of time, human influence and experience is not eternal. The natural world continues on its course without any notice of people’s daily fears, joys, hopes, or cares. However, this can also be seen as a hopeful image, in which we are able to witness wondrous displays of natural beauty and splendor—such as the simple movement of the moon across the sky—and revel in the joy of living in a world with so much raw magnificence.
In addition to the natural world and the comparative insignificance of the human race as a reoccurring source for imagery and metaphor in Talking Diamonds, the fragility of human life on a more personal and smaller scale is also a common theme. One especially touching poem describes a group of disabled children swimming at the YMCA, and portrays the children experiencing a rare freedom of movement in the water before reclaiming their usual land-bound disabled forms.
For one hour they can lose
their bodies in the water
and become seamless veils,
long cascades of movement
...soon the children will return
to the estranged bodies they left
at the water’s edge
The poem is resolved with the suggestion that these children, although locked into the prison of their damaged bodies, hold a key to human compassion that others, with fully-functioning bodies, may fail to understand. The humility and straightforward kindness of these children should be a lesson to the rest of humanity, who take for granted the simple miracle of walking and talking.
Because the secret heart of every
fairy tale is locked deep within
these children. Because this heart
beats in goodness which is rarer
than perfection. Because this heart
is like the water: uncaring yet
kind, transparent yet full.
While many of the poems in Talking Diamonds have the suggestion of hope at the end, the collection also includes moments of darkness. In these moments, grief and horror are the only possible reaction to experiences, and they overwhelm the speaker and the reader. The conclusions of these pieces have no redeeming flash of wisdom or optimism, but are desperate and hopeless. In the poem “9-11-01,” Nemec Foster expresses the despair and disbelief that every American struggled with on that day, and does not attempt to offer a rationalization or consolation for the loss that this country endured.
...we are doomed
to live in the present.
…today, when time stopped
and was turned upside down,
the hourglass retreating
into its own amnesia
of disbelief, the day
that burned the present
in our minds…
As if time lost all sense
of itself and forgot
to more forward
The poem ends with the strong image of a man lost and confused, with no apparent escape from his own disorientation—eternally arguing with himself, no one to assist him. Nemec Foster accurately and poignantly captures the hopelessness of that day, and in this case, no hopeful ending would have been appropriate.
There are other moments in the collection, which focus on the hardships that life on earth necessitates. In instances such as the terrorist attacks in September 2001, it is plain to see the corruption and hatred that senselessly poisons people against one another. However, in many instances this perversion of brotherhood and lack of human solidarity is harder to perceive. “Deserted Fairground, 1947” tells the story of what often goes unseen and unreported, but what pervades our communities nonetheless. The poem begins by describing a painting, empty of inhabitants, a simple urban landscape. But like the corners of a city that go untraversed by tourists, there are stories locked in the picture that go initially untold.
Try to imagine what the frame doesn’t hold:
an urban landscape with a misplaced state fair-
grounds and two lovers sweating into each other
in a nearby upper flat. In a week, the crack
house down the street will go up in flames.
In a month, two corpses will be carefully
arranged in the back alley. Next year,
a single bullet will find its way
into the lovers’ kitchen. No questions
asked, no answers given. God just outside
your field of vision, with a closed mouth.
The poem seems to suggest that sometimes there are no good explanations for the hardships life holds, that God’s hand cannot always be recognized behind a difficult situation. However, it is up to us as people to tell the untold stories of our community, and to reach out to each other to prevent the spread of misunderstanding and hate. In the end, it is the experience and the chance to develop human empathy that give pain and loss value. The very presence of poems expressing the pain of loss and despair indicates that healing is possible through the articulation and sharing of these feelings. If God is not the source of horrible events such as those described in “9-11-01” and “Deserted Fairground, 1947,” then perhaps it is God that extends the possibility of growth and healing through friendship, love, and the therapeutic power of expression through art.
Perhaps my favorite poem in the collection is “Red Amaryllis, 1937,” a three-part poem that is a deeply touching commentary on the beauty of the human experience and the value of life. The third part of the poem focuses on the last days of a dying man’s life, and how the man decides to experience the magnificent beauty of the earth before he leaves it. night
you kept yourself awake to watch
the sun rise on an early December morning.
How you noticed every nuance of black
becoming less black, becoming gray,
becoming dull white, becoming blue.
The colors on your street finally
remembering themselves. As if you
saw it all for the first time:
the world putting on its dazzling wardrobe
and you, wanting to touch every glistening strand.
The simple joy of watching a sunrise and taking the time and energy to truly absorb every color that the sky produces is a touching and glorious way of expressing the value of every second of life. It is this value that we as a human people must extend beyond the last days of life, to include the whole of every experience we have from infancy to old age. If we are able to do this, to truly and fully appreciate the opportunity we have been given to live in this glorious and awe-inspiring world, then I think Linda Nemec Foster would agree, that our path to peace and harmony would be one step closer. Because, as the poems in Talking Diamonds make clear, it is not the specific events in our lives that make us who we are and shape our contributions on earth, but the value of whole human experience—grief, pain, loss, and healing—and how we share that experience with others.

Works by Linda Nemec Foster

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