Writing and Art from the Middle and Beyond
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.