Breaching the Real
by Richard Silberg
A Country of Strangers, New and Selected Poems, D. Nurkse, Alfred A. Knopf Publishers, New York, 2022, 304 pages, $35.00 hardback, www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/692658/a-country-of-strangers-by-d-nurkse; bookshop.org/shop/poetryflash.
When the rain woke me
I no longer knew
and had to remind myself:
this is darkness,
that is the wineglass,
this is the blowing curtain,
that's the immense city,
it's late in my life
but early in August,
this is my wife
naked in my arms.
THAT SHORT POEM is selected from Nurkse's book The Border King-dom (the italics are his). It does so much with its bare, functional language, taking the universal experience of waking to the dream of our lives, softly to the rain, and building, here's this, here's this, and this, to the touching simplicity of its ending. And each of those building items connote: the darkness, night but resonantly more; the party, lovemaking wineglass; Babylonish possibilities of the city spreading beneath; what it means to be late in your life, which Nurkse wittily pulls to heel with "but early in August." It's a small masterpiece of Nurkseian under-speak. Which is not really why I've picked it.
I've quoted "Late Summer" because it's a rare Nurkse poem that works as a standard lyric, an artful reflection on our 'real' lived world. But let's look at the facing page. I'm quoting the last two thirds of "Autopoie-sis":
So the voice engulfed us,
whirling us to the past;
when silence claimed us
we waited in that endless line
to grace our crisp new books
with the fissure of his name.
As we inched forward
we touched each other
on the thigh, the cheek,
almost by accident,
as if to remind ourselves
how it had been to be alive—
We admired the halo of down
around that august backlit ear,
the fury of the blue-veined hand
scribbling self self self,
and we whispered love your work
to the rain on the empty street.
Now, for space's sake I've eliminated the beginning, which, forgive me, is to decapitate the poem, because it opens with "the poet" peering through binoculars and touting, paradoxically and hyperbolically, his "next fragment." So, the quoted section is his adoring audience's response. "Autopoiesis," then, is Nurkse's depiction of vanity in poetry—the poet's hand can only scribble "self"; the adorers whisper praise to "rain on the empty street"— implying that vanity while writing a brilliant po-em. But mainly I want us to see how it peels away from the standard lyric. The 'we' here seem to be living in some mysterious after-life—poetry's immortal realm?—its death? We're given fa-miliar elements, a self-inflated poet, a hushed book signing, but their world, their 'country' is subtly other than our own.
Let's imagine a waterfall, and call the rocks over which it flows our lived world, however much we might argue the nature of that reality. Nurkse's poems in this subtle, mysterious book are the water. They over-flow and fall parallel to those rocks but at a distinct distance, shaped by them but with their own liquid shimmering nature.
This short poem is "Order," selected from Staggered Lights:
Last night I worked for an old artisan.
He sent me to his basement shop
with a weak flashlight, to mix concrete.
The tools and ruler on his pegboard
cast huge shadows, that did not
flinch when I snapped his droplight on:
only my body had no shadow.
Looking closer I saw
he was a maniac for order and had painted
the ideal forms of Hammer and Saw
in tar behind each appointed hook.
This is how I've lived
since I've known you: the tools
scatter, their shadows
stay put, to be polished,
to cut if necessary.
First, obviously the shadows behave fantastically, and yet I'm convinced by "droplight," "pegboard," mixing concrete, hooks, ruler, of the 'reality' of the rest. The language is characteristically spare, unadorned; the poem 'underspeaks', leaving us to puzzle over it. Why does the speaker's body have no shadow? Who is the "you"? The speaker worked for the old arti-san "last night," but "since I've known you" implies a length of time. The phrasing of those last three lines leaves not the tools but their shadows to be polished, perhaps to cut. There's a faint air of menace around "ma-niac" and that possible necessary cutting. The poem is like a parable in search of its meaning, but its search is insistent, commanding our atten-tion, both demanding and resisting our interpretation of its shadow play.
As we can see from these three sample poems, the speakers vary. The 'I' in "Late Summer" feels 'authentic', perhaps Nurkse, himself; "Au-topoiesis" begins in omniscient third person on "the poet," shifting ab-ruptly to the 'we' of his admirers, and 'I' in "Order" feels more like a placeholder speaker, written there to tell the story. The speaker in some poems is female, and here in this next poem we hear from talking in-sects.
"Hymenoptera: The Ants" is fairly long, written in five sections that span three pages. Ants are in some ways like people: their colonies are complex social structures, and they're the only other species that have wars. So the poem is a kind of epic or pseudo-history, and it begins in an inversion of Eden and the Fall: "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." That's entomologically accurate, by the way. I'm going to quote the fourth section:
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 the anger of the wind.
This is the whole problem of victory:
the severed parts go on thinking.
How terrible those lines are in their matter-of-fact way. We can see them as commenting on human war, its 'dutiful' cruelty, PTSD and the engen-derment of continuing cycles of violence in those severed parts. But they also enact their own independent poetry, so bizarre, "drowsy," and mem-orable.
There's much more to that poem, more than we have space to do justice to. But the last section begins: "The fire ants have built an empire / high above us. // We know their generals— / Arcturus, Aldeba-ran— / and their pupae, the Pleiades. // For a thousand generations / they have planned to invade us / from that golden hive." As men have looked to the heavens and populated them with God or gods in human form, our ants see golden-hived fire ants in the stars and project war plans upon them. So they counterplot with an "absolute weapon" of si-lence that will abolish them and the earth—again we can extrapo-late to our human weapons of mass destruction. Nurkse posits a mysteri-ous "kneeling watcher," who has appeared earlier: "There is one who is huge, / and stoops, and counts, as if / those zeroes were the seed."—a myrmecologist studying the ants as they ogle back at him? Whoever he is, the ants strive to "baffle" him, and their silence will destroy him, too. The poem ends with a line hinting back towards its be-ginning—a line varied from the middle of the poem: "We have wings in death."
"Hymenoptera: The Ants" speaks a sly, bleak fantasy world parallel-ing and reversing our own. Not a waterfall, in this case, but an under-ground stream of tormented reflections.
The whole collection of A Country of Strangers selects from eleven previous books with a section of new poems. I've touched on only four poems from these nearly three hundred pages of work, but I hope they begin to suggest Nurkse's compelling, unusual voice. It resists acceptance, an easy embrace, insists on its otherness, even remoteness, while pursuing its parallel realms, so persuasive and engaging, so worka-bly close. Orienting and disorienting, offering a bare, glinting beauty.
Before closing, I want to look at two more sections of this selection from Nurkse's work to date. Love in the Last Days is unique, because its poems all follow a common theme, the twelfth century ro-mance of Tristan and Iseult. The language is richer, brocaded with the medieval, and its speakers vary in the extreme, including not only the lovers, themselves, but Tristan's horse, Beau Joueur, his dog, a living spring, the Grail, and more. We'll have to confine ourselves to two longish quotes to get a taste, just barely, of this complexly imagined work. Here, from the poem "The King's Chamber" is Tristan:
Then I crawled onto that high golden bed
and snuggled between the monarchs. He murmured thickly,
darling, I answered in a thin voice, darling.
I turned to my Queen and in that darkness
we thought to enter the pupil of God's eye
before he created us, when he was surprised
the light he made to end his loneliness was good.
We loved each other as we are commanded to, politely,
efficiently, with the King's dreaming arm covering us,
until the cock crowed at false dawn
and a faint bell tolled matins.
I whispered goodbye and slithered over bunched pugs
who shivered with a milder, more inward twitch,
beginning to negotiate endings to their dreams,
commencing to know each other and trade soft nips.
Their eyes lit, but not yet with the light of the mind.
I passed like a thought between the spearheads
and vanished down the winding torch-lit corridors.
I reached my chamber, bolted the door,
congratulated myself and stumbled
because I was walking in blood. That secret joy
had reopened my wound and a trail led back
from my cold bed to the King's embrace.
How strange that is. The beginning of "The King's Chamber," for about a page before what I've quoted, sees Tristan creeping into the room among an extensive pack of royal dogs and lying down among them, even briefly drowsing there, before he crawls up into the bed. So the poem has him both as a doggy fool whose own mutt "curled up at a distance," Tristan says, was "ashamed to know me," and as a daring Odysseus-like trickster, stealing his love from the King in this farcical menage-a-trois. The wound referred to in the last three lines is part of the many-versioned Tristan and Iseult romance. Tristan is said to have been pierced by a poisoned lance, producing a wound that never heals.
Everything hauntingly, confoundingly shifts throughout Love in the Last Days, including God, here portrayed as a lonely, sur-prised creator and very differently characterized in this next excerpt, Iseult's from "Everyone in This Story Speaks Except Me":
Even the words. The chords. The silence. I can only think.
I miss my father's Galway house, the crisp bed I made myself.
Call me ruthless but these days whirl forward.
I am Queen of the Land of No Sleep. Why do they give me power?
I love him for no reason, as you might laugh at the pine breeze.
But he will test every gesture in Morois.
Once we could make each other strange as dawn just by undoing
one button, always the same button. Now we run to the shadows.
Once Satan appeared to Saint Marie d'Oignies and whispered,
this world is a dream. She answered, can't you hear the leper's bell?
Now the first pines rise out of the cornrows, the elm crest
looms suddenly, we come to the threshold, the last hedgerow.
The horse rolls his red-veined eye. How Tristan must spur.
The Absolute drives him. The charm of wholeness.
But God is a broken man. A person and the loss of a person.
What are we to make of this failed God man who slips away from his own personhood? Why one button, always the same, and why does it seem to fail now to produce its seductive transformations? Because they're on the run? I have no answer to these questions; I simply yield to the compulsive, lonely power of this poetry, to the ache of its tale and the aching of its protagonists. As in the Satanic couplet—he tempting her with unreality; the saint answering with the reality of pain—Love in the Last Days creates a world of pseu-do-medievality. Because, of course, no one in the twelfth century would have thought of God as a "broken man." But historical authenticity has no purchase on the authenticity of poetry. Love in the Last Days may be Nurkse's most brilliant book. It runs so vividly from beginning to end, pulls at the heart, confounds and cajoles the mind, and lives in its pure, enigmatic saying.
The last section I want to look at comes first in the collection, a sec-tion of new poems also titled "A Country of Strangers." One of these, "The Body," particularly fascinates me. It deals in various ways with absence and elusive knowledge, almost extra-sensory perception. The poem is in four parts. Here's the first:
A small animal, perhaps an otter,
darted under our wheels.
My wife was driving.
No time to swerve.
I sensed no impact.
She braked. I scrutinized
the tarmac for blood.
Nothing, not a scrap of fur,
though the road seemed to hum,
alert as skin to the touch.
Reek of pepper and must.
Pent-up hush of late summer.
Behind a scrim of willows,
a glint seemed to slip backwards.
The otter vanishes. The road tingles. Silence echoes with some Nurkseian wink. Then the short second part flies far, far away:
Before we were born
we found ways not to exist,
thriving on no-fish
a billion billion years
before the universe exploded.
No one missed us,
we didn't miss ourselves.
There was no absence.
Existing in non-existence. Playing in the inverse of the death conundrum: nonbeing before birth, before Big Bang even. All light and quick in Nurkseian under-speak. Jumping then to the ending of the fourth; they're leaving:
A farmhouse lights as we watch—
porch, then kitchen, like a toy.
You can hear a child intoning
the score of a jump rope game
solemnly, with sleepy urgency,
as if blurting out a secret,
every syllable held and slurred
in the loud shush of current.
Radio signals link galaxies
but we're so close
all we know of ourselves
is the blur of an eyelash.
After us, the white line, the wall of pines.
That concluding passage seems to me to play with close and far again. The farmhouse is unreal at its distance, but the child's sleepy chant brings us for a moment back close, hinting, perhaps, at the time in our lives when we felt ourselves at a magical center. Then, with dizzying ease, Nurkse jumps us back out to galaxy perspective and touches on the idea that we're too close to know anything but the uptight and tiny. When the 'we' of the poem is gone—in that absence—the road's white line remains and the pines are impassively walling their secrets.
"The Body" circles me back to our first poem, "Late Summer," and the idea of the standard lyric, because "The Body," too, seems to be working with Nurkse's 'real' life. But his reality here is far stranger and more daring than most. D. Nurkse is a strange, daring poet. He deserves to be read and discussed as an important American voice.
Richard Silberg is Associate Editor of Poetry Flash. His poetry collections include The Horses: New and Selected Poems and Deconstruction of the Blues, recipient of the PEN Oakland-Josephine Miles Literary Award 2006. He's also the author of Reading the Sphere: A Geography of Contemporary Poetry. He co-translated, with Clare You, The Three Way Tavern poems by Ko Un, winner of the Northern California Book Award in Translation, and other volumes of Korean poetry.— posted August 2023