Three Poems by Kathryn Nuernberger


Varieties of performance include: 
           Being very nice. Or, 
when you want to instead cultivate
a genuine friendship, you might be
very mean. Because who would perform
meanness? Or, as the old axiom goes, 
true friends keep it real. But since
authenticity is a performance like
the rest, if you’re still performing
either way, it is probably nicer
to play the part of nice, unless
your audience also longs for genuine
friendship, which most nice people do, 
in which case you ought to be mean to them. 
Except for the part where mean is mean. 
Let’s pause a moment and define our terms. 

Nice = When Glen, a man I barely know
who frequents the only coffee shop
in this town, interrupts my quiet morning
with a book to ask about my garden
while he runs his hand across my shoulder
at first like some sort of greeting, but then
down my back, becoming bolder as I
become more stiff and distant. I do not
tell him this does not seem friendly at all, 
but rather like an end-run around
social prohibitions against copping a feel
in public places on the bodies of women
you don’t really know. He is one of the men
who owns this town, and I am a woman
who moved here but remains politically, 
socially, and religiously outside of here. So I say, 
nicely, “Tomorrow we’re putting in okra.” 

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.” 

What to do = I can imagine Glen’s sad face
when he realizes to his great embarrassment
that he’s been one of those pathetic
old men touching and flirting with
a younger woman who was just being nice
but getting angrier each time. I don’t like
that outcome. I don’t want Glen to feel
he’s been mean. It’s not nice. I can also see
how Glen would, a few days or hours
later, when the sorry wears off, tell
the other men who run this town and sit
together every morning drinking coffee, 
what a frigid bitch I am. He might phrase it
nicer than that, because he’s a Christian man, 
as he likes to say. But then I would see
the knowing eyes of those men everywhere
I go. Among the men at Glen’s table
are the town doctor, who I may, someday
in an emergency, need to let touch me, 
and also administrators from my workplace. 
Sometimes I complain about how I can’t
decide what to do about Glen to other men
who are friends of mine and with whom I also
work and who, at the office, outrank me
but who also have children my child likes
to play with and wives I do not work with
whose husbands my friends at work
who outrank me have suggested I might like
to go shop with. I think these men might know
words I don’t know for a situation like this
one with Glen because they are men
and perhaps this is a socially constructed
misunderstanding on my part. But no, they
agree it seems pretty sexual and inappropriate
and add that Glen probably knows pretty well
exactly what he’s doing, as I suspected. 
They shrug and say, “Why don’t you just
tell him you don’t like it?” Or they shrug
and say, “What’s the big deal?” And I feel like
they have never really imagined themselves
inside such a situation and they don’t really
think about how to imagine it even now, 
when I am asking so nicely that they try. Why
are we even talking about something so small
and inconsequential, they seem to suggest
with their pinched tones and hunched shoulders. 

Nice = Not talking about Glen any more. 

Mean = Because I relive this coffee shop
dilemma 3+ times a week and it is the shop
where my friendship with these other men
unfolds too and because I like to work
and think in coffee shops and I like many
other people and talks I have in this shop, 
the only one within 30 miles of my house
and place of work, and anyway should
we really solve the problem of harassment
in such a cowardly, impotent way, I say, 
“Look, if we are really friends and if you don’t
want to be another of these micro-aggressive
sexists perpetuating a patriarchal social system
through an attitude of dismissiveness
that makes it hard for some women to ever
feel comfortable being themselves or
saying what’s on their minds, if that
kind of authenticity is even possible, you
should hear this story I’m telling as if it is
a serious conundrum of a moral nature. 
Because it is not unreasonable for a woman
to think she has a responsibility to address
men crossing boundaries shamelessly
for the purposes of making a woman
into an object they feel free to touch, nor
is it unreasonable for that same woman
to worry that such correction in a town
this small will make it hard for her to continue
providing security and community
for her family in a town where there are
few jobs not at the chicken rendering facility
twenty miles south on Highway 39. And so
this small but unfixable situation will piss
her off and she will want to talk about how
she is pissed off, in no small part because
in general she is the kind of woman who
knows how to solve problems efficiently
with little fanfare and that is even one
of the reasons you hired her and like her, 
if in fact you do like her.” 

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 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. 
It is not at all what I’m asking for. 
If I were mean enough to decide
I really wanted us to understand
and know each other, as true friends do, 
I don’t know what I would say. 
I might say all this. And then
they might say there are other words
besides nice and mean. They might say
there are other definitions. Perhaps they
will tell them to me, if I give them a reason. 
Or perhaps they will walk away and we will never speak of it again, as usually happens. 



On the day after I write the end of the story and find out
for certain there’s a bottomless well inside my left breast,
I discover Ai’s poems, the ones about widows and nuns,
and even though telling him I loved him was one way
of asking the universe in the most direct way I could think
of if it has order and purpose, and though the answer
was the gentle voice of a man who is never going to
leave his wife saying, “No, it does not,” it’s this book
I open, full of women who are broken-hearted at how
you can walk into a convent or out of it, into a marriage
or out of it, and the black puddle will still be there.
But at least I’m not the only one who can’t stop looking
down the infinite deep. It’s like the cosmos are organized
only just enough to hand me this sad, desperate little book
as a sort of apology for how hard it is to say what it means. 
There’s more than that, but it’s that bad combination
of boring and crazy to tell how I’m not really a bad person, 
I just fell in love entirely by accident and it was so much
of everything anyone ever said it was I couldn’t really
believe the accident of it, though it was like a car crash
as much as anything could be. I tried a lot of different
thinking to extricate myself from the metal of how
we never even touched. I made a list of all the people
I had ever maybe felt this towards before back in a time
when I was better at not noticing. Like when I met
my uncle-in-law’s nephew by another marriage and he
was easily the most beautiful man I’d ever seen
and a sculptor, oh God a sculptor, but I was already
married and already shocked at what a lie that had turned
out to be. Christmas after Christmas I managed to be
in some other room from this beautiful man, not thinking
about this old well I carry around and maybe it’s not
there at all, maybe it’s really something stellar compressing
into itself or the place where the umbilical cord
to that great mind of being hooks in. I used to get stoned
a lot thinking I was supposed to see things I couldn’t see. 
This is a natural consequence of a childhood with daily hours
of religious instruction and every single adult I met
certain of the truth of all that is seen and unseen.
Friends passing along copies of Hildegard von Bingen’s
erotic visions of Christ on the sly, like it was a tattered
paperback edition of Tropic of Cancer. This is the part
where I’m trying to convince you that if I am crazy, 
it is perfectly reasonable to be so. I know I have
a tendency to push every moment to its crisis,
because you never know what something really is
until it’s broken, I guess. So I had this little list
of people I’d maybe fallen in love with along the way
and it was Christmas again ten years later and my
unrelated relation was there and why not let us wind up
in the same room together for once, and why not
sit there and feel whatever I’m going to feel. I’m not
afraid of longing anymore. And I don’t even have to try, 
my uncle is dragging him over to me because
he’s been talking about poetry lately, Hopkins especially. 
Who doesn’t love Hopkins? Poor priest of doubt, 
who gave up poetry when he took his vows
and was on the brink of suicide at forty when his confessor
instructed him he must write, God was insisting, 
so he succumbed to sprung rhyme, to the litanies
of the names of birds, to the chaos of songs they braid. 
But this man loves Hopkins for the part about sensing
divine order, the part his priest recited in a homily. 
And he’s reading this other book about how art
is the intersection between the divine and the human, 
as Jesus was; therefore art and culture are truly
the province of Christianity. To really appreciate
the sinking stone of this moment, you’ll need to know
how much I dislike Jesus. There are stars and trees
and a changeable sky of clouds, and then there is this
kitschy brass cross of a skinny man’s torture. Love
what you like, of course, but “Jesus” is the word I use
for the chasm between the world that is and the world
that is supposed to be. This beautiful man I thought
I might be in love with is, it turns out, trying to investigate
Christian beauty through the properties of stone
and it has to do with his wife’s beauty and how her face
was the gateway to understanding vis a vis their shared faith, 
which was in turn a gateway to a larger truth of the greatness
of God. And then he reads the poem he wrote about this, 
which is carefully devout and every other line rhymes. 
It is as if an all-knowing mind was orchestrating a prank
on a pretentious, agnostic professor of the avant garde. 
As if that mind was saying as clearly as it could
that this other well I’ve been carrying, which is not a well
at all but my heart pounding like could it be a porthole
to another dimension that wants to open is just an idea
no bigger than the pupil of an eye, by which I mean an idea
one person who is me alone in the very inside of herself
thought up. Or maybe, I thought, with mounting desperation,
it is confirmation that there really is only one. You don’t
fall in love over and over again every day of your life.
There’s just he who is not this disappointingly religious
sculptor. So I’ll tell he-who-is-not. I have to tell him, 
God is in my ear all the time, cracking up at this little prank
yarn of a mystery he’s finger-knitting between us,
and you don’t ignore God when God is playing a game
with you. You toss the ping pong ball back and feel glad
to be having this drunk fun. Hey God, do you want
to see if we can’t light a stick on fire and hit the pyramid
of plastic cups from three yards out? You know,
like cornhole with a flaming arrow? Because you’re God
and I love a fire. So I send the letter with the confession
of my transcendental love and he may as well be
a Christian for how awkward and no the reply is.
“It’s cool. We’re all just passing through.” So no,
there’s no love of the kind that proves God’s been
whispering in my ear this whole time. There’s just
the regular love of my husband, who’s been watching all this unfold,
saying funny things like, “If he shows up
on our lawn holding a boom box over his head,
I’ll pack my things and go.” Which of course is its own
kind of love story. How I try to explain about God
and love and cosmic order laying out a plan for how
my life is supposed to unfold, how I’m yearning
for a great number of things and all of them fit
in the category of “Supposed To,” and he laughs
at the philosophical stupidity of it or chafes against
the jealousy of being nowhere near this list of “Supposed
To,” but takes it like a champ, because life is long
and he thinks I am interesting. And he doesn’t believe
in the mystical universe anyway, he believes in the rusty
doorknob he dug out from the boulders of a collapsed
springhouse buried beneath a hundred years of forgotten
pine trees in a valley between two sleeping Ozark mountains.
And when it’s all done and I’m embarrassed in the dark
by my own stupid craziness, he says I’ve always since
we first met been this way. He says it’s what he loves
about me. Wiping at my teary eyes, I say, “Am I maybe
at least a genius?” and he says, “Oh yes, sweetie, you
are definitely a genius.” I believe him because this well
in my chest, I feel how it goes down forever and ever.
Like when I told that other man that I used to
wonder about beauty until I read Kant, who wanted
to explain it, but got hung up on the sublime, which is
when the beauty is so vast you can’t help but feel
your mind perceiving it and then reaching the end
of what it can perceive, so perceives only that the beauty
keeps going on, but what can a mind do now, out here
at the edge of itself, but turn around and look back
to see how very small, how very insignificant a person
is, how I’m never going to understand the stars
or the mountains or the pretty little meadows full
of flowers, or the pretty faces of all these people
so much like me, rushing past, their eyes darting
this way and that. I can’t figure it out – what is it
all of you are looking at? How do you even manage? 



When I met her she was playing her part
as the maiden who could not speak.
It was the Romantic Era, when mime
was still a sort of serious ballet, not yet
a circus act. Poor Columbine, always
being dragged by Harlequin from one side
of the stage to the other. This too because
it was an era when consent had not been
invented yet, so if she says yes or if she says
no, if she fights or if she succumbs – 
these are not meaningful distinctions
for an audience so full of worries about
what will happen to them, regardless
of what they ask for. Columbine is a prop
the people have invested with strong
feelings of pity and concern. She is
a metaphor with a pretty body. 

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 men crushed in their hands
her musk-scented seeds for courage
and virility? That lions ate her flower in spring
for strength? That the spur at the back
of the blossom looks as much like the talon
of an eagle as it does a slipper en pointe. 
The good advice is always to know thyself. 
As if any of us is walking around knowing
they are not knowing thyselves.

Columbine cries with her whole body
under the blue lights. She leans like a plant
on one toe after Pierrot, the lovelorn clown
in white who has neither the financial
wherewithal nor the violent disposition
to circumvent Harlequin’s ambitions. But just
when you think there is no hope, a fairy
descends to swirl everyone off in a tempest
to the clouds where the dancing is more merry
and minor characters are turned into lobsters.

Then, intermission.

If you are studying the history of theater
and comedy, you might think of Columbine
as the granddaughter of Punch and Judy, 
the famous medieval hand puppets.
Punch would hit Judy. Judy would hit
Punch. Sometimes they used bats.
The audience cheered and threw coins
in the hat. Columbine the dancing beauty
was there but not there, learning how funny
it was to see a man beat a woman bloody. 
She tried to laugh along. Back then everyone
said Columbine blossoms looked like
jester hats so they called her the flower
of folly and foolishness and chuckled
to muss the little girl’s hair when they passed
her, off at the side of the stage, waiting
for her folks to wash their faces clean
and set the dinner table. A day was coming
when she’d paint her forehead pale and rouge
her cheeks too. When she’d crimson her lips
into the pucker of two unfurling petals. The people, 
always thinking they want something new, 
would clamor for Harlequin’s Columbine, 
not Judy’s Punch, even as they meant Judy’s
Punch, not Pierrot’s Columbine. 
The years circle their tastes round and round. 
Being myself more a Punch than a Columbine, 
I say Pierrot would have done better to show
himself the affection he made into those relentless
invisible flowers with the dance of his silent
hands. His mooning about is so tedious. 
And I suspect Harlequin wants nothing
more than the kiss of a stinging slap, though
I’m not so naïve as not to realize it might
be that he is another one of these who can
be satisfied by nothing but what he takes. 

Oh this audience, with their handkerchiefs
to their eyes, as if this story represents
the meaning of their lives. You know
she’s not even real, right? That she never was? 
You can’t be her, you can’t be the clown
that had her. You can only be this scuttling
lobster the fairy won’t change back, even now
that the curtain has fallen. Pierrot has bowed
with Columbine and Harlequin bowed
with Pierrot and Columbine dipped her curtsy
once more with the mayor and the magistrate
and the can can girls, all these extras still
wearing their claws and boiled red leggings. 

Lobsters can’t talk either, though they can clap
after a fashion, so long as they have not
been rubber-banded and their clacking
is not lost beneath the roar of those crashing
waves. The meaning of their pantomime
is impenetrable and will come to replace
clowns and maidens as the archetypal figures
at the center of the Theater of the Absurd, 
which is a kind of ballet and a kind of circus
that amuses the intelligentsia until it is
supplanted in another generation by
Artaud’s theories of the Art of Cruelty, 
when we watch a man shave his own eyeball
on the screen while dipping ourselves and others
in a rich butter sauce, with no idea how
it makes more sense than any of the gestures
that came before. Our mother the flower, 
our father the joke, these are the stories we tell
our children over this glass of sparkling
white wine, letting them watch each little
bubble rise to the surface and pop, because, 
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. 


Kathryn Nuernberger is the author of two poetry collections, The End of Pink and Rag & Bone. Her collection of lyric essays is Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past. Recent work appears in 32 Poems, Copper Nickel, Gettysburg, Gulf Coast, Poetry Daily, and elsewhere.  She is an associate professor of creative writing at University of Central Missouri, where she also serves as the director of Pleiades Press. 

Posted on November 8, 2017 .