A homegrown garden of verse and paint

Wed, 11/22/2017 - 9:15am

Homegrown has a special taste, and if one happens to know the gardeners, better yet.

So it is with “PRESENT On Block Island,” a new collection of poems by Nancy Greenaway and paintings by Josie Merck, scheduled for arrival this week.

With her opening poem, Nancy leaves no question that she knows and cherishes her island garden: as the ferry glided between swans... I absorbed the essence of this place and was calmed.

Josie’s work, in muted water colors and oils, beginning with the cover, is interspersed throughout the 60-page book, one to a page, like ornamental hedge rows. The garden Josie paints, the one that has brought so many of us here, keeps us here, or brings us back again and again is the sea, of course, and the beaches, but also the uplands, the ponds and hills, the plants and birds, the sky. Many echo Nancy’s opening poem — preserving like jarred fruit the taste of what she sees. It’s all nature for Josie — no people in those pictures. Yet the Ocean View Pavilion on the old hotel property and the eponymous Foundation which Josie supports is all about people, bespeaking her strong commitment to conservation. Little wonder that her island home sports a wind generator.

Nancy’s poems, long and short, of people, places and happenings, have their own ample pages and decorate her broad pallette with humor, sadness, and joy. They’ve sprung like flowers of all sorts out of her experience of a near half century, from her first visit to Block Island in 1970 as a day-long bride, riding currents into harbor, to her permanent move with husband photographer Malcolm Greenaway, four years later. Today, Nancy, as she describes herself, ruddied by New England’s sun/weathered by New England’s winds/a four-seasoned woman, ripened/but not yet withering, teaches English at the Island School, feeding the literature she savors to the upper grades.

Herewith a few examples of her own writing, pulled capriciously from their rightful places in longer poems:

What Nancy sees:

white clapboard-sided hotels, cedar-shingled salt-boxes, fields of glowing daffodils, grasslands, beaches, sea.

And what Nancy does:

It wouldn’t have worked 
 if grades 1-7 hadn’t sung 
 like energetic calling birds, 
 but because they did, grades 8-12 
 couldn’t let silence reign where drummers 
 should be drumming or pipers should be piping...

Her last poem in the book is a long remembrance of Fred Benson, simply titled Fred. It tells his story; captures his essence:

I’m going to put Fred Benson of Block Island 
 right here in front of you...

As for Josie, her book cover sets the tone for the rest of her art. No people to be sure, but a special eye for birds. This reviewer was struck particularly by a long-necked great blue heron with a yellow, accusing eye that seems to say “you better get this review right, buddy, or you’re going to hear from the authors.” He’s done his best.

Standing alone, “PRESENT On Block Island” would charm anyone. It is a must for those who collect island books, and who of us hasn’t? When you shelve it in your literary garden, put it next to Livermore, antique history beside present day emotion, head leavened by heart.

There will be a book signing and reading by Nancy Greenaway and Josie Merck on Friday, Nov. 24, at the Island Free Library from 6:30 to 8 p.m.