Camille and Nancy

Camille Norton and Nancy Stockwell

Camille Norton’s book of poems CORRUPTION, a National Poetry Series winner in 2004, was published by Harper Collins in 2005. She is Professor and Chair of the Department of English at University of the Pacific, Stockton, CA. Camille met Nancy Stockwell once in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, seven years before she died.

Nancy Stockwell, whose archive is housed at the SF Public library Hormel Center, was a writer and founder of the mid-1970′s feminist magazine Plexus. Her archive includes correspondence between Nancy and a number of public literary figures like Susan Griffen. She was diagnosed in her teens with an acute lung condition comparable to cystic fibrosis. Several of Nancy’s diaries are closed to public research until the year 2060, apparently at her own instruction. What might they reveal?


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From Nancy Stockwell’s Archive

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“It has something to do with breath. Something to do with a fiddle. The wind riffling across prairie grass. The wind at the back of her neck as she travels toward the prairie she can never forget.

“Nancy was a serious writer who gave away many pieces of herself. She was restless, always on the move, criss-crossing the country in search of a home. I recognize that impulse to uproot oneself, to start again, to find the place where the writing will come together differently. She sublimated her authentic talent as a writer to political activism, economic survival, and her fragile health– but the writing remained the part of herself I think she would have claimed as her deepest possession. She was vibrant, charismatic, and brave, with a terrible deep cough that scared me since I was a devoted cigarette smoker at the time. The poem is about the two of us, poet and subject, and the topic of breath in poetry and life.

“The poem is an elegy for Nancy Stockwell, who searched for breath in the final years of her life when she had a double lung transplant. It also speaks to the process of waiting to find a way into a poem about Nancy, in other words, the difficult process of writing a poem worthy of her.”

- Camille Norton


The poem she wanted was waiting for the next breath.
She wanted to push it like a girl on a swing.
Into the line and out again,
into the line, out into

switchgrass rippling across the prairie.

How long would it wait, she wondered?
Would it wait longer than the gasp between lightning and thunder?
How long would it hold its breath in defiance of her?

She decided to make a study of it,
of breath that originates in the mind.
Not in the mind, exactly, but in the brain’s
beautiful pith, in the long and narrow
starry shadows of the medulla.

Inside the starry shadows are two kinds of breath:
voluntary and involuntary, like armies and lovers.
There is the breath one masters.
And the breath one is mastered by.

But which was the breath that would master the poem?
And how would she know it when it arrived?

Would be a minstrel breath out of Kansas,
climbing out of her fiddle?
Or the strict churchy music of childhood
lifting up from a steeple into the trees,
some long ago meter that used to mean
you’d go to heaven if you were good.

If she was good, why couldn’t she breathe?
If she could breathe, the poem would go to heaven
the way a girl on a swing heaves away from the earth with a force.

When it came finally, the breath was sweet and dry
as the desert in spring.
The poem sounded like shush, shush, shush.
Then the clatter of wind and something half-heard,
like laughter and an old-timey voice

singing: Something’s wrong with Miss Nancy.
She won’t say and I can’t guess.
Dying, probably for lack of a prairie
or is it breath?

Camille Norton