There is an abiding anguish that swells like a tidal water through Kathryn Nuernberger’s new book, The End of Pink. It’s an emotional force that takes a little while to establish, not yet fully evident while reading through the table of contents or perusing the first few poems, which seem at first like relatively straightforward engagements with historic books of science and pseudoscience, poems that are the result of the purposeful taking of a subject of study. In these pages, we are quickly introduced to Nuernberger’s discursive style, a think-out-loud kind of associational reading that makes for natural though somewhat fast-paced lines, as in this opening section about Benjamin Franklin from “More Experiments with the Mysterious Property of Animal Magnetism (1769)”:
Finding myself in a mesmeric orientation,
before me appeared Benjamin Franklin,
who magnetized his French paramours
at dinner parties as an amusing diversion
from his most serious studies of electricity
and the ethereal fire. I like thinking about
how we would have stood on tiptoe to kiss
their buzzing lips and everyone would gasp
and clap for the blue spark between them.
I believe in an honest and forthright manner,
a democracy of plain speech, so I have to
find a way to explain I don’t care to have sex
Nuernberger’s “democracy of plain speech” certainly prevails, and as we move along we begin to see, as we can above, not only an interweaving of history and science with the poet’s personal life, but also a speaker who is working deliberately through both approaches, who is decidedly after something, some knowledge or healing attained through a ritual of archival reading.
While we are given many clear clues early on as to what, exactly, the poet is wrestling with, it’s really in “Rituals of the Bacabs as the Strange Case of Kate Abbott” that we narrow toward a pivotal narrative moment: her miscarriage. Here are the matter-of-fact opening lines of that poem:
There was a black-and-white movie of a very small baby
that would not move and she looked just like a baby would
if you tucked her under a microscope. A nurse tried to explain
what to expect next. Words like blood clot and how they’re hard
to describe if you’ve never had one. I’d been reading 17th c.
rituals of the Bacabs, who were the Mayan medicine men,
whose incantations have many lines about blood as a needle,
and I’d been reading the 17th c. case study of an English woman,
also named Kate, bleeding and sweating forth needles, page
upon page of it, until I wished, for her sake, she would die.
Nuernberger continues in this fashion throughout this first section, approaching her personal trauma through source texts held up as objects of investigation. In this way, she explores the failures of sexuality as a simultaneous personal and cultural reckoning, moving through subjects such as fertility and medicine, sexual violence, and her own desires for celibacy (as she notes so directly in the first quote of this review).
It is this final subject that compels her into the second section, in which she abandons this more direct inquiry and instead offers a cycle, a character study through a series of vignettes on a persona character, The Saint Girl. In these poems—through the freedom this persona allows—Nuernberger deeply explores abstinence and reclusion as a form of necessary suffering. In the opening poem of this cycle, “The Saint Girl’s Sweetest Tortures,” she initiates us in a quirky but subtle, lovely sentence: “The saint girl remains careful not to want, to keep the heat low and drink uncaffeinated tea with her mittens on,” closing with this powerful and arresting portrait of incessant temptation: “The devils were mosquitoes then in her ear—Why can’t you? Why can’t you? To answer is to swallow one by mistake. Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Her larynx itches with capitulation. Dimpled devil apples of my eye.”
The first two sections are conditioned by more deliberate conceits—the archival engagement or persona character—which help the poet understand her own anger, the sense of injustice and betrayal that has come with her loss, and we sense that this psychic work is actually completed within the collection, through these first two sections. This leaves us with the third and final section, which picks back up on the historical works but with a transformed sensibility, a more measured approach that effects something like an evenness of breath as the path to the summit levels out. Another way of putting this is that the poems find a kind of a wisdom—and that wisdom satisfies a therapeutic need without extinguishing anguish as, ultimately, a vital life force, a way of opening up into an uncertain but necessary terrain. Here is a moment where this balance of wisdom and uncertainty is especially exquisite, from the beautiful poem “René Descartes and the Clockwork Girl”:
After Descartes’ daughter died,
he took to the sea. They say he went
so mad with grief he remade her
as automaton. A wind-up cog and lever
elegy hidden in the cargo hold.
He said the body is a machine
and he may well be right about that.
But when she was so hot with fever
she could not breathe, and then so suddenly cold,
he held his fingers on her wrist and felt
only his own heart pumping. All the wind
and water of a daughter became a vast meadow
that has no design and no function
and there is now way beyond that stretch of grass.
This a collection of extraordinary resolve, a book that works through emotional turmoil with a steadfast earnestness that resists privatizing pain at the same time it refuses to make something clever or ostentatious with it. The result is a refreshing innovation on the confessional that reads as easily as a conversation with a friend over a drink while still surprising us with new connections, illuminations, and affecting enactments of psychological healing.