What is beautiful about Miriam Nash’s newest collection, All The Prayers in the House, is that it maintains a secular, or practical, spirituality, and comes from a space of grieving determination. Nash writes her poems in a search of guidance, similarly to how those who are out at sea search for the blinking lighthouses to guide them on their travels. This book is successful in that Nash holds her family’s tradition of lightkeeping — as one reads on, it becomes clear that the book itself is its own light, which both Nash and the reader have been searching for.
Appropriately, this book opens and closes with a prayer. We are ushered in through “Vesper,” (a term meaning both a prayer and a star) which tactfully imprints an image of hands through another action, so that “In each bottle of nail polish a ghost / sets all the prayers in the house to glint.” Perhaps the poet brings her hands together in prayer, or perhaps the act of painting her nails is a form of prayer: meditative and soothing. The reader is well aware what time and place they are in. That this is a book which calls on the everyday to hold them while everything changes.
In the first half of the book, we are overcome by the lights, as though this section is meant to give thanks to the beacons that have shaped our past and from which we may depart. There are letters to Robert Louis Stevenson, whose family once worked as lighthouse engineers on the same island which Nash spent the first years of her life. There are many poems of Nash’s younger years, her mother and father, braided with lore from her island — personal stories and stories that have been passed down through generations that have come to be as much of the landscape as the sea.
Midway through the book, “The Walking Father Blues,” a pantun which was featured in The Guardian’s Poem of the Week, announces a shift. We are now with the author who has watched her family splinter. “Easy, the pair of walking shoes / lead him at last to his new door.” The emotional shock of the poem is emphasized by the intensity of form, so the effect is like a bell tolling an end. The details hold this effect with “mugs swinging neatly from their hooks,” such language is minute and quakes with a larger meaning. We are impressed with the poem’s success and struck by the loss.
The question after this poem, is now how to go on living? When what we have known is taken, what blueprint is there to follow? We see the author constantly question her own relationships, and her parents’ separate relationships. Nash asks how to navigate without lights, and as the lights fade from her poems they are replaced with a repetition of being underwater. And there are moments where she finds solace in other spaces: a ladybird on a round leaf; dancing with her sister at Torcross; The Michaelmas feast with her family, where they’d “fashion a dragon / and jewel her jaws / with tomatoes, yellow and red.”
In this section, she uses fairy tales to explore her relationship with herself and her lover, and also a delightfully terrible 17th-century Ladies’ Dictionary. Her poems span the globe and her relationship with her sister, her lover, and herself. She returns to her past and shifts, so that the reader is also shifted, and understands the determination of a woman who has come to make her life.
The book may be an exploration or a plea or a song (fine — it’s all of it), but it ends in prayer — though not a traditional prayer, but a reflection on how she was taught to pray. In “Dear Mother Father God,” there is the question of life and the desire to make one’s own, while acknowledging that there is somehow chance. While she may be thinking of prayer, if the man she loves “needed help, he’d shout out Miriam and I’d come down.” Neither action is far from the other.
Miriam Nash is a poet, performer and creative writing facilitator. Her debut collection, All the Prayers in the House (Bloodaxe, 2017) won an Eric Gregory Award from the UK’s Society of Authors. She completed her MFA at Sarah Lawrence College as a Fulbright Scholar. www.miriamnnash.com.