Book Review – The Poet & The Architect, Christine Stewart-Nuñez

The Poet & The Architect

Christine Stewart-Nuñez

Terrapin Books, 2021: 85 pp.

This review appeared in the 34th volume of The Briar Cliff Review.


Christine Stewart-Nuñez’ latest collection of poetry is on its face all about design and construction – of a love, of language, of perspective, of the joists underlying marriage, family, and community. We enter rooms and spaces of all sorts, including old and new houses, dream houses, doll houses, and LEGO houses, as well as the architecture of the breast and the structures of the brain housed in the skull.

The guiding consciousness in this elaborate tour of rooms is the Poet of the title, whose verbal patterns, along with architectural features, serve as metaphors for the relationship between the poet and the architect. John Donne, in “The Canonization,” wrote to his lover, “We’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms.” For Stewart-Nuñez, the edifice of love is constructed of poetic forms, built on the rhythms and repetitions of poetry: rhyme, meter, sestina, villanelle, triolet. “Our sonnet’s the fourteen creases in the sheets.”

The differing creative energies of the two partners, the poet and the architect, form a major theme of the collection. “We spoke the same / language with different alphabets.” In a poem entitled “He Said, She Said,” the poet writes, “He said algebra. / She said alchemy” and “He said grid, list, distance. / She said bridal, fire, wild.” Although the relationship is complicated by strains compared to stress fractures in the windows of a skyscraper, these tensions are presented as a source of growth and transformation, with each partner elevated and expanded by the dialectic.

The poet compares this enlargement to the adding of a third dimension, converting her squares and rectangles into cubes and cylinders. “This is how he builds me: / patterned blocks of words / turn arc into umbrella,” urging a one-dimensional curved line to open out into a three-dimensional shelter. The very act of knowing the partner effects a deepening, whether through a cerebral grasp of the other’s thought processes (“The idea’s shape is distilled / from his neocortex by a pixel riot”) or through physical intimacy (“Your hands – // wide, strong – are lenses / that ignite encyclopedic knowledge”). “Ask questions,” the poet writes. “Unlock/ the map of scars.”

With unflinching candor, Stewart-Nuñez confronts this “map of scars” two people bring to a marriage. Each partner is a document in which the text has been erased and overwritten, but in which traces of the original are still visible – a “palimpsest.” In a poem by that title, the author frames the relationship as the arch of a bridge between two ruins, two pasts. “My love, the landscape subsumed my past and yours / and left a trace upon which our vows trussed ruins.” In “Urban Planning,” the poet compares the past to the open cut of an abandoned mine, the gaping emptiness left by the wounds of previous relationships over which the two must build structures of a new, healing bond.

As the collection unfolds, Stewart-Nuñez broadens her vision to encompass these themes in a larger arena. The scars of one’s personal past are inextricable from historical and cultural failings and violations. To illustrate this enlarged perspective, Stewart-Nuñez zooms out to give us an aerial view of the South Dakota landscape, showing the faint traces of abandoned railroad tracks, mapping the site of a ghost town. Just as the architect husband attempts to understand a lost history through aerial photography, so the poet must “sift through memories”: We both search this way, / moments of discovery and loss juxtaposed until / it transforms.”

The building method called “rammed earth” becomes a powerful metaphor embodying the way poets, architects, and society must acknowledge and transform the injustices and atrocities of the past, whether the genocide of Native Americans or the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis. Rammed earth is soil that has been compressed (“Muscled pressed, treated”) to the point that it can be used as construction material. As the poet says, “It must be engaged, not owned.” The dominant culture must grapple with its complicity in historical wrongdoing and build new structures out of that struggle.

Stewart-Nuñez uses the recurring image of the spiral, which curves back on its own center, to represent this act of engagement with and reanalysis of the personal and cultural past, as well as to enact the wild abandon of love (“I spun and swirled // on heart-charged feet”). The author writes, “I like loops….I dipped and circled you in theory.” Fittingly then, the collection is divided into four “rings,” corresponding roughly to the early relationship, the marriage, the family, and the culture. These rings call to mind many images: mysterious Neolithic stone circles; rings expanding outward after a stone is thrown into the water, each containing and enlarging on the previous one; the chambered nautilus, circling its own core.

The final poem, “Credo,” introduces the idea of fractals, another image of repetition and changing scale within which the poet locates us as individuals, families, elements of the natural world, and forces of the universe. “A cascade / of repeating elements grounds my belief in / humanity / as mystery.” The poem articulates a tenuous yet profound faith and brings closure to this collection. This is a book of great generosity and scope. With unwavering honesty and astonishing intellect, Stewart-Nuñez reveals the repeated designs that join our most intimate love relationships to the patterns of history and the cosmos. The spiral widens from its inmost heart outward, embracing itself and the world, leaving nothing behind.

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