For the Fire from the Straw, Heidi Lynn Nilsson


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“The business of poetry is, to my mind, not to deliver the truth but to generate—for the poet and reader alike—a grappling with the very notion of what truth itself might be. If ever-shifting, how lean upon it? Nilsson’s poems are restless, questing, muscular in their thinking—and, in their music, gorgeous. I have had only a handful of first encounters with what I recognized immediately to be an original vision, an authentically new, striking, and gifted voice. One such encounter was with the work of Heidi Lynn Nilsson. Hers is a voice worth hearing—one that doesn’t need to shout in order to prove itself.”

—Carl Phillips, American Poets


“In ‘Straw for the Fire,’ Theodore Roethke writes that ‘straw can feed a fire to melt down stone.’ The poems in Heidi Lynn Nilsson’s For the Fire from the Straw burn with this kind of metamorphic heat. They stun with their intricate troping, high lyricism, and restive God-hunger. They rove—ruthlessly, metaphysically, beautifully—through the realms of doubt, belief, marriage, motherhood, injustice, and transgression without ever once using their brilliant against the reader or resorting to oversimplified piety. Like Gerald Manley Hopkins, she makes manifest the complex human struggle, among other matters of faith, to ‘not choose not to be’: ‘I’ve fought with God,’ she writes in ‘A Record of Loving Water,’ ‘to make myself. / I meant to be, for example, in the blond // breakfast hour, less like the dock / from which we all have looked, / insatiable, down.'”
—Lisa Russ Spaar


“Heidi Lynn Nilsson’s For the Fire from the Straw is a dark and strange extension, to paraphrase Tielhard de Chardin, of a spiritual being having a human experience. The voice reconciles sometimes sinister thoughts in a ‘secular air’ even as she seeks that ineffable from God, Jesus Christ, or the universe. Often shocking in their beauty and forthright worrying through religious experience, the poems sing like psalms. Partly confessing to a silent listener and partly serving as her own inquisitor, the speaker of these poems seems to be awaiting another force in the cosmos, unabashed beauty. Through she sometimes conjures an echo of Dickinson or her own Viking ruthlessness, Nilsson uses poetry for what poetry is for: the unexplained language that explains.”
—Sean Singer

“Lovelessness is not the flaw to fear./ Love’s our lot and what/condemns or saves is where/we place it.” Tweet this


“Came seeming, to me,/at first, unlovely as afterbirth—/Came lovely as the body butting/all that is unlovely out.”
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How Came What Came Alas


Came the hammer, so to speak,
the what-had-been,


for some time, coming. Came
unlike the wrath I had so often


fancied. Came frog song
over pains of open soil.


Came birdsong over brimstone.
Came collected. Came prepared.


No one called, with any voice,
me close to it.


No lightning loud to lord
over—the meek lights


of longing only. Came seeming, to me,
at first, unlovely as afterbirth—


Came lovely as the body butting
all that is unlovely out.


Come wild, I prayed, come
firelike upon my undergrowth,


come like the halberd here
upon my candid breast.


But such as would be fit
for such a coming came said,


came weary of the wilderness,
came kenneled in my head.



The Math of Gifts That Are Not Wages


For all that we have left undone, Father, forgive,
is my favorite phrase to pray.


For all that we have done is too exact—
but that a lack of doing damns, also, adequately


makes the mercy more amazing.
So I was happy on Assateague at midnight—


ink-wet light
on black water—


or so the spirit seemed—
to be alone in my own liturgy


(for all that I have left undone. . . )
until I recalled the sins


I could have, along the way, enjoyed—
and I wanted that pleasure, in the end,


that I denied myself,
to count among the all I’ve left undone—


to even things, so to speak, out.
You walked also with me with your


shoes on and neck bent and said nothing.
The moon was, that night,


slopping her mouth-water
across the face of the sea, and that’s not the way


to love, but the sea kept nodding patiently.
So my God receives me


and not always, I say
a little sadly, but when the waxing


surface of your face makes
your feelings clear


a love leans forth in me
in which no behavior is saved.


Then I don’t know my own head
from the tethered boat.


I don’t know the straight road of sand
from your throat.




Heidi Lynn Nilsson holds a B.A. in English and Religious Studies from the University of Virginia and an M.F.A. from Washington University in St. Louis. Her poems have appeared in Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, Pleiades, American Poets, and The Academy of American Poets’ New Voices anthology. Her chapbook, The Math of Gifts, won the Singer-Sargent Award in 2015. She teaches at The Salvation Army in Athens, Georgia, where she lives with her husband and three daughters.