by D. Nurkse
Four Way Books, 2000
Paper, 77 pages
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In these days of stylishly nonsensical poetry, one seldom meets up with poems as
satisfying as Dennis Nurkse's. He has some of the philosophical poetic depth of a Stephen
Dunn with a dash of C.K. Williams' narrative observations of life on the streets. Some of
Nurkse's poetry embodies a more dreamlike, Kafkaesque quality than either of these
renowned poets. Though some of my favorites among Nurkse's works are still to be found in Shadow Wars, a book he published with Hanging
Loose Press in 1988, his latest collection from Four Way Books, Leaving Xaia, is in no way disappointing and
much stronger than Staggered Lights (Owl Creek Press, 1990). Here
again is the emotional depth, tension, vitality, and originality found in Shadow Wars, but the poet has become more
sophisticated and cerebralmore Kafkaesquethan in the earlier book with its
simpler directness and involvement. The poems of divorce and heartbreak are accessible on
a feeling level just as the poems of newly discovered love were felt in his earlier work,
but the poems about foreign places are mysteriously entered as if in a dream state or a
haunting anxiety tinged with nebulous guilt.
Nurkse's main message is that love gives life all its meaning, and when it fails us, it
turns the world into a nightmare of senseless sensation. One of the recurrent notes in his
latest book is that of love lost:
My lawyer put his fingers together
and began confiding a strategy
to defend my rights to my child.
As he spoke in a stage whisper,
accenting the names of hostile judges,
my mind went slack and my eyes wandered
to the expensive view:
the park, the wharves,
the cities of Jersey
whose names run together:
Hoboken... Secaucus... Weehawken...
In the afternoon haze, four light planes
were skywriting with exquisite precision
but the wind took their message
and unravelled it like a skein:
a politician angling for votes?
A lover trying to reach a lost one? ....
"Final Separation," p.28
If "That love is all there is/Is all we know of love," as
Dickinson tells us, then Nurkse explains that it's nearly impossible to make sense of
anything without love embodied in our lives in the presence of a significant other: a
lover, a spouse, a beloved child. We need a cherished someone to set life vibratinga
true and universal theme.
What I liked about loving you
was being no one,
looking out the window afterwards,
showing you the laundry, the flag,
little ruled streets
where someone once met you,
adored you, persuaded you
to climb the narrow steps....
"The Unlit Room," p.29
Nurkse's other main themes deal with the surreal quality of suffering, war, cruelty,
scourge, and famine on this teeming planet so full of strange injustices, senseless wars
of greed, meaningless boundaries, and conflicts that destroy and bear no fruit for the
living or the dead whom they steal from themselves and us, sapping our human powers,
leaving us with an eternal, if nebulous, sense of collective guilt.
Before the first air strike
the protests were so huge
we could not find our way to the edge
desperate to find someone to convince,
the witnesses more fervent than the marchers....
Now the bombing has lasted three weeks,
ground war is inevitable and we're alone
behind a card table on Fifth and Prospect
with a petition demanding the Geneva Convention
be respected and evacuation corridors
established for women and children.
No one signs and we would no longer know
where to send it....
"The Twenty-Four Hour War," p. 33
Having just returned from a decade in the country away from Brooklyn Heights, my old
city home of thirty years, I was glad to reacquaint myself with the poet who currently
serves as Poet Laureate of Brooklyn. A fan of Dennis Nurkse's earlier work, particularly Shadow Wars, I wanted to see what he was up
to. Nurkse brings these city streets to life for me like no other poet I've read. He is
painterly in his portrayal of everyday scenes. His imagery arrests and beguiles, sometimes
surprisingly with surrealistic leaps.
Leaving Xaia is a book
one can wholeheartedly recommend for its engagement with worldly themes, its accessibility
cloaked in a vivid poetic imagination and swabbed with plenty of wise and acute
observation. He is part Stephen Dunn and part C.K. Williamstwo of the finest, truest
poets of our time rolled togetherbut he is characteristically and particularly
Nurkse, himself, and no other.
I took my place among the other tourists;
in the porthole the night roads
slipped and faded,
either to open sea
or to a city without light.
"Leaving Xaia," p.73