3 out of 4 stars
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Understanding, by Timothy M. Nugent, is a simple, unpretentious volume of poetry that holds more than it appears on the surface. Each poem is clearly personal, some ending with heartfelt signatures – “I love you, Mom”, or “Happy Valentine’s Day!”. Others are dedicated to people by name, a touching reminder of the author’s life and connections. While some poems seem repetitive, and the organization is lacking, Understanding is a charming, comforting read. I rate this book 3 out of 4 stars.
The poems that make up Understanding are not connected by a clear theme, but rather by a feeling they seem to evoke. Some feel like conversations, while others have more of the quality of an oil painting; slowly, methodically tracing something beautiful. Nonetheless, each poem feels connected to the others through a contemplative, if sometimes morally outraged, perspective. The best way I have to describe it is that it feels like visiting the home of a beloved grandparent – things are neat, tidy, and both nostalgic and unbelievably wise.
Most of the poems take the form of loosely rhyming couplets, organized in stanzas of two couplets each, with both rhyme scheme and stanza length broken at the end for ultimate impact. The topics of the poems are ordinary, but charmingly so. Life, love, death, friends, politics, and pets are all described within the poems, as if each poem is a homily to real life. Ultimately, that reality is the most charming aspect of the collection; the simplicity of subject does not minimize the poems, but rather enhances them.
Nonetheless, Understanding struggles in other ways. Sometimes, the language of the poem feels forced, perhaps the result of trying to fit too closely to a rhyme structure without considering the meter as well. This tension does not ultimately detract from the enjoyment of a poem, however, and many are free from such mishaps. A few typos have a similar effect; they are noticeable, but not annoying. The more significant flaw is the order of the poems. The topics meander unsystematically, resulting in jarring sections where several poems in a row will be political, and then the next will be singing the praises of nature. If poems were organized thematically or alternatively spread out so that they did not form distracting clumps, the collection would be stronger.
Ultimately, however, Understanding reveals just that; little imperfections can be overlooked for the sake of the simple insights that the poems relate. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes poetry, but specifically people seeking solace and sympathy. Even the bitingly political poems provide a feeling of comradery – they seem to say that surely there are other reasonable people out there, and even if all you can do is hold your loved ones close, that is enough. Understanding is a delightful collection of poems and, despite its flaws, deeply restorative and enjoyable.
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