Maryfrances Wagner The End of Pink by Kathryn Nuernberger

NOT MANY POETS CAN MAKE READERS SHUDDER AND LAUGH, gasp and grieve, look away and peer deeply in a single poem. In The End of Pink, Kathryn Nuernberger does that over and over with sometimes brutally open admissions and observations like of a scientist. She examines carefully. She digresses. She speaks in metaphors. She tells stories. She finds uncommonly apt connections. She unites dissimilar topics, tones, and ideas, and these layered poems are about more than their apparent subject matter.

Fantasy, surrealism, folklore, debunked ideas, historical facts, and a cast of unexpected characters permeate these poems that convey painful truths and wisdom. Even though the reader encounters Bat Boy, Peter the Wild Boy, Saint Girl, peacocks, badgers, and a Fiji zombie mermaid, this is not a bizarre or quirky book. The End of Pink is a serious book of psychic struggle, grief and recovery.

Whether she’s relaying the story of being a Teach for America cum laude white woman instructing a room of thirty-two inner city teens, a mother losing patience with a bouncy child and pushing her into a wall, the rituals of the Bacabs, or sitting in a bathroom, passing a delayed placenta, Nuernberger pulls readers right into the poem beside her. The details are stunning. In “Zoontological Sublime,” while she tells about a time she allowed a lab assistant to “sucker [her] head with electrodes,” she states that she wants to “know / how it is to be an octopus, / which keeps 2/3 of its neurons / in its arms,” and the poem becomes a series of painful moments in the animal world as well as metaphors of her own suffering. She reveals the agony of lobster silence when their claws are bound:

To call for each other

they must clatter their claws

against surrounding stones and shells.

The plea rings through the waves

for miles. When dropped in boiling water

they beat their banded fists

against the sides of the pot.

In another moving moment a doe licks the face of her stillborn fawn:

and that nuzzle alone

should have shattered all the leaves

and all the stars. Deer don’t have

great conch shells to slam their hooves against.

The doe made no sound, the air

filled with the small ripple

of her tongue passing across

those still eyelids.

In “About Derrida, If You’re Into That,” she parallels two stories—one of the ruthless badger who when weaning “brings a carcass back to the burrow/so she can cut at the faces of her pups as they try to eat,” thus passing on her ruthless survival tactics—and one of Derrida, a student in her inner city classroom of 32 black students, who, like the others, isn’t interested in the conjugation of French verbs as staplers and pencils fly across the room. Derrida already has to worry about her own daughter. On the last day of school, a fight breaks out, and when the police arrive, “Derrida was one of the students on the roof throwing bricks.” The magnitude of this poem represents so much of the problem of inner city schools and the society that perpetuates the system, forcing students to become badger survivors.

A number of the poems in the first section are about trauma, loss and miscarriage—haunting moments of dealing with aftermath, of not talking about it, even to the point of not knowing there is an after birth until, in “Wonders and Mysteries of Animal Magnetism Displayed (1791) As What I Want Is,” she is

having contractions you think are not,

because six weeks ago you were pregnant

and five weeks ago you were not, and what

you didn’t learn in health class is everything

you would ever want to know like how big

a placenta is and how veined and how

purple and how when you birth it

in a bathroom outside the classroom

where you were trying to explain

the difference between logos and pathos . . . .

Everyone else does not think being

yourself a coffin is the only last act to do

for a child you couldn’t . . . .

I buried over a blue-and-white china bowl

with milkmaids and a maypole because it was

the prettiest I had, how they never stop dancing

around the center of it.

The second section offers a series of persona poems about The Saint Girl. The first section’s poems are more narrative and stream of consciousness writing, and the second more distanced but still personally gripping. Here the Saint Girl learns to deprive herself, to suffer silently, to do without because the devils are always all around her with their pitchforks and “Without shame they skip, sopping wet and dripping peach, all over the piano keys, spark their nervy little tails in sockets, fornicate in cereal bowls. They “reduce themselves to the tiniest shoots of green beneath the snow of her winter garden.” They follow her to heaven. Finally, she says:

Look up. You could say they infest the sky and clamber each other as before, only with the ponderous slowness and weight of the world’s water in those puss-gutted bellies, but why linger over such a thought. Their nacreous diffractions pearl across the lenticularis strosphere like the rainbow of a happy ending.

The third and final section is a coming to terms with what happens in life, a leaving behind and moving forward. A few of the poems in this section are about her peacock:

I keep a white peacock behind my ear,

a wasn’t, a fantail of wasn’ts

nevered feathers upon evered

falling all over the grass.

The peacock grows into a ghost of a peacock, “a tassel of grass/and a field, a wind, and also a flower./It was so sad when she left/and said, No more now.” In this section she writes of burying her child and moving on, of healing, sacrificing, and forgiving.

There is much more to say about this accomplished book with its refreshing and varied styles and forms, but readers have to experience these poems themselves. While facing psychological struggle and grief in this collection, Kathryn Nuernberger also extends a hand into the well of all those struggling to get out.

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