Equilibrium & Gravity: Amber Jensen on Christine Stewart-Nunez’s Keeping Them Alive


Keeping Them Alive, Christine Stewart-Nuñez, WordTech Editions, 2011

In Keeping Them Alive, Christine Stewart-Nuñez expresses a range of emotions—from fear and anger to curiosity and joy—as a sister’s untimely death and the birth of a son converge in this collection of meditative poems. Through carefully carved language and crisp images, this collection demonstrates the craft that won Stewart-Nuñez the Academy of American Poets Award (2003) and the 2008 publication of her Postcard on Parchment. Through personal, yet universal themes, the collection draws readers into the shadows of death and regret, into the glow of life and hope.

The first poem in Keeping Them Alive, which is titled “Braid of Birth and Death in Blue,” establishes the collection’s tone with contrasting images:

cracked shell of a robin’s egg
cervix after conception
indigo salt
empty casket’s pool of navy satin
parallel lines of a pregnancy test
[…]
sister’s lips when Mother found her
azure glass in the chapel where mothers pray
sapphire of a flame’s base
midnight umbilical, looped. (14)

As demonstrated in these lines, Stewart-Nuñez avoids sentimentality by balancing light with dark, examining the subtle shading of human responses to life and loss. Fear fades into hope, grief tints happiness. The second poem in the book shades the miracle of conception with futility:

Day fourteen:
Gold crocus open. My body won’t
flower. No nausea, breast tenderness,
only an ache in my core. The usual
blood. What words created, life
absorbs, cell like any other cell. (17)

Yet intransience imbues a poem near the end of the collection titled “Dead Sisters”:

Sisters never leave forever, memory
just changes the record,
Bee Gees swapped for early AC/DC.
[…]
In my dreams she’s seven
feet tall, freckles misplaced.
Through castles she tromps,
soaping carriage windows, slaying
dragons. Princes beg for her hand. (65)

The reflections throughout Keeping them Alive skip across the color wheel of emotion, balancing the weight of mourning with the levity of new life. In the companion villanelles, “Upon a Request to Describe the Impact of Her Death” and “After Bring Asked to Describe Motherhood,” death is both a “phantom twin” and “feasts of unleavened bread” (19); birth both “joy” and a “question embodied” (58).

But these contrasting themes and emotions create more than equilibrium—they also create a gravity, a pull towards the center of the human experience that tethers fear in reality. “Spot,” which describes anxiety when bleeding begins at week ten of pregnancy, appears next to “Keeping Them Alive,” which justifies this anxiety:

Press dirt firmly, give
a good first drink, dust
leaves with a damp cloth—
Mom’s ritual for each cutting
clipped from my sister’s
funeral plants. […]

When I find my cutting
with curled leaves in the dirt,
I drive three hours home
with it in my lap. Mom
looks at the stick in the pot,
places her hand on mine.
It’s already gone, she says.
There’s nothing I can do.

Universal themes like this one make the collection accessible, yet Stewart-Nuñez layers emotions and experience patiently so that in the end, the poems in this collection mimic the saturated hues of emotions and readers can relate to the way past loss colors our own experiences.

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Amber Jensen is the mother of two creative and energetic children; she also teaches high school Spanish and language arts and is pursuing a MFA in Creative Writing through the University of New Orleans’ low-residency program.  Thanks to her supportive husband and an inspiring network of writer friends, Amber finds time to read, write, and revise despite this busy schedule.  Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in North Dakota Quarterly, Elipsis, and Assisi.

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