For Linda Nemic Foster and John Otterbacher, a recent reading on the campus of Aquinas College was something of a home-coming. Both of these Michigan writers are Aquinas alumni. Nemic Foster graduated in 1972 while Otterbacher did the same in 1966, and both read poems that resonated with the power of memory and the slow wisdom of aging. Though each read for only fifteen minutes, the words were carefully and lovingly read, as if the feelings of being in a familiar place lead the writers to deliver their work with a sense of ease and confidence.
It was fitting that Linda Nemic Foster took the podium first. She, along with her husband Tony, founded and continues to fund the Aquinas College Contemporary Writers Series, a wonderful program that brings a wide array of talented writers to the Grand Rapids literary scene. Begun in 1997, the program is in its fourteenth year of existence, and continues to stand one of the best local poetry and prose performance venues around. Nemic Foster began her reading by explaining how much Aquinas College had shaped her, not only as a writer, but as a person. She claimed that were it not for the experiences she had at Aquinas she would have never written many of the fine poems included in her expansive repertoire.
Much of Nemic Foster’s reading was concerned with memories, and the power they hold over our present lives. She began with a poem entitled simply “9-11-01” that explored the ability of certain powerful moments to slow down time, rendering it nearly meaningless. With stark imagery and a stalking pace of delivery, she recalled how the news of the tragic attacks shattered the normalcy of that day, how the instants in which we make coffee and drive to work are also the same instants in which people die and evil manifests itself on a mass scale.
In another poem entitled “Amber Necklace for Gadansk,” Nemic Foster seemed to go on a diatribe against the polished products of the jewelry industry that our culture holds up as supremely beautiful. The poem describes these objects as processed and dead, all their natural power lost in the manipulations of man. True beauty for her lies not only in the look of the object, but in the history that it holds, evident in the poem through her descriptions of a simple necklace of amber found in Poland, where her family history has deep roots. Such objects, the poem contends, are far more priceless because they connect us with something far deeper than vanity.
The most powerful poem of the set was entitled “Family Tree.” In it, Nemic Foster evoked a strikingly effective circular narrative on her family history. Beginning in Poland, she described the peasant culture her ancestors fled to come to America, focusing on the toil of hard menial labor that they had to endure even after they came to the States, struggling to find the promise of opportunity and prosperity that they had heard so much about. She then chronicled the loss of old cultural values and the diminishing of language, looking with sadness upon the Americanization that seemed inevitable. The poem concludes with a picture of her own children, whom she says have nothing left of their history besides a postcard in the bottom drawer. This poem was beautiful in its sadness and tender in its sense of regret, with the slow pacing of the lines helping the images come clearly through to the reader.
In her concluding poem, an acrostic entitled “True Love,” Nemic Foster brought the focus back to Aquinas, which was also the place where she fell in love with her husband and life-partner, Tony Foster. Reading the poem, she seemed to forget about everyone else in attendance accept her husband, who was seated in the front row. Though acrostic poems can often come across as juvenile or simple, Nemic Foster used the form effectively, exploring the layers of true love letter by letter and showing how memories can hold joy as well as sadness. The lines showing how love, purpose, family, and place all intertwine into the joyously chaotic and mysterious entity we know as life, showing how sometimes it all just works out for the best.
As soon as John Otterbacher took the podium, it was clear that he was a writer of a far more personal and introspective nature than Nemic Foster. Otterbacher read exclusively from his latest work, a non-fiction book entitled Sailing Grace. Otterbacher referenced his reading by telling the story behind the book, which was nearly as captivating as the prose itself.
With splashes of dry humor that sent chuckles through the crowd, Otterbacher told how he had recently undergone a litany of medical procedures to try to repair his ailing heart. When operation after operation proved unsuccessful, he began to lose hope, and entered a trying period in which his was thrust into a premature confrontation with his own mortality. He soon found himself not living, but simply waiting for death. It wasn’t until his wife proposed the idea of taking a lengthy sailing trip that Otterbacher latched onto the goal of restoring an old sailboat for the trip. After a few days, the boat and the trip become something to live for, providing him with focus and a source of vitality, and allowing him to fight for his life rather than surrender it out of fear of failure.
Otterbacher’s story of how he eventually underwent a successful heart operation and lived to take that trip with his family was immensely powerful. Both his prose and his banter is stout with the strength of a man who doesn’t take things for granted. He read with great humility and great intimacy, welcoming the audience to share in the recollection of his greatest moments of life and his brushes with death.
In the first excerpt from Sailing Grace, Otterbacher described a moment in which he had to stay in a motel room with his “wild” oldest son so that he can be near the hospital for a series of operations. With stiff admission, he describes the intense pain he is feeling, and the utter lack of control he has over his once fit body. He is bound to the bathroom, weak and getting repeatedly asked by his son if he needs any help. As their gazes lock in the bathroom mirror, the father is paralyzed by the feeling of vulnerability he experiences.
Another excerpt describes Otterbacher alone on his back in the hospital, unable to escape the cries and the suffering of everyone in the hospital. Feeling suffocated by death, Otterbacher contemplates his mortality, and wonders if it isn’t true that “perhaps we control what matters least.” Scenes like this one seem to permeate the book, and the passages are extremely well written. They do not sound like complaints, but rather like the imparting of experience, which makes them far more bearable to hear. The audience can tell from the words that Otterbacher is working through the pain instead of losing himself inside of it.
Fittingly, Otterbacher ended his reading by selecting an excerpt from the part of his book which chronicles the sailing trip. This section is refreshing, and builds off the first section by relating the positives that came from Otterbacher’s harrowing experiences. In a particularly moving passage, Otterbacher describes sitting on the deck of the boat with his wife during a strong storm. The children are below, and even though the winds whips and the waves crash and the ocean waters sprays them in the face, he and his wife look at each other and silently know that everything will be alright, because compared to the physical and mental storm they have endured as a result of his health problems, nature’s storms are nothing.
For John Otterbacher, coming back to Aquinas was a testament to the human spirit’s sheer determination to exist, to return back to what it has always known to be true, the simple pleasures of love, life, and learning to be happy. Likewise, for Linda Nemic Foster, it is impossible to forget the places we have been because they have helped shape who we are, and our memories help us to continue on in a state of becoming. These two have helped get the Aquinas Contemporary Writers Series off to a great start, and it can be said with certainty that what Linda Nemic Foster helped start will continue on in a state of becoming as well, providing us an opportunity to immerse ourselves in some of the best literature Michigan has to offer.