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Kathleen Winter. Nostalgia for the Criminal Past. Elixir Press, 2012.

I first discovered Kathleen Winter’s poetry a few years ago. At the time I was the Assistant Poetry Editor for The Southeast Review and I was sifting through an endless pile of blind contest entries trying to see what was worth sending on to our final judge. I felt like I was reading the same poem over and over, though I’d read through at least ten different entries. Didn’t anyone have their own personality anymore? Where was the ax to take a whack at that frozen sea within? Where was the…well…the poetry? Then I hit on a poem called “Jellyfish Elvis.” With its young speaker denying her aunt’s stories of a stinky-breathed, bad mannered Elvis, this poem skillfully crafts a metaphor for the behind-the-scenes patriarchy that often gets lost among the more Facebook meme-friendly issues like reproductive rights and pay inadequacies. When this poem says “Noreen still has the scar,” I read “the personal is political,” not to mention it’s awfully clever as well. Our final judge that year, David Kirby, selected it as one of the finalists and I found a new poet to pay attention to.

For me, “Jellyfish Elvis” is one of the cornerstones of Kathleen Winter’s first full-length collection of poetry, Nostalgia for the Criminal Past, which won the 2011 Antivenom Prize from Elixir Press. It’s talky but keeps its toe on the lyrical line and witty but not distractingly so. Additionally, it reminds me of important and painful things that I know, but often conveniently choose to forget, about how the world works (or doesn’t, as the case may be). There are other poems in the collection in which Winter is able to strike this same balance. A good example of this is “Escape from Eden” where Adam gets what’s coming to him because “[Eve] figured if anything could get God’s / attention it was something happening to Adam.” This poem, playing with the story of the Garden of Eden, as Winter does throughout the collection, creates a mythology without heroes and villains, immersing the reader in complexity. Another poem which stands out is “Edge of February” which will change how you look at farm animals forever. When I read “Winter-thick heifers, / lambs with schoolgirl shins in black knee-socks, / what do they care if Egypt’s freed of oligarchy,” I chuckled at the image but also paused for a moment as the truth of the lines registered. I also enjoy the Lucia Perillo quality of the poem that ends with the lovely, yet somewhat creepy, image of joy where “it turns away, extends / its limbs, / feathered, reptilian.”

As a first collection, Nostalgia for the Criminal Past is an interesting read that, as the discussion of the poems above shows, does many things right. Yet, there are times when both the language and the thinking in the poems fail to excite me. In “Snapshot of a Boxer,” I’m expecting great things after the lines “The eight a.m. sun moved out from clouds / like a well-trained MBA / adjusting to changed conditions.” Yet the poem tapers off into a frying pan of meaning with “you waited for one of those people / who think they own trees, / own animals, to look in your direction.” Another glaring example of this issue is the poem “Overheard antique men,” which begins “hanker for things ancient as bad manners, / consider ‘what all women do’ in front of you / like you’re furniture” and also includes a “Sold hope chest” and an “outmoded contraption.” The wonderfully clear yet subtle commentary on gender issues that I enjoy so much in poems such as “Jellyfish Elvis,” vies for space in this collection with heavy-handed cousins such as these.

Some of Winter’s poems are rhetorically heavy-handed, but with a quick and playful rhythm that reminds me of Ruth Stone’s early work, particularly her 1975 collection Cheap. Winter’s “Homage to Homage,” starts rolling along with its opening lines: “Penumbra’s a conundrum, / conundrum is penumbra. / An umbrella’s humdrum— / an elision” and I’m pleasantly lost in its repetition and rhythms. Her poem “The Beat” also has a Stone-like quality to its opening line: “Busy busy busy, the Baroque.” This is promising work.

Jennifer Schomburg Kanke