Jonathan Harrington

The Life and Poetry of Ralph Harry Nesson; Reviewed by Jonathan Harrington

This collection of poems pays tribute to an unknown poet who chose not to publish his work during his lifetime. He was a well-known public figure in Northwest Arkansas for his work in community service, social justice causes and aid to children and the underserved. But for the most part he kept his poetry private. After his untimely death in 2020 a box that had been hidden away was discovered that was full of poems. What his family found was an intense and serious poet of great depth and imagination with a rich interior life. His poetry covers an array of subjects from Tolstoy’s grandmother to Fenway Park to the tragedy of Rwanda as well as observations of love, family and loss. This book is both a compilation of his poetry as well as a tribute to an extraordinary individual. He had worked with Hillary Clinton during her time as First Lady of Arkansas and she noted that he was: “a remarkable man who never stopped fighting to make a positive difference…”

This is both a review and also a tribute because I knew Ralph Nesson (or at least I thought I did). Whenever we met the first thing he asked was that I read him my new poems which I gladly did. He rarely mentioned his own poetry and only occasionally and reluctantly shared one of his poems. When you were with Ralph his entire focus was on YOU. Born in Brookline, Massachusetts, less than sixty miles from where another secretive poet, Emily Dickinson, scribbled her verses in an upstairs bedroom and published nothing in her lifetime. No one in Amherst knew that the lady in white was a genius. To her neighbors she was nothing more than an eccentric, reclusive woman. But when she died she left the world a body of work that has come to be recognized as one of America’s greatest contributions to poetry. And no one knew.

Ralph Nesson’s poem “To a Collapsing Barn” is a carefully drawn portrait of a dilapidated barn that is:

“…pulled by unforgiving time out of plumb…”

The parallel with our own decaying bodies is never stated nor forced. Instead, he shifts the focus to the people who built the barn where:

“A cemetery nearby holds the bones of craftsmen,
who framed your rafters,
who laid your center pole in place,
and wove your joints as from a loom…”

He does not mourn this natural state of entropy nor surrender to its drive toward decay. Instead he embraces it:

“…the relentless tug of earth is given into,
there will be a call to you to rest,
swaying and falling back to earth.”

And finally acceptance when the barn, like us all, will finally relent:

“…sending up a giant cloud of dust
the sound of something ending,
the muted letting go of what you were.”

This is not a surrender nor a “rage against the dying of the light” but a peaceful and dignified letting go.

Another remarkable poem in this book is “Welcome Home” where the poet and his wife are welcomed into the home of her Irish ancestors. Ralph, who was Jewish, and his wife who is Irish-American both went to Ireland to visit:

“…the home of Kathleen’s ancestors,
her people now my people,
our children with the blood of Celtic farmers
and Hebrew shepherds in their veins.”

The poem reflects on the vicissitudes of history that bring together in another country the descendants of one family fleeing poverty and the oppression of British colonialism in Ireland and another family:

“…fleeing the Czar’s army…”

…eventually finding in the New World a romance between their different offspring.

“It is chance, it is luck
At work in our lives,
Scripting episode after episode,
The real life video awash with drama…”

Then once again, an acceptance of what chance life does offer us, after all…

“Who can argue with chance
When its special effects
Are what you see around you…


In the sweetness of a woman’s love
In the depths of the words: welcome home?”

I insist that anyone who can read this poem with a dry eye should see a physician because they must be barely alive.

I have struggled to make this a tribute and not hagiography but Ralph Nesson lived an extraordinary life and left behind this astonishing book of poetry. His last message on his Facebook page reads: “Let’s make 2020 a year of peace throughout the world, progress in helping each other thrive, and unity in seeing every person as a brother and sister deserving of respect and understanding.”

Ralph died suddenly and unexpectedly in an accident, yet even had he passed from us slowly he would have been prepared because he had prepared himself spiritually throughout his life. He left behind a wife, three children and four grandchildren. But he was well aware, and gracefully accepted, the fragility of life knowing full well that his home would one day be:

“…empty of us all,
They soon would be gone and I, someday, too.”


The Life and Poetry of Ralph Harry Nesson
115 pages / ISBN: 978-0578-89099-9
Library of Congress Control Number: 2021907418
Nesson Press / 2022

Jonathan Harrington
Mérida, Yucatán, México

Jonathan Harrington has published twenty books including poetry, novels, essays and translations.  A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop he has lived in Mexico for over twenty years. His latest book of poems is The Frozen Sea Within Us: New & Selected Poems ( The book covers forty years of a life in poetry.