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WILLIAM NEUMIRE - WINTER 2002 FEATURE  

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FEATURE

Denise Duhamel
An interview and reading with poet Denise Duhamel. David Lehman hosts this special audio program as part of the Best American Poetry on the Air series

Terri Witek
  How Robert Shaw Became Robert Lowell in "For the Union Dead:" The sculpture of August Saint-Gaudens, the engravings of Albrecht Durer, and the writings of Robert Lowell.

William Neumire
The Rules of Paradise: William Neumire reviews the lifecycle exploration in D. Nurkse's latest book.

William Neumire

William Neumire's poetry has recently appeared or is forthcoming in the Adirondack Review, Zuzu's Petals, Poetry Midwest, Blue Mesa Review, Pierian Springs, and 2River View. He teaches Preschool in upstate New York.  He is a staff writer for The Cortland Review.
William Neumire - Book Review

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The Rules of Paradise
by D. Nurkse
88 pages, Four Way Books, 2001

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D. Nurkse's latest collection of poetry, The Rules of Paradise (Four Way Books, 2001), follows the lifecycle of a nomad, someone in exile who is struggling to identify himself through his father, his politics, his spouse, and finally his daughter. The three-section, 75-page collection is simultaneously a familial exploration and an isolated one. The first section is devoted to poems reflecting on the narrator's father and a childhood of traveling through "The Great Cities." There is an evident and active curiosity in the language and imagery of the first section:

Each city is larger than the last,
Each room smaller,
Each keyhole more dazzling.
I tiptoe to the curtain
And see a general on a stone horse,
And moonlit slums—roofs crisscrossed
By immense names, massed laundry,
Towers where every window is lit."

('Childhood and the Great Cities,' p.7)

But there is also a rigidly maintained distance between father and son:

Incase I can read his mind,
he dreams in his own language.

('Childhood and the Great Cities,' p.7)

The book pivots on familial wisdom gleaned from the narrator's institutionalized grandmother in the middle of the first section, where the "rules of paradise" are extolled:

the rules of paradise
are that you must have nothing."

('The Garden at St. Mary's,' p. 17)

This sense of nothing is visible in the lack of personal attachment involved in these poems: the distance between and then loss of a father, a divorce, the inexplicable estrangement from a daughter, and the undeniable distancing from even oneself.

Although the second section slows in pace and contains more poems, it maintains its accessibility and its faithfulness to the great search—and ultimate disbelief in—connection. The narrator is sifting through his own adulthood, with the search growing more desperate and the childhood curiosity fading. There is less patience for discovery here, but perhaps more surprise, and certainly some imagery of the infancy/vulnerability of the first section appears again.

Now we're huddled here,
A company of naked men.

('Draft Hall,' p. 27)

The poems are close, emotionally tangible, searching for vicarious identity. Yet, the voice leans much more toward the visceral than the cerebral. The book captures a frustration with ideas of conventional happiness and connection, and the disappointment they have wrought:

And we hear the heartbeat--
Command after command
In an unknown language,
Directing us to be happy,
To be mother and father,
To grow old, to be loved,
To wait all our lives
For a single moment.

('Birth Room,' p. 44)

In section three, the isolation becomes the narrator's separation from himself:

A man with my face
Came out buttoning his shirt
Sleepily.

[…]

My wife appeared beside him
With our child in her arms.

('The Latch,' p.55)

Nurkse utilizes a form brimming with colons, which act as much more than a simple grammatical tool. The colons in these poems seem to be doors, opening up a deeper side of their antecedents.

I peeked through my eyelashes:
The scallops in the wallpaper,
Not just watched but watching back
With a harrowing attention.

('Childhood and the Last War,' p.10)

This pattern of colon use is pervasive throughout the three sections, and in the poem 'Invisible Fraction,' the tool is epitomized as the poem itself is one sentence opened and reopened by the use of the colon.

The poems of this book are often constructed without stanza breaks, creating a narrative flow that is further supported by the sparse use of caesura and the matter-of-fact end-stopped lines (often utilizing a strong period, rather than a lighter end-stop by comma). This method serves to reassure the reader that, as well as being poetic, these are stories unto themselves, stories with a definite sense of unbroken voice. The blunt lines bring a sense of cut-and-dry perspective to the book that is carried to the end:

He has left his life
With his baggage in the village.

('My Father at Prades,' p.22)

Although the second and third sections are dotted with caesura, the pause tends to emanate from the loss of the father. There is more doubt after the first section, more cause for hesitation. However, the blunt lines remain:

I was not beaten
But the boy beside me was.

('Scattering the March,' p.30)

The final section questions, not speculatively, but as aggressive interrogation:

Are your parents or the pictures dead?

('The Last Border,' p.60)

Since Leaving Xaia, Nurkse has grown in subtleties. William Stafford once remarked that every poem is political, and Nurkse does not make any attempt to obfuscate his politics. While Leaving Xaia vacillated between politics and the personal relationships of the narrator, it leaned more toward the blatantly political. The Rules of Paradise brings the focus to the personal relationships but maintains a strong sense of politics. The writing has grown in succinctness and understatement, although the message is perhaps deflated of hope and anticipation. The form and arrangement of the two books are very similar, but the voice and purpose shift ever so slightly.

As a whole, The Rules of Paradise works in isolation, skeptical of owning anything but its own memory and emotion. The voice shows no resistance; it works its way around in a circle back to the same distance evoked between father and son in the first section, but by the end, there is a heightened sense of bitterness.

I wanted to tell you
how cruel you are,
how you locked me out of my life.

('The Hotel Metropole,' p.67)

The imagery of these poems is experienced, and the language is that of a veteran at disappointment. Nurkse makes loneliness beautiful, and beauty, rare.

 

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2002 The Cortland Review