I-70 Review

Writing and Art from the Middle and Beyond

Kathryn Nuernberger

Kathryn Nuernberger the author of two poetry collections, The End of Pink, which received the James Laughlin award from the Academy of American Poets, and Rag & Bone, which won the Antivenom Prize from Elixir Press. A collection of lyric essays, Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past, is forthcoming from OSU Press in 2017. Recent poems have appeared in 32 Poems, Cincinnati Review, Crazyhorse, Field, I-70 Review, Prairie Schooner, West Branch and elsewhere. She is an associate professor of Creative Writing at University of Central Missouri, where she also serves as the director of Pleiades Press.   Her first book, Rag & Bone, was a love letter to backwoods junk collectors and all of the abandoned cabins in the foothills to the Ozark Mountains. An unapologetic dilettante with a soft spot for quacks and pseudoscientists, she has received research fellowships from the American Antiquarian Society and The Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life to research unlikely aspects of the history of science and medicine. This research has been a major influence on the poems in The End of Pink. Other major influences on her work, include her experiences as a farmer's wife, an activist with the Raccoon Creek Watershed group in Appalachia working to address environmental concerns like acid mine drainage and fracking, and spending a significant portion of her adolescence hanging out in the novitiate quarters of a convent where her aunt lived as a Notre Dame nun.

More Experiments with the Mysterious Property

of Animal Magnetism (1769)

Finding myself in a mesmeric orientation,

before me appeared Benjamin Franklin,

who magnetized his French paramours

at dinner parties as an amusing diversion

from his most serious studies of electricity

and the ethereal fire. I like thinking about

how he would have stood on tiptoe to kiss

their buzzing lips and everyone would gasp

and clap for the blue spark between them.

I believe in an honest and forthright manner,

a democracy of plain speech, so I have to

find a way to explain I don't care to have sex

anymore. Once I was a high school teacher

and there was a boy who everyday came in late,

who only came to school at all to sell drugs

out of his backpack, upon which he laid

his head like a pillow and closed his eyes

while I pointed at a chart diagramming

the anatomy of a sparrow. The vice principal

was watching and taking notes as I taught

this class, so I slid the bag from under

his cheek, as if not to wake him, wrapped

his fingers around a pen. I was trying

to be a gentle mother and also trying

to show I was in control of an unstable

situation. The boy, also trying to be

in control of himself, walked so slow

to my desk and we stood to watch him

push everything – binders, piles of ungraded

papers, a beaker of red pens to the floor.

He was so calm. How do you like it when

I touch your things. I do not like it. I live

in a house with many blue mason jars,

each containing a feather collection or starfish

collection or vertrebrae collection, and also

there is a fully articulated fetal alligator skeleton.

Each window is pressed by the design

of a sweetgum branch, all the little orange

and red stars of its leaves, you can't see

the perfect geometry this close, just haphazard

parabolas, but beneath the foundation

the roots mirror the branching. I have

a chart of this to pull down. The view is flat

and so quiet on the inside. Have I been

forthright yet? What I want to know is

what happens if I decide to never have sex

again? Or more precisely, can I decide

to not have sex again and still be kind?

And be a joy to others? I should mention

I am a wife. I should mention I was told

my sole purpose is to be joy to others.

The sidewalks outside are very full of people

and when I look at them I feel hopeless.

Benjamin Franklin was so jolly with his kite

and his key and his scandalous electricity.

He was so in love with women and drink

and democracy. Before I was this way,

I was not a house, I was just a jar and what

I wanted was to be broken. A cool trick

you can do that I once showed a class, is crank

a wheel covered in felt against another felt

wheel. Static bristles and sparks and makes

your hair stand on end. But hook it to

a leyden jar and the electricity fills up

in there, invisible as air. Becomes a glass

battery, until you too much the thing, then

wow! broken glass everywhere. I remember

wanting that. Do I have to always want that?

My house is blue and quiet. I can hardly

hear the squirrel in my sweetgum tree

dancing like a sunbeam to sing his riddles:

“A house full, a hole full, but you cannot

gather a bowl full.” The air of everywhere

is wet with electric fluid, you can't even tell,

but pop, whiz, everywhere. “In this

field,” Ben says, “the soul has room

enough to expand, to display all of her

extravagances.” The sweetgum has 10,000

sticky, spiky seed balls. They start green

but grow black and fall for want of

a barren season. They look like sea urchins.

I call them tree urchins and think it's

a funny joke. I don't tell it to anyone,

as I am tired of being told what is not.

Such a secret, I know, is an extravagance,

and I like best how it's an extravagance so

small you must keep it in a jar with others

of its kind for it to ever mean anything at all.

The Book of Knowledge, the Experienced Farrier,

&c. (1793) as the Best of All Possible Worlds


To dream you are standing in a field of corn

means there's going to be a body. To dream

you are on horseback and he runs away with you

means you will look upon such a body

of someone you love as your mother or your child

or even yourself. So it is too with dreams

of black coffins &/ your teeth being drawn out.

I dreamed there was a fire. I dreamed there was

no quench. To dream of two moons contending

in the firmament is to be the one who closes

those wide open eyes. In dreams my body is

really heavy and also not even there. There's

a drinking fountain at the end of a blue hallway.

Did you ever go to the hospital to have a baby?

My poor little body, like a peach dropped in water,

kept catching in the shallow swill of an eddying

tide pool. To dream you are making candles

denotes great rejoicing. To dream there is a mark

upon your shoulder threatens an unhappy end.

A mark upon your wrist, and you might be so lucky

as to forget the part where the candle burns

down the wick. I was on a table surrounded

by people in white. This time I was all mouths –

my ear was a mouth, my eyes were mouths.

If there were other mouths in the room,

they were covered with face masks. A nurse

was describing her best recipe for chicken soup

as she packed gauze into my vagina. Behind

his hidden face a doctor said the child

was really pink, like to dream you are a sow

nursing piglets betokens a joyful arrival.

I was the opening of a mouth and strange

how I knew myself so well and certainly that

rushing as a wave into a shell. Would someone

please hand me the child? And so I was given

the pink and mewling turnip, her soil-clumped

roots still dangling, trying to burrow into the air

and encountering no resistance, as when you dream

you are flying or a lion fawns upon you or you

are on horseback and the horse has run away

with you at a full gallop into the open fields.

The End of Pink

My nipples are brown now.

One way to describe me is mouse-

like. Like fur on the one decapitated

in the silverware drawer this morning.

Once we set a trap for a mouse

so fat the hinge could do no more

than pinch his neck contorted.

For hours he clinked around the spoons.

If you survive your own execution,

the only justice is that you be permitted

to walk away with your decapitated

head in your hands, as Saint Denis did,

up the hill into the chapel of the rest

of his life, where we would come

to eat sandwiches on a bench,

holding hands as we would when we took

the mouse to a grassy lot in the alley

behind the First Presbyterian.

Because a hawk noticed and became

restless on his branch, we stood guard

watching the mouse try to organize

himself. It's disgusting to touch

a rodent, so we used tongs to straighten

the sideways spine trapped so

unaccountably wrong. The fat creature

limped himself into the yellow grass

and further, the bird moved on,

and we went home to dinner happy,

knowing happy for the mouse was

unlikely, but then so was Denis –

how wide-eyed he must have been!

When I told Brian about my nipples,

he told me a little joke: A boy was in

a terrible accident. He finally woke

in the hospital and cried, “Doctor!

I can't feel my legs!” The doctor

was reassuring. “Of course you can't.

We had to amputate your arms.”

The Symbolical Head (1883) as When Was the Last Time?

What faculties, when perverted, most degrade the mind?

What faculties, when perverted, does it cost most to gratify?

I undertook to discover the soul in the body –  

I looked in the pineal gland, I looked

in the vena cava. I looked in every

perforating arterial branch. With the fingers

of my right, I touched the Will and the Ring

of Solomon on the left. For a second

I felt sprung. Then bereft as ever.

Someone used to love me. Someone

used to see me. If you open a person up,

purple, pulsing. It's in here somewhere, scalpel,

and in and in. Let's walk in the woods,

as we once did, and see if we can find a snail,

its shell covered in symbiotic lichen.

When you covered my lichen in yours,

I thought that's what we wanted –

to be rock and moss and slug and all of it.

To be simultaneously thinking of snails,

which are so beautifully stony

and marvelously squished.

Wasn't that what we wanted?

I went to your lecture. I thought it

best to retrace my steps. You were trying

to explain – If I were to put my fingers directly on your brain…

I wish you would, how I wish you would

trace the seagull diving towards the water

as a whale rises up, the anchor dropped, the gray

linen slacks, all the polygons of my this and that

jigsawing under your touch. Oh yes, let's

do that. Let's vivisect my brain and see

if it's in there. You have your porcelain man

with the black-lined map of his longing.

You have your pointer and your glasses

and your pen. I hear you ask the class, What faculties,

having ascendency, are deaf to reason? What faculty,

when large, brightens every object on which we look?

I miss you, you know. I miss you so.

Birds of Ohio

Birds of Ohio include the bird that collects tin

for scrap              and the orange bird that sings like

a stake-driver pumping underwater.    There is the bird

who nests the cliff-face of a culvert and trestle bridge.

             There is the one who toe-holds a sunflower

seed and bills it like a jackhammer       and the bird

that is actually the tiniest copse of trees left

on Starve Island              Also, the coal ash chickadee,

little patron saint atop a slate roof in each little city

of the black diamond, singing 1000 times a day or more

if I sees you, I'll seize you and I'll squeeze you till you squirt

               It's the bird you've never seen.                    That one

afraid to cross the shotgunner's lake.         The bird that is a relic

of the never-come-again-good-old-prairie-days.

              The char birds that are spontaneously spit forth

from the fireweed               as the white tundra swan runs the river

to beat loose the current before the falls.           Some

that burrow in the gob and there lay their eggs like lost

buckeyes,       dig it up to see and hatches in your hand

a beak-rusty yolk.              There are birds that cannot land and

cannot perch,                          as there are ones who trip over the tiniest

fiddles of their feet.                    And then the birds who don't know

north from south, so they stay here and freeze into glass

on the window sill                and their song is the woman-

scream of the panther you may have heard no longer

ranges here, but she is here         with the bird that plucks

a wasp from the air, then beats it against a brick

until dead.         Here there are birds so smitten

with berries that Audubon saw 100 shot in a single day

from a single cherry tree        and more still came,

flocking crest      and wave over the dusk in rhythm

with the pitch-squeak backyard rigs pumping their plots

up and down the banks of our collapsed-mine acid creek

             which is orange as a bird and silver as a nest.