Book Review: Bluewords Greening (Christine Stewart-Nuñez)
Reviewed by Michael Northen
Hildegard said the soul is like sap, a body-syrup
It is commonplace now, particularly in academic circles, to argue that meaning comes from without. It is either imposed upon us externally through the bludgeonings our minds receive from public media and public perceptions or it is subtly absorbed from our environment from birth on creating what we mistakenly believe to be inherent. In Bluewords Greening, Christine Stewart-Nuñez provides a counter-narrative, carefully balancing between easy platitudes of individualism or religious finger-pointing at God and the acceptance of all meaning as social construction. In doing so, she adds depth to the continuing poetic dialogue around disability.
The book's construction is implicit in its title. Two sections, "Bluewords" and "Greening" are bridged by a short interlude. Stewart-Nuñez defines a "blueword" as "any given word spoken by someone with aphasia," and the first half of the book is devoted to poems about her son who has Landau-Kleffer Syndrome. The greening portion of the book derives from the imagery Hildegard of Bingen referenced in the poem above and centers around the poet's attempt to see through a pregnancy after four prior miscarriages. As the overall plan of the book unfolds, Stewart-Nuñez encounters and explores many of the issues writers of disability literature are engaged in.
"Bluewords" opens, as does the unfolding of Landau-Kleffer Syndrome, in "Temporary Innocence" and moves the reader progressively through the poet's experiences with her son as he meets with seizures, medications, aphasia, diagnosis, and beyond. From the beginning, however, Stewart-Nuñez lets the reader know that she is not looking at a simple linear sequence of events. If a reader misses the nod to theology and Blake in the first poem, her concerns become clear with the first lines of the second poem, "Permutations of Light":
On the screen, I see how God
Throughout the book the poet intertwines two paths to understanding, that of religion and that of science. Light radiating from our technology is merely the contemporary permutation of the theological light described in the opening chapters of the Gospel of John. Stewart-Nuñez's belief in the importance of scientific technology and thought for human progress is never in question, but her references to Hildegard and other medieval figures also makes it clear that in many ways we are no further along in answering the "why's" of the questions we ask than those who lived in the Middle Ages. A trivial example occurs in describing her son's treatment for seizures at the end of "Solving for Epilepsy":
A medieval saint suggests a cure:
In the first half of the book the poet provides a number of portraits of her son Holden both pre and post diagnosis. In doing so she uses a variety of poetic forms to help fill out this portrayal. This search for a form mirrors not only a manifold search for a means of expressing what she is trying to convey but reflects the multiple forms that poetry can take, just as there are multiple forms that genetic expression can take. One of the pleasures of Bluewords Greening is that the use of poetic form is, for the most part, unobtrusive. One exception to this might be her poem "Aphasia Ironies," – though I do get that the minimalist requirements of haiku echo the difficulty in word production in aphasia. Still, most of the more formal attempts, such as the use of sonnet form in "Buffaloed", do not allow the form to obscure the content.
Ironically, having said that, one of my favorite poems in the first half of the book is in fugue with arguably the most heavily imitated modern poem in the English language, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." Probably every poet has played with an answer to Wallace Stevens' poem at one time or another, and my original thought was "oh oh, " but, for my money, Stewart-Nuñez's "Thirteen Ways of Understanding Blueword" is the best that I have seen. There are two reasons for this. First, the various opportunities that Stevens' poems offer for circling an experience or phenomenon that no one can really understand is a perfect fit for trying to convey the variety of angles from which she is trying to understand her son. The second is in Stewart-Nuñez's execution. The dialogue with Stevens' poem stanza by stanza is nearly pitch perfect – with one very important and calculated exception. To Stevens' first stanza:
Among twenty snowy mountains,
Among one million combinations
However, to Wallace's eighth stanza, which begins, "I know noble accents/And lucid, inescapable rhythms" Stewart-Nuñez responds ,
Blue blue blue
It is totally unexpected and the disruption to the cadence and the imitation process wonderfully.
Imitation and the imperfections in replication are important elements in this volume. One particularly explicit example comes in the book's "Interlude" with the poem "Variables Intrinsic to Printmaking, To Procreation." This piece provides a bridge to another important issue that Blue Words Greening takes up, that of mutation in human (or any other) reproduction. In "Mutations", which begins as an ekphrastic poem on a painting by Lynda Benglis, Stewart-Nuñez identifies the putative culprit in her son's condition:
Sixty or so errors spring up
The de novo (emphasis in original) is significant because this is not a strict inheritance. In contemporary culture the inheritance of a disability often plays a comparable role to the religious superstition that a child with a disability is the result of God's retribution for some sin of the parents. Both are perfect scenarios for instilling guilt. However, the poet counters:
In his book The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin's Theory, Kenny Fries (also a poet) was one of the first take the negative view of mutation as the cause of disability and turn it into a positive by pointing out that it was mutation and not merely slow sequential changes that has brought man from those first precursors of humanity as we now understand it to its present day form(s). Much more recently, disabilities scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, in an essay in New York Times' disability series, describes how her "orphan disease" is as much a sign of possible evolutionary progress in human beings as it is a difference to be condemned or eradicated. It is this conversation that Stewart-Nuñez joins in her reference to mitochondrial Eve.
"Greening" the book's second part follows a somewhat similar linear procedure as the first, and, though the section is bridged across space, it is also helpful to remember that much of the narrative of that section is occurring at the same time. As mentioned, this section describes the poet's attempts to carry through a pregnancy clear through to birth. It begins with "Conjuring Practice" where the conjuring is an attempt to invoke pregnancy; the section with:
When I die, four swords
What happens between those points, together with the poet's daily experiences in South Dakota and poems from her travels, makes up the content of the larger part of the book's second half. As with the first section, there is an immediate pairing of the secular scientific view with that of a more theological perspective. "That Sticky Tango," the second poem, posits:
that sticky tango—
The contrasting third poem "The Cosmic Tree at Conception" opens with a quote from Hildegard and answers:
As if spun
These threads are in a tango themselvas and, as with the prescriptions for her son's medication, modern science seems to be of no more help than the medieval theological explanations.
My doctor's glossing of my uterine
If the poet believes "meaning /quickens from within," what meaning does she find in all that has happened to her? There are no answers, but certainly one of Stewart-Nuñez's ways of dealing is to use poetry as a means of trying to comprehend.
I have a slight confession to make. Bluewords Greening came to me from an unexpected source. In all of my dealings with disability poetry, I had never come across Christine Stewart– Nuñez's work, and had no expectations of it when I opened the cover to read. After the first two poems, I was hooked – and it wasn't just because I have a fascination with medieval theology. It is a thoughtful, many layered work. One in which the depth of feeling from which it springs is kept in check by intelligence and artistry. We are fortunate to have come into an age where quality poetry by mothers of children with disabilities is flourishing. Even within that context, however, Bluewords Greening is something special. It is a welcome addition to disability literature and needs to be part of the conversation.
Title: Bluewords Greening