As I walked out, with my dog on his leash, I met an old man with a sparse ponytail and a gold nose ring, standing in the middle of my street arguing with Venus. “What’s that bright thing,” he said to me, “there, a death star? A Deep State surveillance platform?”
“It’s always there,” I said, “at twilight in the south-west, at dawn in the south-east,” but he rebuked me for my naiveté, and he began to unsettle me, for the light was shining with such determination, such thoughtfulness, it seemed to target each of us, as well as the dog, who was scratching at the curb impatiently.
Those were the days when we had sold ourselves to the dead god, and I had an “app” on my “cell”–I shudder to write those words now–and I showed him the night sky on my screen with a caption for each point of light.
“So that’s ruled out, it’s not Venus,” said the old man–was he older than me? He seemed so voracious, a line of spittle on his chin, you could see the white underside of his lip, and so cocksure. I jabbed my finger at my phone, but it had gone dark: and oh, in this useless palaver, the dog had slipped his collar backwards, since neither he nor I was tugging. My heart died as I saw him race across Kane Street into the warren of tenement backyards where the diapers and mittens of childhood still hang.
“Fuck you” I told the old man, and I ran, but it was hopeless: the city is so vast, the lamps so weak, the nameless dead things piled so high in every areaway: but now my dog came pelting back, perhaps he missed me, perhaps loneliness terrified him also: he huddled beside me eager to be leashed: he hadn’t even snitched a bone.
I knelt trembling, I am still trembling, with horror, shame, with gratitude, while the old man buttonholes a group of tourists: Nemesis, Judgment Day, or a trireme from the Oort Cloud? And they stare and try to take selfies: that cold light and their tranced expectant faces
Letter from The Heart of The City
A sign appeared in the subway entrance: BACKPACKS AND OTHER LARGE CONTAINERS
SUBJECT TO RANDOM SEARCH. Fair enough, I thought: only objects are affected: and who can argue with pure chance?
That week, card tables appeared, and cops sat behind them waiting, exactly like three-card monte players, except that they looked bored to tears. But you couldn’t help thinking: hadn’t they now become the target?
On the day I was stopped–just by a glance, and a gentle voice saying, Miss, do you have a moment? – I was triumphantly innocent. I was motioned aside, as if my indulgence were being asked for, not my obedience. What did my suitcase contain? Almost nothing. I wasn’t even planning a journey. A stapler jammed on a bent staple. A rolled-up bra, clean but a little yellow at the cups. Cherry chapstick, a tube of clove lifesavers, a metal box of Altoids. No pamphlet, no thumb drives, no Guy Debord, no Murray Bookchin, no Judith Butler, no Franz Fanon, just the letters I write and never mail, tied with a cheesy ribbon. A map of Nova Scotia. The location of the little cottage with moss-green shutters and an almost-view of the almost-ocean was marked with an X that I had enhanced to a star in my enthusiasm. The cop smoothed the wrinkled paper with a pale young thumb.
He searched with infinite weariness, opening the stapler, counting the staples, examining the bent one gravely, running his hands in the shirred pocket that attaches to the suitcase lid. He didn’t open the mints but rattled the box and held it to his ear.
His dog watched indulgently: invited, it took a quick sniff, rolled its eyes, minced to the end of its leash and sat to sniff its own paw, perhaps to clean its nostrils.
The crowd, that I had once been part of, surged past me: pieces of people: clever buttocks under a cut-off denim jacket, matronly swollen ankles, the authoritative crease of Armani slacks. Many eyes sought mine, and many with compassion: hold your own! Don’t be cowed! We are with you! An innocent woman, they seemed to know, is more vulnerable than a guilty one. She marks a threshold.
And the officer began putting the things back, each carefully in its place, though in truth nothing had had a place, while the dog watched pensively; its attention it seemed had turned to a private sorrow. The brocaded sleeve gestured; it’s yours now, you can touch the handle. He zipped the zipper, snapped the snaps, cleared his throat with a faint wince, and turned to face me.
–Why the suitcase, when you and your lover won’t be going to Canada?
D. Nurkse is the author of eleven collections of poetry, most recently LOVE IN THE LAST DAYS: AFTER TRISTAN AND ISEULT, A NIGHT IN BROOKLYN, THE BORDER KINGDOM, BURNT ISLAND, and THE FALL, from Alfred Knopf. He’s the recipient of a Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim fellowship in poetry, two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, two New York Foundation for the Arts fellowships, the Whiting Writers Award, and prizes from The Poetry Foundation and the Tanne Foundation. He served as poet laureate of Brooklyn from 1996 to 2001. His work has been translated into French, Russian, Italian, Estonian, and other languages.
Nurkse has taught poetry at Rikers Island Correctional Facility and in inner-city literacy programs, as well as at MFA programs at Rutgers, Brooklyn College, and Stonecoast. He’s currently a long-term member of the writing faculty at Sarah Lawrence College.