Forthcoming in The Literary Review, Winter 2011
Rag & Bone. Kathryn Nuernberger. Denver, Colorado: Elixir Press, 2011.
The memory of riding through Tuscany this summer in the back of a Peugeot while reading Kathryn Nuernberger’s first collection of poems, Rag & Bone, should not illicit sentimental longing for that very book, but it does. I left it in the last rental car or in the lobby of that last hotel before flying back to the States. My loss isn’t just the loss of an award-winning collection of poetry (2010 Antivenom Poetry Award). By the end of my three week trip, Nuernberger’s book was full of scribbled notes that included directions, festival notes, my observations of Rome and Tuscany, not to mention countless notes about the poems I was reading while friends drove or I baked in the sun in our villa’s pool in-between outings. I lost part of my summer by losing this book. I had notes for future poems, recipes, names of wine I didn’t want to forget, names of quaint hotels, villages where the produce market moved, and ideas for articles. Once home, I ordered another copy. However, its clean pages were intimidating. Each poem contained a nagging déjà vu of the passing Tuscany countryside or the smell of wine, bread and prosciutto, or that afternoon we hunkered down when a thunderstorm rolled across Sinalunga.
Nuernberger’s collection combines poems with metaphoric, fairytale-like characters with poems that examine the work of scientists. Myth and science. Observable fact and interpretation. The juxtaposition works nicely.
In Italy, too, there is this type of copasetic incongruity between the old and the new. WiFi in ancient villas, reconditioned with modern fixtures; wood-burning outdoor ovens and Smart cars; the new pool beside the old vineyard; and ancient olive groves encircling modern houses. There is a sense that certain things like bread and wine and walls are perfect and need no improvement while other things like trains, solar power, cars and computers improve with relish. In this way, the country offers less angst for the poet, less subject matter to decry, but more for a good life.
It is difficult to say what I really lost as my scribbled notes have receded into the murky space of things forgotten, lost or deleted. And it hits me, reading “Translation,” that maybe what I lost was a translation of sight. Nuernberger writes: "I want to believe we can’t see anything/ we don’t have a word for. When I look out the window and say green, I mean sea green,/ I mean moss green, I mean gray, I mean pale and also/ electrically flecked with white and I mean green/ in its damp way of glowing off a leaf."
The title “translations” refers, not to the written or spoken word, but to the visual world of imagery and color. It’s a refreshing twist on the interpretation of sight. It strikes me as the opposite of Aristotle’s impulse to name and classify with such clarity. In Nuernberger’s world, the observed has many potential names. Hers is a curious ego at work, a liberal eye. Detractors might claim it a messy and disorganized act. Perhaps, but it’s a struggle that feels closer to truth than scientific fact.
In Rag & Bone, there are many such moments of friction between science and poetry, between what I might call “wholeness” and what might be called “separation.” The opening poem “Ragged Edge” recounts two scientific experiments with beheaded monkeys having their heads stitched onto another monkey’s body, blood vessel to blood vessel. It’s pronounced successful when one monkey is able to bite the hand of the assistant since, as Nuernberger observes, “[O]ne sign of life is the defense/ of whatever body you have left.” In the same poem, images of chimpanzees “swinging in ritualized arcs over a great waterfall”—evidence of artistic expression?—juxtapose photographs of the stitched-together monkeys as scientific act. The poet reacts in the poem’s closing: “You can’t help but recoil, to use the words horror or vulgarity. It’s not unlike staring at pornography—.“ Yet, what is vulgar here is the scientist at work, putting together that which he has taken apart. If science and poetry are facing off in Rag & Bone, poetry wins.
In the same vein, another poem “U.S. EPA Reg. No. 524-474” exposes the wanton carelessness of bioengineering: “Have you seen what can be done with tobacco and fireflies?” the poet asks. Then she states, “Salmon-tomatoes clutch their fishy gloss against the pinch of frost.” Waxing more ludicrously, the narrator one-ups the gene-splicers: “I made peppermint termites to sweeten the swarm,” and “I shot scorpion tails into the fighting fish, and now I’ve made a bullet of me to blast into your amber eye. Will you come out simpering like a girl?” It is both a response to the gift of a gun and an evisceration of genetic manipulation. Nuernberger’s talent to critically dress-down (and perhaps ruin if poetry had more cultural power) a subject by mere observation is her talent.
Losing the first copy of Nuernberger’s poems was not the crisis I imagined. Surprisingly, memory has not completely abandoned me without my notes. In fact, all the important things are seared into my mind. Rereading Nuernberger reminds me that names are less important than the essence of the object or place. As Jane Satterfield says in the introduction of Rag & Bone, “[I]t is the poet’s sacred duty to remember and restore. In salvage lie magic and mystery.”