Thursday, January 16, 2020

Poem366: “Rue” by Kathryn Nuernberger

Rue by Kathryn Nuernberger

Rue by Kathryn Nuernberger, Rochester, New York: BOA Editions, 2020

Reader, you’re in for a treat. I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advance review copy of Rue by Kathryn Nuernberger, forthcoming from BOA Editions in April, and it’s stellar work, fascinating from cover to cover.

All poets have their thing — that aspect of poetry they do best. I’m always excited by poets who can lean hard into an image and make it dance in unexpected ways, and I also love poets who have a musical ear for language and sound. But Nuernberger’s particular skill is rhetoric, and it’s fascinating to see how each poem’s argument unfolds. She is brilliant, of course — well educated, well read, a careful thinker — and her poems come together in such smart ways. As a bonus, they’re well crafted, and imagery and sound considerations are very much on point. But the best thing about these poems is seeing a sharp mind at work to solve a rhetorical problem.

Although I’m going on and on about the rhetoric here, don’t think for a moment that Nuernberger doesn’t get personal. Within the bounds of these arguments, the speaker of these poems talks about her workplace politics (and I absolutely love that she writes about this topic), or she calls out a townsperson who is too touchy-feely at the coffee shop, or she indicts an obstetrician who treats her roughly during childbirth.

This latter example is found in the poem “Poor Crow’s Got Too Much Fight to Live,” which begins with a crow struggling with a trapped foot but then takes surprising turns to tell the speaker’s birthing story. There’s a Catch-22 in the whole childbirth scenario these days; every baby book tells us to formulate a birth plan, something many doctors will flatly ignore, and some will openly mock, with the attitude that they’re the doctor, and they’re going to focus on getting the baby safely into the world.

in “Poor Crow’s,” Nuernberger writes about a doctor who seemed to react to her birth plan with malice. Writes Nuernberger,

                                                      That guy
jammed his hand into me hard and without warning,
I think because he was offended by our conversation
about my birth plan, which was boilerplate stuff
about avoiding drugs and letting my body run its course.
I’d like to prosecute him, for myself and even more
for everyone else, but it took me months to understand
what he had done and why and by then it could so easily
be time telling the story instead of truth. …

I know so many mothers who have part of this story to tell — a birth plan mocked and ignored, with no chance that it will be put into effect — but the story told here, of a doctor physically hurting the speaker, goes much further. I find myself cheering for Nuernberger at the end of the poem, which does all but name this doctor:

I’m sorry, other people he might have or still yet
hurt, but I’m not so naively idealistic as to think
any good could come of saying to the public that I was
assaulted by an OB/GYN in his office in Logan, OH
in May 2010 and I’m willing to testify to that.

I grew up about 60 miles from Logan, as it happens, and I know there aren’t a lot of OB/GYNs in an Appalachian town of 7,000, so I also know how bold this poem is, and I am here for it.

Nuernberger is also a delightful nerd, sharing her crush on Carl Linnaeus, who invented the system we use to classify and name living things. It makes sense that a science-minded poet would appreciate this historic figure — a guy who named the largest mammal, the blue whale, “Balaenoptera musculus,” or “the mouse whale,” Nuernberger points out. She basically shows how adorable he is to fellow nature-lovers and word nerds, but then she finishes by pointing out a problematic aspect of this figure — that he classified people by color. “What do you / think?” she asks the reader. “Can we love him anyway? Did we / ever really even in the first place?” This is the sort of thoughtful probing found often in the long, detailed poems in the book.

The argumentation in the poems is the high note for me, but let me be clear: Nuernberger also has beautiful, lyrical moments, like I encountered in “Dear Reader, I’ve Been Preoccupied Lately by My Own Private Business.” Nuernberger describes a silent movie with philosophers who travel to the moon (“Le Voyage dans la lune,” I believe):

Their moon, when they got there, was full of can-can girls.
Their moon wanted a fist in the kisser.
Their moon wanted to pull off those stockings.
Their moon was orbited by a comet made of fire, not some accuracy of ice.

Ah, I love “some accuracy of ice” in this context. Even Nuernberger’s lyricism is brainy, and that’s delightful to encounter.

I suspect you can preorder Rue right now — and I suggest you do. I’ve lingered over these poems all day, and I am convinced.

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