D. Nurkse’s latest collection, A Night in Brooklyn, captures a Brooklyn of both the past and present in lyrical poems that are both intimate and political.
Here is Nurkse discussing his book with Andy Kuhn of the Katonah Poetry Series:
My family came here from Europe as the Nazis were coming to power, and we moved back to Europe briefly in the early sixties. My family members got by in many languages, but English was my first language. That’s probably an affinity to Brooklyn: living there is like traveling, being everywhere and nowhere. My current neighborhood is a place of immigrants, and I like their outlook. They take nothing for granted.
A theme of A Night in Brooklyn is how we make up stories, believe them, and live in them as if they were worlds.
Brooklyn throughout my life has been a place of vastness and wildness. I remember immense ruined factories; neighborhoods where diners sold ake ake, saltfish, cowsfoot soup, comfort food from West Africa; neighborhoods where you would hear Malayam, Quechua, Ladino. I once accompanied a great Irish poet who read in Gaelic in Irish Brooklyn. I remember bars where ex-guerrillas spoke of fighting the Bloody Black and Tans. I love the sea and the mountains. Brooklyn really had the same sense of being beyond measure. I remember teaching poetry to Orthodox Jewish children. One young girl came up with the line “red is the color of dying in your sleep.” The parents were startled, halted the workshop, and consulted a rabbi as to whether the exploration of poetry was safe or psychically dangerous. The rabbi felt that confronting the depths was entirely healthy and the parents invited me back.
Nurkse is also fascinated with the vanishing world of labor. He writes poems about building shelves, painting houses, and working in a handbag handle factory.
“Blue collar work for many years gave me a bye from the dependencies and politics of academia,” Nurkse told Andy Kuhn. “I’m equally grateful that academia was there to shelter me later in life. I was given insight into different classes and sets of expectations. Carpentry and construction left me fascinated with processes, with the textures of unfinished work before the final coat which is designed to domesticate labor and make it invisible.”
From 1996 to 2004 Nurkse was Poet Laureate of Brooklyn. “I was nominated for the position and appointed by a panel. I had no fixed duties. I did a lot of workshops in inner-city neighborhoods, schools, literacy centers, and libraries—in Bed Stuy, East Flatbush, Canarsie, Gerritsen Beach; places other than the traditional cultural meccas in Williamsburg, Brooklyn Heights, and Park Slope. An aspiring poet laureate is probably in the wrong field; poetry is a lovely thing but you can’t do it for political gain.”
While Brooklyn, New York, is the heartbeat of this collection, these poems are about so much more than a specific place. A Night in Brooklyn is a meditation on love, history, time, and beauty—a book that reveals new secrets each time you read it.
Here are five poems from D. Nurkse to start your Sunday.
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 forward
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 sandhogs who blasted the Battery Tunnel
jerry-rigged an escarpment a quarter mile down
but it buckled at rip tide and one journeyman
was sucked into the air pocket, up through the lattice,
through the ooze under the East River, to surface
in daylight—how the hell did he remember
to drop his ninety pound jute sack and let himself float
until a tug lowered a skiff—now no one knows his name—
Mr. Modesto, in for his second hernia, told this story
in the waiting room behind the nurses’ station
at Downstate—view of a gasworks, Szechuan takeout,
cat hunting a spindled leaf, laundry on tenement roofs,
three clouds, one bright, one tinged, one darkening.
Mr. Solaris, like me a recent father, nodded sleepily,
scratching his head and mechanically rolling the dead skin
between thumb and forefinger, perhaps to release the odor.
But Mrs. Hiram Q. Pace, whose brother had Alzheimer’s,
never looked up from her sudoku, and the nameless man
in the seersucker suit with the hairline rip at one elbow,
who had never spoken since the beginning, swept up his Patience
to re-shuffle—how could he shuffle for himself—
so the cards hung luminous between his hands
when the nurse in the corridor cleared her throat
and we each looked up with a question on our lips
but I was the one the crooked finger summoned
to kneel by my wife and hold my breathing child.
The Next Apartment
I lived beside the lovers on that linden-shaded industrial block
between Linwood and Crescent. How they argued! Once
he pounded his head against the lintel in a rain of plaster.
Once I watched her walk into the rain carrying her Lhasa Apso,
step into a cab, and give the finger to their lit window.
They fought with themselves when the other was gone,
struggling so hard with each word: I, you, tomorrow.
Since they loved each other forever, seconds were lethal,
split seconds tormented them like the strange bluebottle flies
that zoomed from buried drums under Ebbets Field.
How they reconciled, bearing each other elaborate gifts:
silk orchid, glass horse, a necklace that flickered like flame.
They paced on the landing, practicing complex apologies
that turned seamlessly to justifications—how helpless
they were against being right! When they saw me
in the stairwell, they were relieved:
someone sane, a human, someone who will die.
And they explained: Sorry about yesterday, sorry
about tomorrow… they had a ferocious need
to be remembered since they were going
alone into time itself. I wanted to ask them,
Do you think we can create a void in a supercollider
and destroy not just the world but the night sky?
But I had no inkling what the self is,
or loneliness, or marriage, or the universe
sealed in zeroes like honey in a comb.
So instead we talked about the Mets, Gooden’s arm
going stale, Strawberry losing that amazing insight
that can pick up the seams on a rotating curveball.
And they turned the key in their lock: male, female,
it made no difference, they were the same person,
and entered their tiny room, and I entered sleep.
Twilight In Canarsie
In these long slant-lit streets, she says,
you will find factories that once made shoehorns,
waffle irons, or pearl cufflinks, and storefront churches
where voices adored the Living God while tambourines
clashed a little behind the beat, and Jiffy Lubes,
and beauty parlors where bored calico cats
licked their paws disdainfully, perhaps a movie house
with posters of Garbo and a marquee with detachable vowels,
a candy store selling egg cremes and roped red licorice,
a little bar with a jar of pig trotters and a lone fly
stumbling in and out of a shaft of daylight, a library
reeking of mucilage, a funeral home with bas-relief columns,
a shoe repairman listening to scores from Chicago,
the tenement where we made love and each thrust
carried us deeper into the past, as if we were an engine
careening back to childhood, then the shunting yard,
the park with its whirling jump rope, the red brick school
that manufactured absolutes, Sphere, Pyramid, Dodecahedron,
while children tried to carve their names clear through their desks,
the cemetery of lovers immobilized by marble wings—
why is it always twilight when we die, she asks,
and Canarsie where we are born again?
Red Antares In A Blue Mirror
On that close-nap futon
she taught me the difference
between being and becoming,
when she had finished
it was still twilight, a cricket
singing I, I, not furiously,
but with a cool insistence,
and I understood how the universe
was created—how it fit in a pinhead
fourteen billion years ago
when the first second lasted
almost forever, then it flew
in a trillion pieces and now
it obeys laws we recognize
the way a pet comes to look
like its owner: she was washing
at the cold tap, she was binding
back her copper hair, but I
had been given those absolute weapons:
suffering, abnegation, miracle:
and I had to use them
if only by counting, counting
until it was night and the rain
simmered in the dog’s huge eyes.
About D. Nurkse
D. Nurkse is the author of ten books of poetry, including A Night in Brooklyn, The Border Kingdom, Burnt Island, and The Fall, from Knopf. His recognition includes a Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Whiting Writers Award, and prizes from The Poetry Foundation. He was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for best book of poetry published in the UK in 2011.
Nurkse has also written widely on human rights, served on the board of Amnesty International-USA, and taught writing at Rikers Island Correctional Facility.
A former poet laureate of Brooklyn, Nurkse lives deep in that borough with his wife, Beth Bosworth, and two strange springer spaniels.
To learn more about D. Nurkse and his work, please visit his website.
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All poems © D. Nurkse. These poems appear in Nurkse’s book A Night in Brooklyn from Knopf © 2012 and were reprinted with permission from the author. All Rights Reserved.