- Untrussed by Christine Stewart-Nuñez
One of the great delights of Christine Stewart-Nuñez’s Untrussed, part of the Mary Burritt Christiansen Poetry Series, is the sheer variety of styles that she deploys, in poems that are personal, lyrical, formal, and ekphrastic. Their settings, too, are wide-reaching and global, which is suitable given the title of the collection. These poems are about letting go, of undoing, of setting free. It is therefore not a surprise to turn the page and find ourselves on the Platte River one minute, in the baking heat of Phoenix the next, and then in India, Russia, or Turkey.
Author of several poetry collections, including Snow, Salt, Honey (Red Dragonfly Press), Keeping Them Alive (WordTech Editions), and Postcard on Parchment (ABZ Press), Stewart-Nuñez has seen her nonfiction listed as a Best American Essays notable, and her piece about parenting a child with Landau-Kleffner Syndrome won the Lindenwood Review’s 2014 Lyric Essay Contest. Stewart-Nuñez’s poetry has appeared in a number of prominent literary journals, and she teaches creative writing at South Dakota State University. Her latest collection, Untrussed, features poems originally published in such journals as Atlanta Review, Natural Bridge, Cimarron Review, and Prairie Schooner, to name a few.
The untrussing of her latest collection is not just of a poet coming to terms [End Page 179] with a failed marriage and the hopes attached to a new love, but also an untruss-ing of memory and place. Stewart-Nuñez displays an uncanny ability for perception, and she moves with easy grace between formal structures and free verse. She writes in cross rhyme on one page and in a villanelle a few pages later. In between them she squeezes several lyric poems. For example, “A Palette of Turns,” examines in heartbreaking free verse the moment a husband announces he no longer wishes to be married. Stewart-Nuñez writes, “I soaked up the scene: his saunter/ down the dirt path/ basket in hand;/ the kid on his shoulders giggling/ […] I saw only what I wanted to see.” What follows is painful, honest, and true: “That night when he said divorce/ out loud, I knew his heart had already,/ long ago, made the turn” (39). This poem is immediately followed by “Abecedarian to Unbind,” which turns that traditional form on its head, moving from Z to A as if Stewart-Nuñez is unspooling the moments that made up that first marriage. The dialogue between “A Palette of Turns” and “Abecedarian to Unbind” is unforgettable, not least of which for these final lines: “forget the full circle unless / end means beginning. I release / dusk’s hot promises. Seek / clarity; you’re no longer my / breath. May these lines / ax, split, divide, annul. Amen.”
A number of ekphrastic poems also appear dotted throughout the collection, as Stewart-Nuñez opens dialogue with several paintings that range from contemporary works of visual art to illuminated manuscripts housed in the British Library. For example, she writes of Walter de Milemete’s art from the early 1300s, which depicts women hurling posies and blossoms at an unseen attacker. In “Women Defending Castle with Bow and Crossbow,” Stewart-Nuñez muses, “Some interpret/ this as a woman’s greatest weapon / is love. But once a heart’s deployed/ to battle, one can’t call it back to bed” (48). In describing a centuries-old view of women, she subtly asks if much has changed. That is, if love is weaponized to defend the hearth, what affect does it have on the heart? These pieces offer a subtle reminder that the poet is reacting to a world around her that readers cannot fully access. An argument could be made that all poetry—all literary art—is a form of ekphrasis.
The power of Untrussed, though, isn’t just found in Stewart-Nuñez’s craft skills and ability to manipulate forms. It also emerges in her ability to illuminate seemingly throwaway moments. In “Polish Lessons” we see a speaker struggling to learn that language as “rollicking vowels...