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
poem coherently expresses the presence of a human creature.
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
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,
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
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:
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
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
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.
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
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
we know the coming disaster intimately but the present is
Which disaster, I wondered, sexual or geological? But I was
her beauty was like a language she didn't speak and had
Then we were in Holyfield and it was the hour when the child
waves from a Welcome mat, his eyes full of longing, before
inward to his enforced sleep. We waved back but we were
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
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
and swifter and we come to the mountains and this is all I
to enter the moth's pinhead eye, now, and never return.
Letter From Home
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.
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.
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.
Still a window blazes all night.
Still the cars pass.
from The Border Kingdom (Alfred A.
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.
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
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.
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
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,
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
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
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.
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.
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:
there in the Second Quadrant
in Spica's radio-shadow
where the gravity of time
pulls dreams from a sleeper's mind:
naked on a falling stone.
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.
It was a system:
we loved each other,
the war began on Vega,
we watched the hurtling lights,
and the silence drained us.
Out of spit and dust
we made two lovers
who set fire to the earth.
Hymenoptera: The Ants
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
The fire ants have built an empire
high above us.
We know their generals—
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
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
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.
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
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):
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
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
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.
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.