A Review of Kathryn Nuernberger’s The Witch of Eye

January 28, 2021 § Leave a comment

By Heidi Czerwiec

After reading The Witch of Eye, Kathryn Nuernberger’s new collection of meditative and lyric essays about the cruelties inflicted on certain women—mainly “witches” but sometimes saints, though their ends are often equally as bloody—I was furious. As Nuernberger puts it, “I have anger and anger to spare.” Not because of reading the familiar stories—even if the named individuals are new to me, the stories are always “one version of the tragedy after another.” But because of how, as we are reminded in “Translations of the Conclusions & Findings Report for Catalina Ouyang as the True Confessions of Johannes Junius,” a piece on the gross institutional failures of Title IX investigations, words may be used against you: “your words aren’t words, your words are evidence, your memories are words, your feelings are evidence of the opposite of your words, except when they are consistent with something the panel considers evidence.” Having experienced this myself, when a former institution I worked for allowed my words to be twisted and violent threats made to me when I followed the institution’s own policies, I know, as does Nuernberger, that even being a writer does not translate to control over your own words, especially within patriarchal systems. The silences from these institutions were telling.

Creative writing that incorporates research often is about looking past the official account, reading into the apocrypha, the off-the-record, marginalia. Especially into erasures and silences. As Nuernberger relates, “A translator once told me that the first act of translation is to move silence into words.” This tactic is stated in that Title IX essay, which occurs at the end of the collection,  but it’s truly Nuernberger’s strategy for both The Witch of Eye and her most recent poetry collection, Rue. While I am here to review The Witch of Eye, I’d argue for a paired reading of these two texts, two sides of the same silence being translated. Both books deal with women and knowledge that have been marginalized, erased, and/or demonized. Rue tends to zoom in more on the knowledge—the natural lore (especially of plants traditionally used for birth control), the whisper network of how to navigate the world of men—that gets deemphasized, suppressed, forgotten. As a forager, I was thrilled after reading it, began looking for the plants she notes, noting descriptions in my mushroom guides of the telltale phrase “brings on the menses.” Rue’s sister, The Witch of Eye, focuses more on the women targeted for possessing this knowledge.

The distinctions of content and genre between the two books are fine—where they differ is in style. Rue is comprised of long poems that trace the twists and turns of the author’s process of mind as she processes these ways of knowing and how they’ve been received, long passages that attempt to create connections to this knowledge, grapple with it, reclaim it, and weave it into a current consciousness and context. In contrast, The Witch of Eye is quite fragmented—punctuated with white spaces that echo the silences she is writing into, translating. These essays are rich, dense with information and images, and yet so clear-eyed in their focus and project. Like the hagstones—the naturally-occurring stones with holes, the “stone monocle” she describes in “The Eye of the Hagstone”—“they can help you see what is real.” Nuernberger braids together historical details, records of confessions and torture, philosophical mediation, myth, personal reflection and narrative, social and literary theory, and theology. These are related in terse sentences and fragments juxtaposed in such a way that you can watch her mind at work on the page and follow the connections she makes as she leaps. In “Titiba & the Invention of the Unknown,” when Nuernberger introduces us to historian Michel de Certeau, who “wants to know what makes ideas possible,” and who insists we ask “what makes something thinkable,” and follows it with bits of transcript from the interrogation of Titiba in Salem, it’s clear the question we are to consider is, how can a culture simultaneously imagine such horrible things are possible, and yet insist that the woman is the cause, despite her denials? Nuernberger also implicates our systems of power in how such imagined horrors are projected onto scapegoats, while actual horrors get glossed over: murders of women, Title IX panels that protect colleges over victims, Carlisle Indian schools, the incarceration of migrant children by ICE.

Lest I make the issues introduced in the The Witch of Eye seem reductive or simply a performance of female outrage, this book is quite complex. Throughout, Nuernberger wrestles with her own involvement. She cites Adrienne Rich: “Women have often felt insane when cleaving to the truth of our experience…and [w]e have a profound stake…in describing our reality as candidly and fully as we can to each other.” She struggles with all the ways her marriage makes her crazy, yet also needing to fully present herself to her husband, and how that became a spell, “a slow spell and often a very boring and repetitive one…. It has made me more dangerous and more kind than I would ever have figured out to be on my own.”

These essays are fascinating—while their titles often seem like we’ll be covering familiar material—“Titiba,” “The Devil’s Book,” “Hildegard von Bingen,” “Medusa,” “Marie Laveau”—this is no pop-culture recitation à lá Sabrina or AHS: Coven. Instead, Nuernberger zooms in on the unspoken details: “in ‘The Torture Used Against Witches’ (1577) the cherubic boy-man with curly locks has a boner so big it almost interferes with his capacity to turn the wheel that pulls the woman’s arms unaccountably backwards.” In a lurid depiction of torture, “The parchment is centuries old and tattered, but the pigments have not lost a shade. Or maybe someone came back later to add this color so they could imagine the moment more vividly.” On the pressures of inquisitions to get “new” information and, therefore, the need for inventive details and additional accusations, Nuernberger admits “there are aspects of an inquisition I would probably enjoy [like] adding decorative touches to the archetype of the devil.” Yet she also works through resistance: “The vow of silence is not necessarily a refusal to invent…. It can simply be a promise not to invent each other.”

While musing on the lush green meditations of Hildegard von Bingen, Nuernberger makes her own confession: “I started reading about witches because I thought I’d find people talking about how they felt this green world offering to take over their bodies if only they could figure out how to let it…. Like anybody, I live at the intersection of longing and discipline. Like anybody, I am not sure if I have made the right choices.” This longing for knowledge, and the means to use it, can lead to rage, confusion, and silence. But I’m so grateful for Nuernberger’s attempts to translate those silences.

Heidi Czerwiec  is an essayist, poet, and author of the lyric essay collection Fluid States, selected by Dinty W. Moore as winner of Pleiades Press’ 2018 Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose, and the poetry collection Conjoining, and is the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She writes and teaches in Minneapolis, where she is an editor for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies.

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