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Kathryn Nuernberger


Kathryn Nuernberger

Two of the bad girls from the neighborhood got drunk,
climbed the fence into the Botanical Garden
to skinny dip, and drowned.

My brother said the koi pulled them down.
Their funerals were closed casket because of what
the fish did to their faces.

This was at the pond with a zigzag bridge where
my brother gave a push and said not to cry,
to be such a pussy.

The zigzag prevents evil spirits from giving chase.
Evil spirits like the kappa, who is the size
of a ten-year-old boy.

Sometimes he sucks the flesh of a girl -
her shoulder, her wrist - a nip. And sometimes
he sucks her whole life

out with heaving breaths. Don't believe? Play a game
of pull-finger with the face swimming in the water
and just see

if he doesn't drag you in. For a quarter we could feed
the koi bread crumbs, which is how they'd grown
to the size of possums.

I threw the pieces quickly and looked away
from the clamor of fleshy pink yawns jostled
by waves and slick bodies,

but still felt the fish set upon my skin, mouths everywhere,
dark water closing in. If the kappa has stolen your daughter,
there is little to do.
But if she is your precious daughter, your only one,
try carving her name into a Yubari melon. The kappa may
make the trade,

or he may keep both fruits. According to Freud,
the child who wishes to join society must repress
the memory of infancy's

unfettered genitals. The kappa never forgot.
When he comes, your only chance is to bow and bow.
He cannot resist your manners,

even though the crown of his head is an indented bowl,
even though he knows it's the clear broth of his brain
spilling into that cold, dark water and its gathering fish.

U.S. EPA REG. NO. 524-474

Gene-splicing the beetle-resistant Basillus
Thuringiensis with a potato sounds surgical,
but it's just a matter of firing a .22 shell
dipped in DNA solution at the stem
straggling out from the russet eye. If you're lucky
the hybrid sticks. Have you seen what can be
done with tobacco and fireflies?
Just for the hell of it, whole Virginian fields
now glow under the passing planes.
Salmon-tomatoes clutch their fishy gloss against
the pinch of frost. I think I'll give it a try.
I have the gun you gave me. You said
I'd feel better if I held it awhile. I feel better,
and I'm not giving it back. I'm firing shrimp
into pigeons and dipping the de-veined crescents
of their wings in cocktail sauce. Thinking of you,
I made peppermint termites to sweeten
the swarm, and layrinxed the rats with mockingbird
calls. 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? Eager to perform your vulnerabilities?
Will you recoil at the site of a baited hook? Or will I
pass right through imploding flowers of viscera
without having scratched a rung on your double helix?
I'd wager you could arch each disaffected synapse
without even noticing me careening through
about to hybridize the brick at the other side
of your exit wound. Give a stone a language
chromosome and it'll run with words like water.
It'll announce in spray-painted letters that it hearts
you, that it can't live without you. That it would
rip out its own mortar just to think you might
take a concrete crumb to jingle in your empty pocket
as you remember what I used to be.

The Ragged Edge

In 1963 and again in 2001 a scientist attached
a monkey's head to another monkey's body
one blood vessel at a time.

When you get right down to it, the lab assistant
says, nothing could be simpler.

The disembodied brain runs on the machine
of a decapitated trunk, and if you say

the word awe doesn't come to mind,
you're a liar.

What was it like? For the monkeys no one can say.
The severed nerves hang loose,
resulting in near total paralysis.

But the mouth could still bite the hand
that tried to adjust a tube running into its flared nostrils.
And it did. Which was evidence of a tremendous success -

one sign of life is the defense
of whatever body you have left.

A primatologist finally caught on video
a family of chimps swinging in ritualized arcs
over a great waterfall.

Her voice wavers in the background as she narrates,
"Apparently lost in contemplation,
the chimpanzee cries out, runs excitedly back and forth
and drums on trees with its fists.
Here we see the dawn of awe and wonder."

Human rituals tend to involve putting things together
or taking them apart.

In church I learned that through sacramental sex
(married, blessed, sanctioned), you see the face of God.
Another thing I learned was the body is a vessel
for sin - try to forget you have one.

Once upon a time a severed head
was knitted to a ragged neck and the only
pictures are in black and white.

You can't help but recoil, to use the words horror
or vulgarity. It's not unlike staring at pornography -

what you see is never quite what you wanted.
The doctor's shadow obscures the stitched line
where you thought you'd see how one became the other.

                 -from Rag and Bone


Poems - Bio - Essay - Review - Interview

Kathryn Nuernberger teaches writing and literature at University of Central Missouri, Warrensburg, where she also serves as poetry editor for the journal Pleiades. She is the author of Rag & Bone, a collection of poems that draws its title from "Rag and Bone Man," an old word for junk collector. The poems in this collection appeared widely in literary magazines, and the collection won the Antivenom prize from Elixir Press. She is now working on a new collection, tentatively titled Strange Cases, which focuses on oddities and marvels from the history of science. She has received fellowships to support this work from The American Antiquarian Society and The Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life. Kathryn lives on a defunct farm outside of Warrensburg with her husband, who is hard at work building beehives and planting blueberry bushes, and their daughter, who herds the chickens.


Poems - Bio - Essay - Review - Interview

The Sameness of Days by Kathryn Nuernberger, first published by Redivider


February 1, 1949: At home. Creeks still up. Rained some.

February 2, 1949: At home. Cloudy all day. Not seen my shadow.

February 3, 1949: At home. Got some goat meat off Eddie Stout. It was fine.

February 5, 1949: At home. No one here. Howard Carr died sudden. Fairly nice day.

I like to make lists, lists of books to read, places to travel, recipes to try, things to do. A typical to-do list: yoga, write, walk dog, clean out barn. Watch three hours of TV is not on these lists. Nap with a magazine on my face is not on these lists. Bicker with my husband Brian about whether or not he will go with me to one of the English Department meet-and-greets he so fervently hates is not on these lists. I do not keep a diary, only a day planner, because I prefer the possibility of the perfect day that the to-do list lays out to the diary’s record of what was done and what was left unfinished. “Clean out the barn,” for example, has been on a hundred different to-do lists at least, but hasn’t been done since we moved here, and probably not for the half-century the property sat vacant before that either.

Where I come from, family and friends don’t understand why I’ve chosen to live on a defunct farm a thousand miles from home where there’s nothing but past. Barns are extinct where I come from, so they don’t believe me when I tell them I have one. I don’t always believe it either. The barn is a falling-down affair that still has the iron troughs and braces once used for milking and is overflowing with sixty years of household junk that no one wanted to burn in the barrels at the edge of the field. My husband spends much of his free time out there.

August 9, 1950: At home. Archie took me down to hospital. Rained in eve.

August 11, 1950: At home. Ray and Norma moved. Rained some in eve. Nice day.

August 12, 1950: At home. Neil here awhile. A nice day.

August 13, 1950: At home. Lizzie came home from hospital. Fine day.

In the year since we moved to this old farmhouse in Appalachian Ohio, Brian, who regularly attends country auctions and piles his wins wherever he can find space, has added to the heaps of scrap wood, storm windows, and buckets of rusty nails that came with the barn. His additions: stacks of The Ladies Home Journal tied together with fraying rope, four broken chairs, a disassembled library card catalogue, a brass chandelier, six Bibles, O. S. McLeasson’s diary, kept from 1949-1951, and a hundred other things.

The diary is black leather and smells like a damp basement. Tiny black flecks drift from the spine onto my lap whenever I open it. The clasp has fallen off, and the tiny lock and keyhole rest useless and rusting on the front cover. Inside the manufacturer promises, “Five years of your life, in written form will be your reward for keeping this book faithfully and accurately… As you go along you will be able to turn aside the veil of forgetfulness, and see the events of two, three and even four years ago.” O. S. McLeasson, who wrote his name on the blank line under this manifesto of memory, does not write what he plans to do with his days. He doesn’t write about dreams he had or feelings or memories or people he misses. He simply writes what happened in terse sentences. Mostly what happened is that he stayed home and watched the weather.

September 26, 1950: At home. Set up new stove. Fine day, light frost.

September 27, 1950: At home. Charles and Dennis fight. John Smith died sudden around mid-nite. A nice day.

September 29, 1950: At home. Nice day.

September 30, 1950: At home. Nice day.

 October 1, 1950: At home. A long lonesome day. 

Although there are a few auctioneers in this county, Brian only attends Ottie Opperman’s auctions. He has a couple reasons for this: “He’s the only guy who does the old-timey auctioneer voice right. A lot of the other guys, they just talk it. Now five. Now six. But Ottie sings.” Brian takes a breath and then shows me what he means. “Now twenty-thirty-twenty-thirty, forty-five, forty-five, fitty dollar, fitty dollar, fitty dollar… Whoa mama!” Ottie Opperman knows how an auction should be done. Also, Ottie’s cheap. “When there’s a lot of miscellaneous crap they’ll just put five or six boxes together and sell the whole lot for a buck.”

The auctioneers call Brian Mr. Dollar Bill. When a big enough pile of worthless crap has accumulated they call him out personally. “Where’s Mr. Dollar Bill-Dollar Bill-Dollar Bill? Can I get a one dollar-one dollar-one dollar bill from the dollar bill man?” Brian can’t resist. He tells me, “I ended up getting that journal because I bought an entire table top of books for a dollar. Or was that in the other bunch? Well anyway, I bought that stuff for a dollar too.”

Some of the things Brian looks for at an auction: corn knives, scythes, old jars, bell jars, mason jars, glass insulators, old metal fans that’ll chop your fingers off, maps, adding machines, children’s story books from back when they used to write about animals living in the country. “I look for relics,” he says. “Things that didn’t evolve to this time. Something that was once so useful and now nobody even knows what it is. Things that have no modern equivalent. Also, old video games. I can make some money selling those on eBay.” He keeps an eye out for typewriters, but “I usually lose the Underwoods. You can win anything else, but people hear the name Underwood and it’s over.” He’s also on the lookout for a good pitchfork. “Last time I lost a pitchfork to an Amish guy. Bastard. I almost had it. It had eight prongs. Usually you get a six prong pitchfork, or even just four. Eight is really rare.”

Recently I came home late from a poetry reading on campus. A wine and cheese reception followed and I spent an hour talking about Derrida, difficult students, a friend’s divorce. It was one of those events where I was surrounded by people, but felt myself sinking into loneliness. When I got home I kissed Brian on the cheek and poured another drink. “How was the reading?” he asked. I raised my glass. “I’d like to make love to you, but I’m going to finish this first.”

When I married Brian I married two hundred acres on an Ozark hill and the underground rights his great-grandfather sold to Dow-Run. I married the brittle corn, the August droughts, an artesian spring Dow-Run sank, a hundred head of parched cattle trucked in the end down a gravel road, his father down that road, himself on a motorcycle thinking somehow he could go back some day.

I brought the city into our marriage. I brought too many lights, too much noise, the chatter of people, the clink of glasses, the clink of money, the click of polished shoes on travertine tile, and always, somewhere in the distance, a moaning siren.

Still, I think things are working out pretty well. One reason is I sometimes come home late to find all the lights off and Brian sit- ting on the couch in sweatpants and no shirt looking like—well an auctioneer might say “wild-eyed as a raccoon on a raft.” I pour my wine and make my propositions and Brian, who is leaning against the sink with his arms folded across his bare chest, says, “No thanks. I feel weird.” I feel weird too.


July 8, 1951: At home. Mowed some weeds. Fine day.

July 9, 1951: At home. A long lonesome day. Nora Atwood funeral.

July 14, 1951: At home. Norma brought over some beets and carrots.

July 16, 1951: At home. No one here. A long day.

Brian is a man who courts melancholy. Ways he does this include: standing in the woods in the rain listening to the wind, playing Chopin’s nocturnes in a dark, empty house while thinking about his lost childhood, reading page after page of a dead man’s journal in a crumbling barn. But he doesn’t tell me about the journal right away. Instead he asks why I have to drink in order to be with him. He asks if I’m really so unhappy, if he’s really so undesirable. When I ask, “What’s wrong with you?” he shuffles out of the room without saying a word.

In a few pages in the diary extra pages are taped in. July 31, 1951 is one of these days:

George Wend—died

Tom Davidson “ ”

Dale Smith killed in Germany

J.E. McCormack died

Mrs. Alice Grayes died

Elyse Barton died

Eighty pages later the journal ends. October 21, 1951: At home. Two other sentences have been erased and only the illegible shadow of a thought remains.

Because the only people he mentions are those who intermittently visit, I imagine O. S. McLeasson died alone. I imagine Norma or Archie, Charles or Dennis came by days later with some squirrel meat and found their neighbor dead on the floor, a jar of hickory nuts spilling out from his hand.

We’ve made a lot of deals in our marriage: a couple years in the metropolis for me, then the Bitterroot Mountains for him. Appalachia sits in the middle of the places we each want to be. My Moroccan lanterns hang from the window, he keeps a closet full of hay knives. I buy a mochachino every day in town in exchange for watching after eight laying hens on a farm twenty miles out. Take out the garbage and I’ll go to the party alone.

On this particular night Brian is not in the mood for deals. “I’m going to bed,” he says.

“Wait.” I grab his wrist tight. “Don’t.”

I set my glass on the coffee table and pull him back to the couch.

The Daily Show is on TV. I put my head on his chest and wrap my legs around his legs. He tucks a blanket around both of us, and we fall asleep this way.

September 14, 1951: At home. No one here. Nice day.

September 15, 1951: Sat at home. William brought some groceries.

Fine day. Squirrel time.

September 17, 1951: At home. Clyde gave us some sweet corn. Might be our last sweet corn. Fine day.

September 18, 1951: At home. Clyde gave us another mess of corn.

A beautiful day.


Poems - Bio - Essay - Review - Interview

A Review of Kathryn Nuernberger's Rag and Bonefirst published at Kahini.org

          The disembodied brain runs on the machine
          of a decapitated trunk, and if you say

          the word awe doesn’t come to mind,
          you’re a liar.

These lines from the opening poem, The Ragged Edge, in Kathryn Nuernberger’s Rag & Bone exemplify the voice that runs throughout all of the poems. Nuernberger’s lines present a clear eyed thinker, continuously on the lookout for the startling image which should, and does, promote a sense of awe in both the author and the reader. The Ragged Edge presents the image of scientists attaching a monkey’s head to another monkey’s body. Nuernberger does not just use this image but inspects it, follows it as far as she is able. She empathizes with the monkey, associates the image with human ritual, and meditates on exactly what fascinates humans. This opening poem serves as a sort of ars poetica for the book as it asks the question what keeps our attention?

The answer, of course, is a large variety of ideas and images keep society’s and individual’s attention, and the poems in this collection provide a pleasing variety. Nuernberger is mostly interested in ideas and images that simultaneously present the beauty and ugliness of our world. In her poem, Ichthyphobia, she reveals her sense of humor in the title (it refers to the fear of fish) and then opens with these lines:

          Two of the bad girls from the neighborhood got drunk
          climbed the fence into the Botanical Garden
           to skinny dip, and drowned.

This sort of dark playfulness pervades the collection and is obvious when looking over many of the titles, The Strange Girl Asks Politely to be Called Princess, Paul Klee’s Puppet Theater: Mr. Death and Electrical Spook, Gleeman, You are Afraid of the Dark, or Real as the Panda. Each of these poems delivers through the controlled and natural voice of the speaker.

Alternatively, Nuernberger offers lyric meditations on the natural world that call to mind some of the strongest imagery of Sylvia Plath or of the book’s namesake, W. B. Yeats. Take The Visible Spectrum for example:

          Gray is the sky, gray the hawthorn tree,
          gray is the moldering of the vole,

          the shrike’s face deep in stiffening prey.
          Gray was the forest, and gray the sun.
          It’s hard to hold it together when it rains
          so hard the magnolia blossoms fall

          like flayed meat and the phone rings
          someone dear trying to rasp a few last words.

          When there’s nothing to say.
          A static of breathing, gray as the winter.

          And it never passed. On a blue morning
          the birds sing their rotten feeding.

Poems like, Spectrum, provide lyric pause to the overall collection, and continue themes of the book through their urgency and lyric intensity. The title poem, also the final poem, delivers with a series of images of the Rag and Bone Man who becomes a metaphorical figure who ties the collection together. There is a sense of awe about him,
He will carve that meddlesome tree into a boat. He is mythic and universal in much of his description but the author insists he become individual inviting him into the reader’s life,

         Take this dull knife—

          Say it’s the one your grandfather used
          to cut the twine from winter hay,
          and he offers an image of dark hope to conclude the book,
          all you ever lost is resurrected from rust.

An Interview with Kathryn Nuernberger by Jennifer Schomburg Kanke, first published by the Southeast Review 

Jennifer Kanke: What is your relationship with rejection like?

Kathryn Nuernberger: I cannot tell when my poems are done or when they are good or when they are drawing flies. I love them or hate them deeply and irrationally and sporadically. I think editors do me the tremendous service of keeping my embarrassments from going public. I am very grateful for rejection and I also hate it and it makes my stomach hurt.

JK: What kind of child were you?

KN: I had messy hair and I wore jams with splashes of various clashing neon colors and high tops with not-neon but still boldly-colored interlocking geometric figures. I kept my Crayola caddy in rainbow order. I liked to sing “Lamb of God” very loudly while building block houses for my Strawberry Shortcake dolls. I did figure skating routines on roller blades to U2 songs and choreographed water ballets to the instrumental pieces on The Little Mermaid sound track. I wrote a romance novel about Rene, who was in love with a Redcoat and a Yankee during the Revolution and married the one who got his eye shot out by a musket. I confessed my sins at regular intervals, much like I am doing now.

JK: Jealousy seems toplay a bit of a role in many of your poems. Which poet’s childhood do you most envy? 

KN: I definitely envy the Bronte sisters their dark, isolated childhoods and their deep friendship with  other literary geniuses who happened to be each other. Their play consisted of creating these amazing, complex imaginary kingdoms of Angria, Gondol, and other nations in the Glass Town Federation. Moreover, they had the tremendous good sense to make themselves the geniis of these worlds. Also, there was a lot of psychological torment and very cold winters. What more could a person want out of childhood?

 JK: Name a writer who is currently making you jealous.

KN: Mary Ruefle is not making me jealous exactly, but I wish she would stop being so brilliant that I am forced to conclude literature is now finished and it’s time to take up pottery.

JK: The writer—dead or alive—you’d most like to bury in the literary basement.

KN: I promised you I’d say “fuck Wordsworth” somewhere in this interview.

JK: What is the question you wish people would ask about your work?

KN: I really don’t like it when people ask questions about my work. I mean, I do like it because it shows they’re interested and the poems have mattered, so, hey people, ask away. But I feel bad, because I don’t have answers. If I could have said it better or more clearly or more completely in the poem, I would have. And I don’t feel like I say things clearly or completely in conversation at all. Unless I have written out the conversation in advance, which I have been known to do and which never has the desired effects.

JK: What poem’s speaker would you most trust to chicken sit?

KN: “Song of Myself” Whitman would probably do the best job keeping up with egg collecting. I think Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner would be the most edifying, especially for the roosters.

JK: Your work is known for embracing the macabre in the quotidian and some of your images are quite cinematic. If one of your poems were made into a movie, which one would you want it to be and who would you want to direct it?

KN: I would like to see them all made into a Jacques Cousteau documentary. Especially the ones that aren’t already about the sea.

 JK: A lot of people credit Wallace Stevens for pushing contemporary poetry into the realm of the imagination, yet he once said that “The real world is just the base of poetry, but is the base.” With that in mind, where do you prefer to live: Imagination, Reality, or Reality TV?

KN: I don’t know how to answer this question—I’m sometimes accused of living outside of reality, because I can’t be bothered to call a spider exterminator or because I don’t have a cell phone. Because I say things like phone calls make me nervous, or touch screens make me angry, or I will be dead in my grave before I put the forks in the dishwasher prong-side up. I mean if reality is touching the food part of silverware and swiping my finger sideways across a screen thirty times in a row with increasing force and frustration just to hire a poison expert because I can’t live with itchy bumps on my butt any longer, then I definitely pick imagination. But, if I’m being honest, my real choice is flakiness because I have low self-esteem, as evidenced by my foregone conclusion that the exterminator doesn’t like me. I mean I can’t even work this phone for God’s sake.

I like Reality TV, because you get to bask in your smug superiority over some poor dope who can’t sew a proper avant-garde reinvention of the little black dress that will make a bajillion dollars. Or, in true Reality TV spirit, I’ll confess that I’ve replaced my interest in Project Runway with obsessive devotion to Craft Wars, where I harshly judge a middle-aged woman with an unfortunate haircut covering a doghouse in hot pink glitter. I would have known better than to use spray glue – you’ve got to dilute Elmer’s with a little water and paint it on or that glitter is going to end up all over your kitchen floor.

Of course basking in smug superiority is probably a cause (or maybe an effect?) of the poor self-esteem that makes my genii work in Angria so very appealing.

Dear Wallace Stevens, I’m sorry about the last three paragraphs. Your answer was better.

JK: You’ve been at Pleiades for a little over a year now, what’s the  most important lesson you’ve learned or insight you’ve had?

KN: Poets get better. I started editing when I was young, so I imagined everyone who submitted was older and more accomplished than me. I read submissions in Reality TV mode; I was smug, superior,  and totally overcompensating for my own feelings of inadequacy as a writer. I’m sorry everyone everywhere who I ever read. But now that I’ve been editing for a while I recognize names of people I rejected when I was at other magazines and sometimes we’re publishing these people or coming very close to publishing these people. And I realized it’s because poets never finish becoming poets. Which is very encouraging to me, because I often write bad poems, and I’m also getting better all the time.

Poems - Bio - Essay - Review - Interview

Click here to buy Rag and Bone by Kathryn Nuernberger

Kathryn Nuernberger

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