A CLOSER LOOK: D. Nurkse




Dennis Nurkse is the author of ten collections of poetry, most recently A Night in Brooklyn (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012). His Estonian father worked for the League of Nations in Vienna and his mother was an artist before escaping Nazi Europe during World War II and settling in New York. He's received a Whiting Writers' Award, the Bess Hokin Prize from Poetry, grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Tanne Foundation Award. He's taught at Sarah Lawrence College, the Stonecoast MFA Program in Creative Writing, and Rikers Island Correctional Facility. Nurkse also works for human rights organizations, writing on human rights issues, and was elected to the board of directors of Amnesty International USA.

 

A poem coherently expresses the presence of a human creature. 

[A] poem must act upon you in a way that resembles a human encounter. For alone, in your memory, you, you, what’s the difference . . . between a poem you remember and a person you recall? You want lamps to go on. 

                                                                        —Glyn Maxwell

                                                                             On Poetry

 

Dennis Nurkse turns on lamps.  When in his poems, we find ourselves awash in the light of the voice, its intimate encounters with others, with the self, with what's possible, what's unexpected, in this human world made of relationship.  His recent books firmly establish his as a major voice in American poetry.  Most recently, A Night in Brooklyn elicited this from Philip Levine:

 

After I read D. Nurkse's last collection of poems, The Border Kingdom, I told myself there was no one in the U.S. who could write a better book. Well I was wrong, there was a poet who could and recently did publish a better book, the same D. Nurkse. A Night in Brooklyn, his newest collection, finds him on home territory—he was for a time the Poet Laureate of Brooklyn—he should be the laureate of the Western Hemisphere.  He possesses the ability to employ the language of our American streets, shops, bars, factories, and any place else and construct truly lyrical poems, sometimes of love, sometimes of anger.  He can be wonderfully large and inclusive: "In these long slant-lit streets, she says, / you will find factories that once made shoehorns, / waffle irons, or pearl cuff links and store front churches / where voices adored the living God while tambourines clashed a little behind the beat . . ." from "Twilight in Canarsie," which finally gets the poem it deserves.  The voice behind these poems is certainly Nurkse's, but more often than not I feel it's that deepest voice we hear rarely if ever and then only in poems, the voice of those closest to us, those we love and care for and who—because they are human–remain mysteries: "All my life I have been dying, of hope and self-pity, / and an unknown force has been knitting me back together."  No one is writing more potently than this. 

[from the Ploughshares blog, December 7, 2012]


And here's how Jody Bolz responded to Dennis' new book this past spring when introducing him at The Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland, for a celebration of Poet Lore's 124th birthday:

In Dennis Nurkse's astonishing new book, A Night in Brooklyn, one scene reappears with the intimacy and eeriness of a recurring dream. Two lovers lie together (and separate) in a room that's theirs or not theirs—in a city that's familiar or foreign. There's a window or a mirror in which time is passing: dusk, dark, dawn.

 

Beyond the room, the relentless business of The City: labor, commerce, celebration, distraction, devotion, betrayal, conflict. Are the lovers safe or unsafe? Is their love safe or unsafe? How will they locate themselves in the world?

 

Beginning with Shadow Wars in 1988, Dennis Nurkse has given us ten books of poetry that might be read as a long meditation on such central human questions. Intimacy and estrangement, home and exile, memory and loss, insight and bafflement, a fragile peace and open warfare: these are the opposing forces that animate his beautiful, unsettling poems.

 

What makes this art and not philosophy—art and not psychology—is the abundance of keenly observed details, images of work and the rituals of daily life. The dream-like world is lodged within the recognizable world with its rough barstools and dingy doorways, its belt sanders and grinding wheels, its pigeons, parks, and tenement stairs. The city's real—and the city is a metaphor.

 

Almost 30 years ago, Poet Lore published a poem called "Ovid in Exile" by a young writer whose name was surely new to the editors.  In it the exiled Roman poet contemplates his condition: "The road home is a knife," Dennis Nurkse wrote,


or a shard of broken china

forced against a vein:

the other road is grassed over,

a shimmer in the endless plain,

a fold in the map.

 

Which way to go?  Or is the state of exile—the in-between, the present moment—all we can be sure of?   The last poem in his new book frames the problem another way. "Return to the Capital" ends with the image of a man and a woman waking together and confronting two reflections in a mirror. The questions they ask might as well be our own:  

           

            if this is happiness,

how shall we leave it,

if this is grief, how to enter it,

if this is just a rented room,

where are the doors, the stairs,

the streets, the endless city.




D. Nurkse: A Selection of Poems 2002-2012



from A Night In Brooklyn (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012):

 

Waking in Greenpoint in Late August

 

We wanted so much that there be a world

as we lay naked on our gray-striped mattress,

staring up at a trowel mark on the eggshell-blue ceiling

and waiting, waiting for twilight, darkness, dawn,

marriage, the child, the hoarse names of the city—

let there be a universe in which these lovers can wash

at the pearling spigot, and lick each other dry.

 

 

The Dead Reveal Secrets of Brooklyn

 

We are frequently asked, what is death like?

 

Like tossing a frisbee in Prospect Park,

making sure the release

is free of any twitch or spasm—

any trace of the body's vacillation—

willing the disk to glide forwards

of its own momentum, never veering,

in a trance of straight lines.

 

Like waiting in traffic at Hoyt-Fulton

waving away the squeegee man

with his excessive grin and red-veined eyes.

 

Lying under your lover in Crown Heights

and divining a stranger's face

in the dark flash of her pupils.

 

Growing old in Kensington

on a block that reeks of dry cleaning

where you nod to three neighbors

and avoid the stare of a fourth

though a single brindle-tailed cat

patrols every dark garden.

 

Remember, death does not last,

not even a breath,

whereas the city goes on forever,

Cypress Hill, Gravesend, Bath Beach,

avenues screened by gingkos,

vehemence of domino players

hunched over folding tables,

 

range on range of padlocked factories

that once made twine, hammers, tape,

and now make small nameless articles

which we use to bind, shatter or seal,

here where there is no self,

no other world, no Brooklyn.

 

 

The Present

 

We made models: this is a moment of happiness,

this is a maple-shaded street, its yellow median line

littered with double wings: some day we might know such things

in our real lives, not just in desire.

 

We invented Cherryfield, Maine, nine pearl-gray Capes

with sagging porches held together by coats of gesso.

Behind the scrim of birches the Middle Branch River

glittered like the galvanized roof to a tackle shed.

 

We were quick and replicated a shack with a chalk sign


CHUBBS SMELTS CROAKERS; there was barely time to read it


before it whirled into the past. And she who was driving said,


we know the coming disaster intimately but the present is unknowable.

 

Which disaster, I wondered, sexual or geological? But I was shy:

her beauty was like a language she didn't speak and had never heard.

 

Then we were in Holyfield and it was the hour when the child

waves from a Welcome mat, his eyes full of longing, before turning

inward to his enforced sleep. We waved back but we were gone.

 

The hour when two moths bump together above a pail of lures.

 

The hour when the Coleman lamp flickers in the screen house

above the blur of cards being shuffled and dealt amazingly fast.

 

All my life I have been dying, of hope and self pity,

and an unknown force has been knitting me back together.

It happens in secret. I want to touch her and I touch her

and it registers on the glittering gauges that make the car darker

and swifter and we come to the mountains and this is all I ever

                                           wanted:

 

to enter the moth's pinhead eye, now, and never return.

 

 

Letter From Home

 

1

She writes: we would have voted against the war

but all the candidates opposed it.

 

We joined a march in dead of winter.

Weekend clerks gathered to applaud,

clapping to warm their numb hands.

In the tenements, hand-lettered signs supported us.

 

The soldiers said, we will not fight,

and the generals, there is no cause.

Whom would we invade? she writes:

we were the greatest power, perhaps of all time.

Then the war began in the corner of the eye.

At first it was mild and demanded nothing.

Now to want to die would be a privilege.

Now the invasion writes these words and can't stop.

 

2

They practice torture here, she says,

in the hospital, in the maze of corridors

color-coordinated for the insides of the body.

The laws allow it, but only as a last resort.

Only if the city might be destroyed otherwise.

 

3

We've created an external mind, she writes.

It has made our world small as a withheld breath.

If you want a weapon you have only to imagine it.

 

4

Still a window blazes all night.

Still the cars pass.

 

 

from The Border Kingdom (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008):

 

Albi 1299

 

Because I could not admit

we know God through suffering

I was sealed up in the wall.

They left a gap in which my body

could curl like a fetus,

and a little sky, which they filled in

brick by brick, and perhaps

it troubled the masons

to be immuring a human being

because they whistled loudly,

a trowel shook, mortar spilt.

Yet it was a tight course.

I knew better than to press against it.

When the dark closed in

I lay listening to my pulse

louder, louder, and the distant voices

singing—I knew better

than to guess the words

or listen for my name.

 

Then I was the wall itself,

everything the voices long for

and cannot have—the self,

the stone inside the stone.

 

 

Ben Adan

 

The American commanded me

in gestures, dig a hole.

 

He tossed me a shovel

but the blade had dulled

and the haft was splaying

so I had to rein in

that strange wild energy

as I opened the earth

to my shins, then my knees.

 

At thigh-depth I found

a layer of black loam

and a tiny blue snail

that seemed to give off light.

 

The agent called my name.

High above, he mimed

a man kneeling,

hands clasped in prayer.

 

He must have knelt himself

because I felt the muzzle pressed

against the shallow  furrow

behind my left earlobe—

a part of my body

I never knew existed.

He pulled the trigger.

 

           But I know

it is just a technique

to soften my resistance—

perhaps in a moment

he will lift me up

and hold me trembling,

more scared than I

and more relieved.

 

 

The Missing

 

We filled the streets,

squinting upward, shading our eyes,

searching for the towers,

or more planes, or rescue choppers,

and a great silence built

 

until a girl whispered, blood.


She asked her lover to stand still,

used his back for a drawing board

and wrote on a paper bag


Give Blood—instantly

 

a line formed, then many lines,

twelve blocks east to Bellevue,

eighteen north to Saint Vincent.

We chose one and waited,

gossiping with our neighbors.

 

We had a place, a function,

something invisible inside us

was needed desperately; we watched

with envy and deep longing

 

as the rare blood-types

strode toward the head of the line

calmly, swinging their arms,

commandos to the rescue.

Then the word came back,

no wounded.

 

 

Parousia

 

When we were in the same room as the gods

there was little to say.


Do you like twilight? Do you need the touch

of the other's body—the absolute other?

Mostly we stared at their wingtips

which were burnished


and stamped with strange almost-holes.

How could they stand the suffering


of the fly trying to walk


across the sheen and camber


of a brimming Campari glass?


It would happen to us,


but it was they who had to watch


and watching is hardest.


Only a breath away,


they showed no desire to vanish


though the silences that opened


were volatile as the shadows


of the last exhausted dancers.


Which do you prefer—time or lightning?

We could hear the clink


of the chandelier trying to work its way

loose from the vaulted ceiling,


a cello tuning sharp in an inner room,

and curried almonds being gobbled—


that was us, our voracity,


but the gods said nothing:


their politeness is like their love:

glass wall between us and midnight.


We pitied them. It is not safe


on that side of eternity.


Worse than watching is waiting


while the waiters sweep up the party hats

and dark lights of snow


tumble in the immense gilt-framed mirror.

 

 

from The  Burnt Island (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005):

 

Space Marriage

 

1

Our starship blew up

between Alpha Centaur

and the Second Quadrant

but we could not die

because we had stolen

the god's codes:

 

so we kept traveling

deeper into the future

just ahead of our bodies

and when we had sex

 

we felt ourselves scattering:

there in the galactic cold

where the immense numbers

begin to rotate slowly

 

we put on the robes

of the night sky.

 

2


An alien had imprisoned me

in that lunar module


that was just the thought

I and he fed me


what I would eat


and mated me


with the one I loved:

 

strange ordeal

there in the Second Quadrant

in Spica's radio-shadow

where the gravity of time

pulls dreams from a sleeper's mind:

 

bitter confinement

naked on a falling stone.

 

3

We built robots who built robots

that had a little of our hesitation,

our fatigue, our jealousy,

our longing for Alpha, peace, nonbeing . . .

They covered our long retreat,

those machines, that looked

like can-openers or outboard motors,

but with the guilty air of husbands

and the god's fixed stare.

 

4

It was a system:

we loved each other,

the war began on Vega,

we watched the hurtling lights,

and the silence drained us.

 

5

Out of spit and dust

we made two lovers

who set fire to the earth.

 

 

Hymenoptera: The Ants

 

1

They say we are descended from the wasps.

Can't you feel it?

Once we had a house in the sky

and swooped with a terrifying drone.

 

Now we are sentenced to this silence

in which our acts become our language.

 

We carry the bodies of the dead

into the underground hives

and keep our paths swept.

 

We walk the wilderness

in broken circles

searching for the seed

that contains tamarack, Burnt Island,

the high crests flashing with evening.

 

Since we lost the Kingdom

to time alone, we make ourselves

always purer, more obedient

to the will (we have no tablets),

carving our doors and lintels

deeper underground.

 

2

There is one who is huge,

and stoops, and counts, as if

those zeroes were the seed.

To baffle him

we make subtle mistakes—

we entomb a fleck of dung

among the fathers, or wrap mica

in strange paper shrouds

and tend it like pupae.

 

3

We build a city, and after five years

and many dynasties, unbuild it,

and erase our complicated scents

so the earth smells just of rain.

 

We send our Queen

on her wobbly flight

with her entourage of suitors—

tiny jawless males

who will never eat in this world—

 

we who have wings only in death.

 

4

Our wars are fought in the desert,

without mercy, but somehow sleepily—

perhaps the sun makes us drowsy?

 

The plan is, we grip the enemy

with our jaws below the waist

and try to saw him in two.

He reciprocates.

 

Sometimes he dies

of thirst, loneliness, distance from the colony,

and we must return to our duties

with those mandibles gripping us,

without anger, or with the anger of the wind.

 

This is the whole problem of victory:

the severed parts go on thinking.

 

5

The fire ants have built an empire

high above us.

 

We know their generals—

Arcturus, Aldebaran—

and their pupae, the Pleiades.

 

For a thousand generations

they have planned to invade us

from that golden hive.

 

And we have built an absolute weapon—

silence—when it is perfect

it will abolish them

and the earth, and the kneeling watcher

whose lips frame such immense numbers.

 

We have wings in death.

 

 

Origins of Desire

 

            after Lynn Margulis

 

1. Anima

 

This is the groundwork:

Autopoiesis, constant creation

of the self from sunlight.

 

But gender varies like the breeze

and sex like tides.

 

Thousands of quasi-sexual fathers

might fuse and form our body,

just visible on a net-veined leaf.

 

We might cannibalize each other

and the indigestible rind

become the partner.

 

Or we might trade


genes for male and female

like beads or playing cards.

 

But we are each built of water

locked in a membrane.

 

The same comet-tail sperm

in starfish, gingko, and human.

 

2. Red Giants

 

Hydrogen caught fire

in the forge of the nebulae

and fused to carbon—

 

our element, pliant,

ready to combine

with any foreign body:

 

magnesium, calcium, contaminants

released in the great explosion

that lit the sky like a match

 

before there was a mind to understand

the advantages of annihilation.

 

3. Archean Microbes

 

When the dust-cloud

rolled back from earth

we died of radiance—

the sun burnt holes

in the inmost braid of DNA.

 

Light-nourished, light-poisoned,

we migrated into rock

or traded little damaged pieces

of self between each other,

 

enshrining separation inside us,

creating the blueprint

for an absolute stranger.

 

4. The Unlit Room

 

The mind is a story

that found a way

to tell itself—but who

is the confidante, who

the eavesdropper,

who gropes for a switch

along this invisible wall?

 

In our narrow bed

we hear the catch

of the other's breath,

faint Muzak, an ice machine,

a late goose honking

toward the idea of south.

 

Between five and six

we whisper our presentiment—

great herds going blind

in Patagonia, a moth species

extinguished at every breath.

 

We exaggerate a little.

Those extra zeroes

hold our reprieve.

Perhaps it is too late:

we can still make love

and cat-nap toward dawn.

 

But even if we close our eyes

we are still married.

 

 

The Granite Coast

 

We are like you

because we scrape these boulders

with sharp coiled tongues

which we unroll progressively

as our mouths wear out:

when you open us

you find the cliff inside us

though we are tiny as an eyelash;

 

we are like you

because we are born by the billions

and float into the open ocean—

as if we were entering

our own plenitude

which is the certainty of death

and the slim chance of sunlight—

and the ones who never return

are the faint roar

in a sleeper's ear;

 

we too make little threads

mysteriously in our genitals

to hold us to the ledge,

and in our nests we weave

mica and our victims' bones;

 

we are kin to you

because the great tides

advance and retreat inside us—

though you may call it salvation

or adaptation, it is a circle

in which the living and the unliving,

the souls and anti-souls,

grow their intricate spiral shells;

 

We are I, I, I—

there is only one of us

and with our frail tentacles

we build the dawn sky.

 

We are helpless on this sea

full of thinking knives

and coral shards nibbled

by ravenous flowers.

 

We wage war on ourselves

and drift through our armor

like cloud shadow.

 

We graze on each other

and the limbs grow back

secreting dark sugar.

 

The gull will destroy us

and the plumed worm Amphitrite

make a home in our eyes.

 

Yet our bodies are shaped

exactly like the resting-place,

we fit in each other

like silence in desire,

we live another second

or much less, less than a blink,

 

until the code comes to know itself

and the mind dreams another mind

that will survive it

there, in the bright curtain of spray.

 

 

from The Fall (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002):

 

Cat's-Eye

 

My father waved goodbye.

I didn't wave back,

scared I might drop

my new cold smoky marble.

 

At the core a spiral

glinted and coiled

like a small windy flame

turning in on itself.

 

That night my mother

shook me from a dream,

whispering he was dead,

he was dead, he was dead,

as if to teach a language,

and I answered: he is dead.

 

Even in sleep

my hands had not opened.

 

 

A Couple In Garden City

 

1

Great Love, like a hostile parent,

always watched us

to see if our nails were clean,

if there were crumbs

at the corners of our mouths—

 

imperious Love, irascible,

muttered about a catastrophe

we would never know, close

and remote as a lit window—

 

you will never know how I suffered

in Logos because of your ignorance

 

and we lovers unbuttoned shyly

in the night of war and amazing wealth,

sad for each other, telling each other

little jokes to make it easier,

wanting nothing except twilight:

 

but that Love always with a project:

the darkest night; sharpest pencil;

softest pillow; cruelest betrayal;

 

so we blessed each other

in a language we invented,

more silent than thought,

each word backlit as in a dream

where there is no choice but kindness,

 

and that Love, furious, searched

among the laws for a single name,

erased on the day we met.

 

2

The rake splayed on the lawn,

a hose glittered over daffodils,

the brillo pad circled the dish,

smoke hovered above the chimney,

the comb journeyed with many setbacks

through a forest of scented hair,

and the voice cried in a dark room.

If we were lost in a second of happiness,

how bright will we burn in paradise?

 

Not even God may enter the past

yet we sneaked there

hand in hand and carved our names

in the pith of the apple tree.

 

If loneliness were a taxi,

I'd give it our old address:

1 Pison Drive, a block from Euphrates:

 

picket fence, gambrel roof,

bent hoop, bug light, dangling tire,

in the garage a bike with trainer wheels,

waiting to take us to our father's mansion.

 

 

How We Are Made Light

 

Pity the visitors

bent under shopping bags,

who have kept their huge hats

here where there are no seasons,

who run from station to station

with a question so inconsequential

even we patients smile.                 

 

Admire the nurse and the aide

who fill out a form,

one beginning at the front,

the other at the end,

speaking of Bon Jovi;

the doctors, washing side by side,

discussing an even greater doctor;

 

most of all, revere the orderlies

who have come from across the sea

to wheel us through the corridors

to a place where we will be tested,

where we will finally belong

even more inherently than here,

where we will no longer be watchers

but the matter itself,

flesh and soul transposed

to degrees on a scale of radiance.

 

 

At Holy Name

 

The fatigue of the nurse

waiting with the bedpan,

her mind drifting

to a lover's sarcasm;

 

the unseen child crying;

the panic of the fly

caught in the embrasure

of the window that does not open;

 

only these are real:

yet I still feel

my mother's hand

cool on my forehead

 

and her comb untangling

the snarls of a long dream.












                                    

 

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A CLOSER LOOK: D. Nurkse

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