Float, Cleave

Photo by Markus Spiske
Float, Cleave by Kathryn Nuernberger

Like most everything, the history of hot air balloons is a history of sex and tragic death. In response to a suggestion that “the desire to float passively upon the currents of the air represent[s] the female principle while the urge to cleave through them upon aggressive wings typifies the male,” L.T.C. Rolt, author of the seminal history The Aeronauts, insists, “The fact is that the floaters were the first to win the skies and it is with their victory that we are here concerned. It could not be claimed as a victory for feminism.” His tone is one of revulsion at the very suggestion a man’s gambit might take a woman’s form. “To be borne aloft for the first time by a frail envelope of paper or silk a man needed as much courage as a tower jumper.”


I try not to talk about being a woman because I don’t want to be defined that way. I try not to talk about religion or politics because I am at odds with the people where I live. I try not to talk about my opinions, because who cares. I try not to talk at all, but sometimes I find myself saying just anything. Did you know, I once told the men at the coffee shop who wring their hands over socialized medicine, that there have been times being a woman was so different from being a man it was easier to imagine yourself a drifting balloon than the man below trying to steer?


A well-known poet read at our university and one of her poems was a metaphor for the female orgasm as a bird beating its wings like a second heartbeat. I returned to my office to find one of the professors of the old guard waiting in the hallway to ask if this is, in fact, how the female orgasm feels. I had been a professor myself for less than two months at this point, so I changed the subject. He asked again, and I suggested he ask his wife. Not one to be put off, he said, “I’m not asking my wife. I’m asking you.”


He’s a jolly and affable man, and urgent curiosity about questions related to the pleasure of others is to be commended.  Nevertheless, I told him to leave my office and take his sexual harassment with him. I didn’t know what kind of person I was going to have to be then. I was wearing a new pair of dress slacks and never spoke of my still-nursing child who I sometimes could see in a fountain at the center of campus beside her father, who gave a little wave towards my window.


That night I was impatient for my daughter to go to bed, so I could ask my husband, “Can’t you feel it for yourselves? The bird pulsing to the nest?”


“I thought I was the bird.”


Tomorrow I will eat in the school cafeteria with this professor and my now kindergarten-aged daughter, who says he is her best friend. He will ask her difficult questions, like, “What is it like to be young?” “Well,” she’ll say, chewing her French fry like a cigar she’s been contemplating as the sun goes down, “Sometimes it can be exasperating to be five, but mostly it’s pretty good.”


Then we’ll talk over the child’s head for a while about his wife’s diagnosis, which he is right to worry about. Everyone in this little town we all share adores her for how she often appears at a convenient moment to pull her husband out of an intense conversation by his elbow. I’ve lived inside my careful silence so long, though, I prefer not to see him nudged away. When he told me about her prognosis, it was a secret. If she lived, there was still a lot the disease could take from her. Some things are harder to tell than that you are going to die, but some things are also hard to know alone.  I write the history of aeronauts instead.


When Benjamin Franklin’s gout got so bad it took four strong men to carry him into assembly, he made sketches for the patent office of a hydrogen-balloon-chair apparatus that would require only one man lightly steering. How can you not admire a person who thinks of air before wheels?


I wish I had told my friend that of course an orgasm is like a second heart beating a wing-flapping bird. That’s why the poem was so good. Even I didn’t know there was a bird in there, but now I feel it every time. I should have thanked him for asking.




Kathryn Nuernberger is the author of the lyric essay collection, Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past, which won the Non/Fiction Prize from OSU Press. Her poetry collections are The End of Pink (BOA, 2016) and Rag & Bone (Elixir, 2011). Recent work appears in 32 Poems, Crazyhorse, Field, Ninth Letter, Poetry International, and Willow Springs. She is an associate professor of Creative Writing at University of Central Missouri, where she also serves as the director of Pleiades Press.