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Chewing Water by Nelson Ball
reviewed by Sharon Berg

Chewing Water
Nelson Ball
A Stuart Ross Book


On November 20th, 2015, Nelson Ball won the prestigious bp Nichol Chapbook Award for his chapbook Small Waterways, published by Cameron Anstee’s Apt9press. It is a prestigious award, coming towards the end of a long career as a poet. In fact, Ball has authored more than 40 books and chapbooks, and it happens that the poems in his winning chapbook are included in his latest book, Chewing Water, by Mansfield Press (2016).

Ball is a minimalist, and a self-described nature poet. He observes. He ponders. He contemplates. He makes connections to his subject and, in the process of reading his work, the reader makes personal connections, often feeling they are present with him. He asks us to see through his eyes and his minimalisms leave the audience the space to do so. He is entertaining, yet he draws out the ability of each reader to consider their own thoughts. It is as if he points to something and says, There.

Think about that.
for weeks

last evening

it lifted
each leg




Who has never seen a spider do what he is describing? Yet, he asks us all to look again and consider his spider as well as our own. Whether we reconsider a child who asks “Why?” (The Quest For Knowledge), the phrase “it is what it is” (The Meaning of Life), a physical illness (My Tinnitus Crickets), or the rattles and creaks of an old house when you live alone (Windy Night), what makes Ball a powerful poet is his ability to achieve a reconsideration of our common experiences.

Ball addresses a multitude of simple situations, such as how a farmer addresses the decay of abandoned buildings (Orderliness), reflection on his childhood activities as an adult (I Chased Birds), or far larger topics (The Meaning of Life). He brings important introspection to all of them, but it is his use of space through line breaks and his skill with suggestion that opens the reader to interpreting moments in their own life simultaneously.


on the steps
beside me

to light

an unfelt


In some cases, Ball demonstrates how interactions with others come under the spotlight simply because he spends so much time alone in his cavernous home. His list of topics within a conversation are immortalised by a poem as moments frozen in time. It is a process similar to looking at the specimens preserved in glass jars in a nature scientist’s laboratory.

We settled in to a serious talk – Catherine’s project
for a kids summer camp at Wilfred Laurier University,

my poet friend who’s writing twelve books,
my stalled book of poems for Laurier.

When time to leave, Catherine couldn’t find her purse.
Her friend pointed, and as Catherine picked it up, said

“Now you’ve put girl cooties on Nelson’s shoes.”
(Affiliations and Afflictions)

There is a feeling of detachment overwhelmed by severe longing and gratitude for the moments he spends with people he cares about, which is appreciated through humour tucked between the strata of memory in a poet-archaeologist’s study. Again and again, especially in moments when Ball considers his soul mate, Barbara Caruso, the reader is gifted with moments of affection, moments remembered in their relationship, and those small moments of reflection on their intimacy that prove the genuine nature of one’s connection to another human being through playing with it. He remembers her teasing:

She was the most serious and focused person
I have ever known. Almost one-track.

But she could be playful, too. Standing
in front of me, she

would snuggle her nose
into my shirt pocket

(Barbara and Me)

Every now and again, Ball highlights bits of information you might wish you’d never learned, such as: “fecal/ transplant/ therapy” (Recycling), but other poems play on his strong sense of irony through the archaic meaning of words encountered in everyday life in contrast with what is actually present today (Farmer’s Deli Plaza). Some poems open windows on the tremendous grief he continues to endure over the loss of his wife (She Would Have Named Them Nubbies), even as they explain the tremendous joy he experiences in his present day friendships (My Friend Catherine).

Ball sets up endearing contrasts. One can see him interacting with his friends at a dinner party and imagine Nelson researching, even as he explains how human lives are tied to the migration of flies (Friends and Flies). In one poem, he takes you back to a moment during palliative care for his wife’s abdominal cancer when:

I rubbed her skin – arms, abdomen, back, sides, and legs-
every day with a pair of cotton garden gloves.

Little bumps or piles formed on the gloves
made them more effective.

(She Would Have Named Them Nubbies)

He ends the poem by revealing: “I have the gloves, but I don’t wear them”, illustrating both the pain of his loss and his continued connection to her in a moment before she passed out of his life through the preservation of those same gloves.

Words are Ball’s most constant companion in the cavernous old building where he lives. He enjoys playing with words and their meaning, words through history and language (Yacht) and words through their morph into common usage (Words). He also loves images, both those of his artist wife and those which we find in every day life. For instance, he captures the image of a plastic flag blown by the wind on a twig in the brilliant amber of a poem, preserving it long into a future we cannot yet foretell.

on a dead weed

a plastic bag
wavers in the breeze like a flag

the bending stalk

(Signs: May)

Ball portrays the tiniest moments in his poems, which, in turn, opens up huge areas of thought, allowing the reader to ponder their own meaning (Whereness). He reflects on private moments, which then become public contemplations of children imitating the actions of their elders.

gathered around the aquarium
at the back of the classroom

fishing for goldfish
with a staple tied to a string


In one of my favourite poems in the collection, he contemplates his relationship to trees (“This Close To Being A Tree”). Yet, he ends the procession of poems in this book with another beauty, one that delineates the importance of small moments in the life of any relationship, and perhaps one that helps him to deal with his profound sense of loss:

I stood at the foot of Barbara’s hospital bed
as she wavered into consciousness

opened her eyes, smiled, said, “Nelson,
you are covered all over with butterflies

flying out from your elbows.”
“Really?” I said. “Yes, they are nice” she replied

I was overjoyed she was alive –
The butterflies were a bonus.

(After Major Surgery)

I am overjoyed that Nelson Ball was willing to reveal himself to be a man who is at once vulnerable, thoughtful, and determined to look at the irony, the heartache, the joy, and the humour that exist in life. This book is a well-crafted gift that shares both the moments in nature that touch the artist, his awareness of loss, his positive outlook, and several minimalist portraits of his relationships with the artist Barbara Caruso and other friends. In addition, the notes on the poems included at the end of this collection are, as he might put it a true bonus. They offer important glimpses into the making of Nelson Ball’s poetry. That is a practise that should be repeated by publishers more often. Mansfield Press has done a wonderful job in designing this book. Congratulations are also due to a very fine author for winning an award that is long overdue.

Sharon Berg is a Canadian author of poetry, fiction and non-fiction. She worked as an elementary school teacher until she retired in 2016. She currently lives in Sarnia, Ontario.

This review originally appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books 21.