Hitting the Right Notes

By John Ferri

Although she shares her name with a songbird, Barbra Nightingale can't carry a tune. Her father told her as much when she was a child, always teasing her that she sang "in the key of L," which, of course, is not a musicalkey.

"I am so totally tone-deaf," admits the Hollywood resident, who teaches English at Broward Community College.

But Nightingale's lack of musical ability hasn't prevented her from singing; she simply does it on paper. Singing in the Key ofL, a collection of her poems, recently won the annual manuscript competition sponsored by the National Federation of State Poetry Societies (NFSPS). The honor earned her $1000, and the NFSPS published the manuscript in June. The work is Nightingale's first full-length volume of poetry, but since the early '80s, the 49-year-old has had some 200 pieces, including many of the poems in Singing, published in literary magazines and poetry journals.

The book's opening poem, "Becoming Beautiful but Going Mad," for example, debuted in The Chattahoochee Review. Like many of Nightingale's poems, it is a heartfelt, lyrical rumination about relationships -- in this case, one with a poet friend, another with a lover. "You order me to write/And like a good girl I listen," begins the narrator, addressing a fellow poet. "… I have just finished/Your latest book/And want to cry." Several stanzas later, the speaker switches gears and tells the poet about her lover, who serves as another source of inspiration. "He says I taste like summer./It is no wonder," she says. "It is always summer./He is the only one who tells me with conviction/With his eyes, his hands, his tongue:/I am beautiful. And mad./It is my only solace, my prize."

"I was rather pleased with how that came out," says Nightingale. "It's a juxtaposition between my life as a poet and my life as a woman."

Although "Beautiful" reflects Nightingale's life, she says her poems are not autobiographical. "But they are personal," she explains. "They are personal because it's my view of things. I've always concentrated on the interior landscape -- the brain -- and my relationships to the outsideworld."

Another poem from Singing gives voice to one such relationship, between narrator and nature. It's a relationship with which many South Floridians are well acquainted. "Suddenly, from nowhere they come/Crawling, flying, slapping soft/Against my skin, translucent/Wings across my cheek, breast,/ Tangle in my hair," Nightingale writes in "Sleeping With the Ants." "This is not the country,/I am not outside -- / Ants have no dominion/In my bed…/ I attack with spray, mist/The room thick, close the door,/My lair abandoned."

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John Ferri