“The Defiance of Plants”: On Kathryn Nuernberger’s Rue

Laura Donnelly

Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2020. 104 pages. $17.00.

Kathryn Nuernberger’s third book of poetry, Rue, finds the speaker mid-life, mid-marriage, in the middle of America with a restless energy at once animal and utterly human. “I was surprised by the teeth and meat-breath / of myself” writes Nuernberger in “The Petty Politics of the Thing,” hearing “the cat-rabbit in the back of my mind whisper, ‘I will fuck you up.’” Rue leans into that whisper (or rage, as the case may be) in poems that range through personal experience and natural history, feminism and ecology, finding truth in both the intersections and collisions of its material.

Rue’s ecological sensibility is grounded in the fields around the speaker’s house, an environment decimated by pesticides and agribusiness:

when I lived in that lonely place, I bought a field guide to learn the name
of every flower. There were not many to learn, stitched as I was to a field
between a cascade of crop-dusted corn on the left and an ocean of soy
on the right.

The only flower hardy enough to persevere is the Queen Anne’s lace of the poem’s title, “Queen of Barren, Queen of Mean, Queen of Laced with Ire.” Like the pennyroyal, columbine, and rue elsewhere in the book, Queen Anne’s lace is an abortifacient, a medicinal plant that “will ‘provoke the menses,’ / as the euphemism goes.” Nuernberger weaves her contemporary frustrations (personal restlessness, political concern, “the billboards with ultrasounds as big / as a cloud floating over the rows of copyrighted / beans”) with the cultural and scientific histories of these plants, including lost histories now considered “rumors and old wives’ tales. As if none of us / has ever needed an old wife. As if only fools would / allow themselves to turn into such wizened things.”

The speaker at the heart of Rue is no fool, but neither does she pretend to have all the answers, instead placing us in the midst of questions that are impossible yet all too familiar. What to do about the OB-GYN who “jammed his hand into me hard and without warning, / I think because he was offended by our conversation” (“Poor Crow’s Got Too Much Fight to Live”)? What to do about the girl who has left her bag on a park bench and disappeared into a van with strange men?

“I’m worried about her / and all those backward glances,” writes Nuernberger in “I’m Worried About You in the Only Language I Know How”:

Because I’ve followed
men I shouldn’t have trusted to places I didn’t think
I could leave either. And even now I’m not sure
what I could have done differently.

This mid-life moment of increasing questions comes with increased agency: “I used to keep Mary Jane vows of silence / everywhere I went. Now, when someone I work with / is giving a presentation, I ask the follow-up questions” (“I’ll Show You Mine If You Show Me Yours”). Rue is full of such follow-up questions, pressing for better or at least more honest answers.

In the midst of the #MeToo movement and the climate crisis, Rue’s questions couldn’t be timelier, but the book is equally adept with its treatment of historical figures, such as seventeenth-century Maria Sibylla Merian who is credited as the first ecologist, eighteenth-century Carl Linnaeus who developed binomial nomenclature, or sixteenth-century Adriaen Coenen who wrote an 800-page Visboek of sea creatures real and imagined. Nuernberger’s passion for these figures, or rather, for their passions, is palpable: “It is not enough / to be the only person in love / with Carl Linnaeus” writes Nuernberger, “I need you to love him too” (“Whale-Mouse”).

Yet after marveling at a life committed to nature and language, Nuernberger confronts Linnaeus’s racism that existed alongside his science, an issue to which she returns with more depth and complexity when writing of Maria Sibylla Merian. Merian overcame patriarchal restrictions in her personal life and incorporated indigenous knowledge in her scientific work, and yet Nuernberger shows how she, too, was part of imperialism’s epistemic violence. In Surinam, Merian learned of the enslaved women using plants as abortifacients “so that their children will not become slaves.” The poem ends with a turn towards the “woman with no name and no story” whose secrets Merian “so carelessly” spread. In writing Merian’s history, and in realizing she can only draw so close to that unnamed woman, Nuernberger reckons with her own positionality, and with the violence and contradiction of natural history.

Contradiction itself is one of the themes that ties together Nuernberger’s explorations of self, history, and the natural world:

We’re so many versions of ourselves. We try this, we try that.
Sometimes we’re efficacious. Sometimes we don’t know what we’re for (“Pennyroyal”).

If you feel like you’re in love, you have to either remember
or forget that a feeling can only last a little while (“When We Dead Awaken”).

I like the defiance of the plants. They are
at odds with themselves—they do one thing
and also do its exact opposite (“The Bird of Paradise”).

Throughout, the poems combine fierce intelligence with an immediacy that allows these contradictions to remain in suspension, rather than being smoothed over. This immediacy is evident in syntax and diction, as in the end of a poem comparing the wild skies of Turner to “the lie of serenity” in Wyeth’s work, where the speaker declares “Well, I have a feeling, I have / an idea, I know a pleasure. Fuck the sky, I say. Burn it down” (“A Great Place to Raise Children”). The scope and structure of the poems works well with this down-to-earth voice. Most utilize long lines and span multiple pages, forgoing stanza breaks or using long stanzas with breaks that work like mini scene changes. In “When We Dead Awaken,” named after Adrienne Rich’s pivotal feminist essay, the long lines and stanzas provide space for the speaker’s meditation on an affair; a life-saving female friendship; a story of a drowned, pregnant girl; the speaker’s own miscarried daughter and alive daughter; and all of it along a shoreline where the speaker finds herself coming back to life, or at least knowing that if she had it to do over again she’d be

like a red-eyed revenant who has
figured out at last how to reach across the veil of breakers
and grab the girl of some dying woman by the heart
and make her beat until she’s gasping once more.

The experience of reading Rue is that Nuernberger has, indeed, reached “across the veil of breakers.” The book brilliantly enacts wakings to both the wonders of wild and “good enough,” to the contradictions of people and plants, to the grief and rage before ecological destruction, racism, misogyny. And the voice—irreverent yet still so in love with the world—is one you want to hear when you’re ready for the follow-up questions.

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