When June Nirschl and Judy Roy both retired to Door County, not only did they become neighbors but fellow poets as well, placing their verse in a number of publications.
With neighboring poet Nancy Rafal, in 2004 they published a collection of their work, Slightly Off Q (a clever reference to the county highway that passes by their homes).
In 2009, Roy and Nirschl published Two Off Q, another collaboration of verse, one recognized by the Wisconsin Library Association for outstanding achievement in poetry.
But this year the friends decided to let their individual voices be heard, Roy said, explaining their decision to issue separate chapbooks.
“We had become so closely identified that people often called us by each other’s names!”
Both writers live near Baileys Harbor, Roy for more than 17 years and Nirschl for 14. The two first met at a poetry writing class that David Jones offered at The Clearing in 2001. The following winter, Nirschl took a knitting class taught by Roy at that school and both women joined the Wallace Group, an ongoing poetry-writing workshop.
One year they attended a session at the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a school that has produced a number of our nation’s finest writers.
“There were threads of interest everywhere!” Nirschl recalled.
Roy’s chapbook is a poetical memoir entitled Now and Then, written because she feels that “children and grandchildren don’t really know their parents and grandparents” and subsequently “there are usually many unanswered questions” that come up after the person is gone. She plans to give copies to her offspring and their children to provide answers to those, as yet, unasked questions.
Nirschl’s collection, Before & After, is a reflection on her life in which she speaks of her beliefs, her past and her glances into the future: “I will speak of certainties,” she wrote in one poem, “in light of and as long as.”
The poetry partners released their chapbooks at a reception at the Moonlight Bay subdivision clubhouse earlier this summer and later read together as part of the Peninsula Poets Sister Bay/Liberty Grove ongoing reading program.
In addition, Roy was a featured reader for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Door County Dickinson Poetry Series this September, and Nirschl for Oct. 8.
While the chapbooks were written independently, each includes a muse poem celebrating their friendship. Nirschl’s poem “My Muse” characterizes hers as a woman who “observes life, knits sweaters / from untold flocks of sheep” and “brings wisdom to our friendship / a focused light to illuminate / my own spirit.”
The 14-year relationship with her muse is unique, she believes, because of their “knowing, being sensitive to our friend’s poetic and intellectual pursuits.
“I am enormously grateful to have come to know Judy in this way,” she added.
In Roy’s “Muse” poem about her friend, the muse “peers through purple-framed spectacles / at my freshly hatched poems. / Grammarian that she is,” and shares tales over coffee: “Her stories, my stories, our stories. / Truth lines everywhere.”
Nirschl’s poem “Like Crosses for Soldiers Slain” is ambiguously poignant as she combines the familiar imagery of a local cherry orchard with an allusion to John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields:”
rows and rows of cherry trees
slender trunks bound white
line the fields in silence. Rigid now
and straight, they stand at attention.
The poem ends:
A pair of crows the sentinels
on a field where blood red fruit
will spill in summer’s passion.
This writer’s favorite in Nirschl’s chapbook is “Wedded,” a two-part poem, one beginning “He of the dancing feet” and the second, “She who fixated / on dust and order.”
The poet paints an honest portrait of a man who “labored in the tavern / until it shrank his spirit / smoked and drank / too much” but who was a father that “loved me.” And she offers an equally frank picture of her mother who “bemoaned too long / the difficulty / of her second child / nearly jumped from the car / at least once,” but “loved me.”
In her poem “Wisdom Late Acquired” Roy writes of the insight that she has gained now that she is of a certain age:
What did I know then of the courage
of old women, exchanging their stories
over those knitting needles, over coffee,
over the phone, of the energy spent
shoring one another up, shoring themselves up
through the shortening seasons.
But despite the sober reality of aging, she keeps her sense of humor in “Wash Day:”
Today at mass, Father Bob
announced that he’d met God
at the Valmy Laundromat
where he brought his shirts and socks,
along with altar cloths,
for their weekly purification.
God, we learn, “wore a gray shawl / and had Her hair pinned up” and when She gathered up her laundry and left, “She might have winked; Father Bob wasn’t sure.”
In her poem, that answers a woman’s question of what she does, Roy explained:
. . . I write of joys and griefs,
of loves and losses.
I am a poet, I tell her.
Remembering and remarking are what I do.
For her answer, if asked the same question, Nirschl would nod in agreement and add the lines of the poem that begins her book, that she:
“. . . speak[s] of certainties
in light of and as long as.”
Before & After by June Nirschl, Quiet Side Press, 2014; and Now and Then: Collected Poems by Judy Roy, Off Q Press, 2014, may be purchased at Main Street Market in Egg Harbor. Copies may be ordered through mail by telephoning the authors, Roy at 920.839.9169, and Nirschl at 920.839.2017.