Review by Christine Salvatore
Reading a poem from Katherine Nuernberger’s new collection is like listening to a friend tell a fascinating story, taking few breaths while she lets one inevitable detail bleed into the next; to hang on, lean in, listen closely, until your own breath is finally taken away by the startling resolution. In the first poem Nuernberger takes us from the photography of Diane Arbus to an incident where her neighbor fell but was unharmed to Plato to Sontag and back to the neighbor. We are never lost because, of course, it makes perfect sense. As Nuernberger says near the start of the poem, “Sometimes I feel like every character/I meet is an allegory of myself” (11).
In these long days of the pandemic, many of us are looking to get lost in a story not our own. Here is a book full of them. The poems are long-lined and expansive, inexplicably full of advice on love and scientific facts about nature. And history. And the nature of man. Almost stream of consciousness at times, the threads of Nuernberger’s themes wind themselves into narratives that are almost always a conversation between the speaker and a “you.” Me? The reader? Or someone closer to the speaker? It isn’t always easy to tell because it isn’t always important a distinction. These poems draw you in like a confidant.
Advice, like well-earned knowledge, is abundant, “If you feel like you are in love you have to either remember or forget that a feeling can only last a little while” (42). “When we fall in love, if we fall in love, we do it alone” (45).
This last line comes from a poem not about romantic love but about love for a 18th century naturalist named Linnaeus for whom the speaker says her love is so great she can’t bear it alone. But this love too is a complicated one as the speaker learns the truth about the scientist’s true nature:
The day will come when a better
historian than I tells me how Linnaeus
also classified people into columns
of white, black, yellow, and red. It will
break the mind of my heart and I won’t
understand how it can be that even he
was just another man, nothing more
and maybe even something less than
the small pink flower of his most perfect
name I once loved to say. (47-48)
The philosophical nature of Nuernberger’s poems stems from this… an understanding that as a marriage might fail, so might one come to understand the failing of mankind through history and it’s imperfect juxtaposition with the natural world. Maybe we are all just allegories waiting to be written about, a footnote in someone else’s quest to understand the internal world that beleaguers us as the external world moves on, blind and unjust. Starkly feminist and eco-minded, these poems are just what I needed during these difficult times.
“Rue” is Kathryn Nuernberger’s fourth book of poetry. She has received several important fellowships, including one from the NEA, as well as The James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets.
Rue: Poems by Katherine Nuernberger
BOA Editions, LTD, 2020, $17 [paper] ISBN 978 1942683971
Christine E. Salvatore received her MFA from The University of New Orleans. She currently teaches at Stockton University, in the MFA Program at Rosemont College, and at a public high school in South Jersey. When she’s not working, she hangs out with her dog, Lady Brett Ashley, and her boyfriend, Lee.