Review by Carl Rosenstock
Penguin Random House, 2017, 104 Pages, $27.00
ISBN: 9780451494801, 9780451494818, & Kindle, hardcover
“ … this story is strange to me / like wine tasted in a lover’s mouth”, fr. “Prelude”
The legend of Tristan and Iseult found its way into Anglo-French literature in the 12th century, apparently inspired by older Celtic legends; and it quickly made its way into other European literatures. Among the best known outside of England and France, was the German version by Gottfried von Strassburg, which is almost contemporaneous. (This version was the basis for Wagner’s opera “Tristan Und Isolde”.) Within a few centuries, the tale become the stuff of French troubadours, and had found its way into the works of Sir Thomas Malory, among others. And as so often happens, elements were added, elided, deleted, the tale told, retold, folded into other tales.
I mention this by way of introducing Love in the Last Days : After Tristan and Iseult — D. Nurkse’s artful reimagining of the medieval legend, one he notes elsewhere “reverberates throughout the Middle Ages … resurfacing, each time with a new twist …”. This was a world more unknown than known; a world of few cities (each populated by a few thousand people); a world where most lived in small villages separated by vast swaths of trackless forests; a world where spirits spoke and strange (now mythical) beasts roamed.
For those who haven’t seen the movie or been to the opera, the rudiments of the tale (at least some of them) have more or less remained the same. As Nurkse writes in his “Prelude”:
… Tristan will fetch her
to wed King Mark, then rescue her
to the forest, they’ll know each other,
separate, grow old in bitter marriages,
and die of plague or a misunderstanding.
Next comes Avalon, Land of the Living
where the eye may keep what it sees.
Nurkse’s version of the tale of Tristan and Iseult is told mainly through monologues by Tristan, with Iseult either speaking through him, or breaking in at various turns with her own speeches. But as well, this is a tale is told by the world within which they lived … by the maid, a leper, the dog, Tristan’s horse … by the stream, by the fire … by the holy grail … even by the tale itself. The story of the two lovers thus emerges slantwise, pace Emily Dickinson. Because this volume contains a tale, it is very much the sum of its parts … and thus it is hard to isolate, much less discuss in detail, any individual poem. What Nurkse has created is a sort of medieval tapestry — boisterous, crowded (by all in the world, both known and mythical) and full of life. To separate warp from weft here would be to lose sight of all that’s happening.
By way of illustration, there is a small turn in the tale that tells much not only about the relationship between the two lovers, but about how the poet plays the tale out — how much we see in any individual poem, how much is revealed, and how much still remains hidden from both the lovers and the reader. It comes in the poem “Morois”, a speech by Tristan, about a third of the way into the volume. The lovers have been discovered, and have fled to the forest. The poem begins as follows :
Starving, we found one blackberry.
Since I picked it, I whispered, you eat it.
But I saw it first, she said, so it’s yours.
I kissed and pressed the globule with my tongue
into her mouth. Her tongue stopped me. She was shaking.
Was it sweet, I asked. You swallowed it, she said.
And it ends on the following almost apprehensive tone :
The nightingale sang with his chest pressed
against a thorn, artfully wounded, practicing
to pour his heart out to none.
At its heart, Love in the Last Days tells about the arc of the love affair between the two titled players. Tristan fighting to win the honor of escorting Iseult back to Cornwall has sustained a wound that will haunt him throughout the tale. But tempered in combat is not tempered by the passions of love. At first, he is charmingly awkward. (“I was scared. I’d been naked in combat, / never in love. It seemed a bad omen.” A few poems later, “I trembled before each meeting, and trembled after. // Hidden outside her tower, I charmed Iseult with birdsong. / Thrush ecstatic but with a questioning hiccup …” ). What he is, at the start of the story is something wholly other than what he becomes by the end.
Time closed like a book. My wound stung less,
… I who once pretended
to be mad, and went mad, now disguised myself
with white whiskers. I became reasonable, remote …
… my days shortened
towards that winter whose wind I shall not feel
Iseult, on the contrary, remains throughout, a distant figure, both as seen through Tristan’s eyes, and as she describes herself in her own speeches. (In her first speech in the book, “Everyone in This Story Speaks Except Me,” she says, “… Call me ruthless but these days whirl forwards. / I am the 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. … ” . She speaks these words on the eve of the couple fleeing to the Forest of Morois.). She is, over the course of the story, torn between the risks her passion poses, and the safety of her position. In the end, in the poem “Queen of the Land of No Sleep,” she says, “I didn’t hesitate. I adore him. But what were my choices ? / … I hear him argue : everyone who dies dies of love. / Suffering gives him that right ?” A question, not an assertion.
As should be evident from the few paragraphs and excerpts above, this is a complex book to describe … particularly in a short space. This is not your grandmother’s (or some more ancient ancestor’s) tale of courtly romance, of the sort so admired by the literate of the Middle Ages. This is, however, one the great tales of love and passion … a tale that has lasted for centuries, and inspired many great works of art, in all sorts of media … from poetry to painting to opera … and, as told here, with archaic echoes of other such lasting romances. (Beginning with “Prelude”, the shade of Orpheus and his lyre flickers around a few of the poems.).
As an aside, when you wend your way through the book, make note of the poetic forms Nurkse occasionally plays with. Although most of the book consists of “speeches”, there is also one “concrete poem” (à la Ian Hamilton Finlay), and two “pattern poems”. The best of the latter is “The King’s Sword,” which comes late in the book. The king has discovered the sleeping lovers in the forest, and has laid his sword between them, to let them know he was there. The poem consists of three thin columns. On the left, Tristan speaks; on the right, Iseult speaks. And between them, the sword speaks.
Most retellings of such olden archetypes place the story in modern times. What Nurkse has done seems chancier. He has retained the medieval setting, a world more “unknown” than known, while imbuing the characters and the world they inhabit with contemporary thoughts and feelings. These days, the word “genius” is overused and much abused, and sadly all but shorn from its roots. Now become a sort of “measure”, in the original Latin, the word “genius” referred to a certain divine nature (a guardian spirit) present in persons, places or things. The world and all that it contained imbued with divinity … animated by it even. Such beliefs were not unusual. (The nearby Greeks had their daemons; the faraway Japanese had their Kami; and a host of cultures between those two had similar such deities.). T he world made more magical than mechanical, made in this tale all the more sublime by love and passion and their costs … a poetry needed in these last days.