Mandy L. Rose
Review of The Nomenclature of Small Things by Lynn Pedersen
Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2016. 80 pp $15.95 Paperback
Lynn Pedersen's The Nomenclature of Small Things (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2016) begins with "What no one tells you," ends with "the last word," and in between seeks to name and classify the taxonomy of grief through the languages of history, mathematics, science, art, religion, and motherhood. Creation and evolution are less at odds here than they are parts of a whole.
Nomenclature, the devising or choosing of names for things, is itself questioned and demanded. These poems point toward the nature of grief as well as the necessity and failure of words in the face of losses—including unborn children. This naming propels the reader forward through three sections, each a numbered Category. The poems are inhabited by the speaker, as well as scientists and biblical figures who share the urgency and inability to classify the unknown and unimaginable.
The first poem, "The Infinite Density of Grief," conflates creation and destruction. Here, "What no one tells you is grief/has properties: expands like a gas..." and "collapses in and on itself like a dying star" before "grief sleeps, becomes the pebble in your shoe you can almost ignore, until..."
The promise of this pebble is carefully realized throughout the book, becoming both a part of the bedrock and a talisman the reader carries from one page to another. Grief maintains a steady presence, at times quiet until awakened by a penny on the sidewalk, the roundness of plates, the surgeon's blue pen, a golden braid, or the spiraled peel of an apple in the sink. In "The Birth of Superstition," the speaker introduces us to her "need for pattern and rule, to see connections/where there aren't necessarily any."
Later, in "Nomenclature: The First Day" the reader stands with Adam and Eve as they realize "Of course there's no name for death,/ the absence of...and there's no name for the smallest of spaces, like between fitted stones, gaps between want and expectation."
The scientific and the domestic are deftly interwoven, with deep and cumulative effect. By the time the first category comes to a close with "Something about Darwin," the reader is reminded: "there is no account in the Origin of Species/ of grief," asking "Is it only tragic when the last of a species dies? How about the first born?"
This momentum continues in the second section, Category II. Explorers follow paths first created by animals in their search for water, mourners wait for thaw before they can bury their dead, and the platypus is at first considered a hoax. Darwin appears again in, "I Hate Darwin"
for being the first to point out it was inevitable
my loss, shoving it in my face at a low
point in my grief, his mechanics of extinction
Even Geometry is included in the speaker's attempts to illustrate and illuminate loss, in "Grief and Geometry."
If I plotted grief on an xy-plane where
x and y equal time and loss,
x=3, y=3, then flipped that point
over the x-axis, y-axis, then
x again, I'd have a perfect
square, four datapoints for each
The speaker considers what sort of constellation would be created from these points, "what kind of animal or myth would it be?"
Grief would have to be a bird
that can depart and return
with a soft shudder of feathers.
Bright stars for the tips of wings.
The third and final Catalog begins with "The Classification of Impermanence," dedicated to Luke Howard, who devised the classification system for clouds. It is perhaps in this poem that the reader feels most ardently the reason "To name what is happening even as it slips away."
...all of which was to give him
a language to speak theories of rain, to say what he expects
or sees or thinks he sees but which doesn't stay and may not even exist
twenty miles away. And even so, he has faith
in words to limit and pin down the indefinite, the intangible,
the unattainable—to hold fast.
Pedersen's writing is precise; her images are clean but not cold, and the references the poems make to other work are inclusive, drawing the reader in rather than making one feel excluded. I find myself retracing the steps of these poems repeatedly, pebble firmly in my shoe.
You can purchase The Nomenclature of Small Things here.
Mandy L. Rose studied creative writing at Colorado State University.Her work has appeared in Pithead Chapel and A Poetic Inventory of Rocky Mountain National Park. Her poetry and creative nonfiction are forthcoming from Black Warrior Review and University of Hell Press. Her chapbook, Letters to Pluto, is forthcoming from Gesture Press.