The Secretly Radical Revolution of Flowers: A Review of Kathryn Nuernberger’s ‘Rue’

The motion of thought on the pages of Rue (BOA Editions) is one so familiar that the mind’s needle sinks into the grooves, enabling the poems to amplify and repeat like anthems. I have the lines in these poems memorized as I would favorite lyrics, but their presence in my mind is much more poignant. Kathryn Nuernberger’s poems read like sentences in the kind of hypothetical conversation that one has with oneself. They try to draw conclusion from conflict and mimic the cyclical soliloquies that occur when one is avoiding the consequences of communication. However, the poems in Rue are not trying to avoid confrontation or consequence—they are talking directly to consequence and are turning the arguments of such completely inside out. There is a graceful irony and humor in Rue that makes every poem into an intimate secret that one wants to then turn around and share, like they would a good joke. This collection is a well-rehearsed dialogue between tragedy and comedy.

“I Want to Learn How” is a poem in which the speaker “defines our terms” and considers these definitions when examining “what to do” in an uncomfortable interaction—for instance, running into a small-town retired police officer at the coffee shop three times a week and being subject to his hand sliding down her back; he is “becoming bolder as I become more stiff and distant.” The focal point of this poem is the orientation of the speaker with the terms “nice” and “mean,” which reveals through dignified stream-of-consciousness that “nice” behavior is what patriarchal society wants and expects from women and “mean” behavior is a woman’s needs for safety.

Mean = When Glen, a retired police officer
I talk about gardening with at the coffee shop,
comes over to put his hand on my shoulder
and then my back, I stop him and say,
“Glen, it makes me uncomfortable
when you touch me like that. We’re only
friendly acquaintances and that’s a pretty
intimate gesture.”

The speaker wrestles with turning to other men for advice and decides at one point that “Nice = Not talking about Glen anymore.” She deliberates “what to do” in the following stanza and wrestles with the contradictions of bringing more men into the situation:

What to do = I see these men who
have been friends of mine trying to arrange
their sad faces because they like to think
they themselves are feminists.
They’d tell a man not to touch them
in a heartbeat, they think, if it ever happened
to them. They’d tell Glen not to
touch me, if that’s what I’m asking for.

The irony and sarcasm in these lines lead right into the palm of the one line that follows, in which the speaker says, “It is not at all what I’m asking for.” The very familiarity and poignancy of the words, “asking for,” directs our attention towards the sheer vulnerability at the heart of this matter. The term “asking for it” gained its notoriety in the #MeToo movement and has done so much to reveal the omnipresence of gaslighting in our society, which is a theme present throughout the collection. Still, the poem ends on a note of neither submission, as the “nice” behavior would grant, nor the latent autonomy in the “mean,” but rather with a move of passive repression. The speaker concludes, “Or perhaps they will walk away and we will / never speak of it again, as usually happens.” And by the time we read this line, we know it to be the case.

It is this strength of internal rhetoric that keeps the reader bound to the perpetual wheel of Nuernberger’s crafty mind. These poems talk themselves through a gaslit hall only to look back from the exit and give the last word with just the right amount of defiant confidence. “Poor Crow’s Got Too Much Fight to Live” is one such poem that makes her point resound. The poem questions “the facts” for three pages, as if the speaker believes herself to be wrong or misremembering, but is really trying to grasp something that happened to her years before. “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.” However, each line gives such a detailed account that there seems to be no question of what happened to her, and the poem’s purpose is to put that very trick of the mind on display. After spiraling, almost writhing, through her memory, the conclusion starkly and stunningly reveals its truth:

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.

This finale, among many others in the collection, plants a flag in an understanding that we now recognize to be her mountain. The passage that starts with a questionable voice, one that impresses  a submission to gaslighting, twists flexibly into an incredibly self-assured voice that, in itself, is an even more nuanced testimony—layering acknowledgment of an entire system with an indictment that all but names the doctor. Reprinting this passage gives me a funny feeling, as it makes me question what hoops the poet must go through in order to defend her honesty against, not only society, but her own doubts; how safe is the poet who takes a stance on their own life—in public?

Nuernberger has a keen awareness of such questions and turns to the subtleties juxtaposed between modern feminism and historical botany to further relay her point. As summarized in the final poem of the book, “The Real Thing,”

I’ve been reading about hallucinatory flowers
lately, particularly the ones used by medieval
midwives to induce abortion. This because
I like irony, I like control, and I like to see
a woman flipping the patriarchy the bird.

Nuernberger draws her focus in on plants historically used for birth control, abortion, and other female matters, while also nodding to the language around them. Her poem about Queen Anne’s Lace, titled “Queen of Barren, Queen of Mean, Queen of Laced with Ire”:

When everything on a tract is alive and buzzing, a fallow field
will bloom one medicine after another. If you look them up
in Culpepper’s guide or Pliny’s, almost all in leaf or seed or stem,
some small dose or a large one, will “provoke the menses,”
as the euphemism goes. When everything is alive, there is never
a week when the soil does not offer you some kind of choice.

Nuernberger gave Account Magazine an explanation of where these poems came from, saying, “I began writing about plants historically used for birth control when Todd Aiken said in the course of his campaign for the Missouri Senate seat that there was such a thing as ‘legitimate rape.’” Her studies inspired further research into the early 18th century naturalist, and the first woman ecologist, Maria Sibylla Merian. Nuernberger claims that she was even more inspired when she learned that Merian “worried very much about being accused of witchcraft because butterflies were often thought to be transmogrified witches, as were women who upset the patriarchal social order.” The poem “The Bird of Paradise” is the most cohesive portrait in this collection of Maria Sibylla Merian and her times:

                        Before she discovered metamorphosis,
it was thought the flying things spontaneously
generated or were tormentors sent up from Hell.
She had to be cautious with her propriety—
butterflies were still believed by many to be
transfigured witches doing the devil’s work
to sour the milk. It was the end of one mean age,
everyone so hungry or afraid of being hungry
again, and the beginning of another; she would
have been foolish to think herself safe from
the accusations of those who feared witches, those
who feared women, and those who feared science.

Clearly, Merian is a likely candidate for the attention of a woman today living on the prairie in a Pro-Life state. This passage in particular could be read just as true in this age, with a few words changed here and there, so as to say that we live in a time of fear and greed, when a woman cannot feel safe or protected enough to live her own life or make her own choices:

The post-colonialist historians are wise to ask
what Maria Merian thought the landed gentry
who bought her books would do with such information
they paid her so well to receive. Open an apothecary
for women like her, revolutionaries or independent means?
More likely they would have cleared their property lines
of such plants that might reduce propagation
of their investment in human capital.

Many of the poems in this collection spend time with the particular names of flowers, drawing mindscapes of meaning behind certain nomenclature. “Whale-Mouse” is one about how a man can be loved for his words, or in the case of Carl Linnaeus, the names he gives to flowers, whether or not they are worthy of that love. The titular “Rue,” which means to bitterly regret, is a list poem consisting of what appear to be excuses but are really choices, concluding with the line— “I could, but I don’t think I will.” “A Natural History of Columbine” stars Columbine, the romantic era mime, for whom the flower is the namesake:

In this silent phase she could not say
whether she knew her name means dove,
a meaning she shares with the flower
whose blossoms hang in clusters like a cote
of birds brooding. She could not answer
whether her vow of silence came with
a vow of forgetting. Does she remember
how once upon a time a mother
or a midwife or an old witch at the edge
of town could give you a tincture of crushed
columbine in white wine to induce miscarriage?
Does she remember this is why she was
once known as the flower of unbridled
lust? That man crushed in their hands
her musk-scented seeds for courage
and virility?

This poem is tragic in telling the story of a silenced woman, used merely as “a prop / the people have invested with strong / feelings of pity and concern. She is / a metaphor with a pretty body.” She also portrays a woman born into a role of silence and submission. As the story goes, Columbine was the granddaughter of Punch and Judy, medieval hand-puppets whose “slapstick” routines were just jaunty scenes of abuse. “Columbine, the dancing beauty, / was there but not there, learning how funny / it was to see a man beat a woman bloody.” Though this poem is heartbreaking, it also employs dry humor, another powerful technique of Nuernberger’s, to draw attention to something much larger. The setting of this poem as stage draws in the irony of it being on a page, as the poet, once again, acts as courier for a very harsh truth. “Oh this audience,” she starts, speaking of those who patronize such entertainment, “with their handkerchiefs / to their eyes, as if this story represents / the meaning of their lives.” Here, Nuernberger picks up a leaf of empathy for the reader to see, drawing reference to the Theater of the Absurd and Artaud’s theories on the Art of Cruelty to infer that the observer of art may lack empathy because they are looking for how the tragedy or comedy relates to their own lives. Nuernberger, in her flexible, mind-in-motion, gorgeously ironic way, reveals the trick of the poet by turning us inside out again. Upon the delivery of her concluding line, the reader finds themselves seated amongst the audience, hearing the poem as if it were about them. “As usual, we are at a loss for words as to why / we made some choices but not others, gave / ourselves over to this clown but not that one.”


Kylie Gellatly

Kylie Gellatly is a poet living in Northern Vermont and a Frances Perkins Scholar at Mount Holyoke College. Her book reviews and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Green Mountains Review, Pleiades, and The Rumpus. She is the Editorial Assistant for Green Mountains Review, as well as a poetry reader for Pleiades and Anhinga Press. Kylie has been awarded the Factory Hollow Press Scholarship to the Juniper Writing Institute, two fellowships to the Vermont Studio Center, and is an upcoming participant in Tupelo Press’ 30/30 Project.

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