D. Nurkse

The Waiting Room

She said her ex-husband
was a general in the Mexican Army,
a spy, a brain surgeon
who implanted circuits in her mind,

then stalked her, followed her
even down these corridors
that end in a frosted glass door,
an alcove with a slit sofa,

a pie dish full of white ash
and a lucite picture of Saint Jude:
and here she found me
with my name scratched from my bracelet,

I too longing for the lover
who healed me in a past life.

(Prior publ.: Poetry)

~ .

How We Are Made Light

Pity the visitors
bent under shopping bags,
who have kept their huge hats
here where there are no seasons,
who run from station to station
with a question so inconsequential
even we patients smile.

Admire the nurse and the aide
who fill out a form,
one beginning at the front,
the other at the end,
speaking of Bon Jovi;
the doctors, washing side by side,
discussing an even greater doctor;

most of all, revere the orderlies
who have come from across the sea
to wheel us through the corridors
to a place where we will be tested,
where we will finally belong
even more inherently than here,
where we will no longer be watchers
but the matter itself,
flesh and soul transposed
to degrees on a scale of radiance.

(Prior publ.: Poetry)

~ .

At Holy Name

The fatigue of the nurse
waiting with the bedpan,
her mind drifting
to a lover's sarcasm;

the unseen child crying;
the panic of the fly
caught in the embrasure
of the window that does not open;

only these are real:
yet I still feel
my mother's hand
cool on my forehead

and her comb untangling
the snarl of a long dream.

(Prior publ.: Poetry)

~ .

A Night At Mount Sinai


The voices return
saying 'cole slaw' while I'm eating cole slaw:
what's terrifying about that? Isn't cole slaw
shredded cabbage, or did the voices
just explain that? With a little 'mayo'?
Or was it plain mayo?
Surely they are gods without souls.
Did they order: napkin?
fork? knife? Why with a knife
when this substance is nameless
and passes through me
as if I were the Kingdom—
and if I resist
there is no I.


I invented this spoon,
And this salt-cellar—
someone else made it
and punched the tiny holes,
but I conceived it:
I saw it in a dream
and heard the word: salt-cellar!
and no one woke me.

(Prior publ.: Arete, U.K.)

~ .

Side-Effects Of Colirium


Stifling laughter, but no one to feel it.
We all roll around helpless, doctor, nurse, patient,
like marbles in a bowl—whose joke is this?
The little slice of green grape
suspended in the lime-cherry jello
is killingly funny, and here we are
with our feet in the air
admiring the little pockmarks
in the acoustic tile ceiling—
but they're a riot too!
Pores in father's nose!
And even the guards
subduing us are giggling,
wrestling us down and yet
waiting, deep within themselves,
for a punchline, any punchline...


And I in your arms again.

~ .

Back Wards

A fly might influence us,
so we would crawl on our beds,
rub our legs together,
hop backwards, twitch,
touch our bread all over
without eating it.

If a voice in the corridor
said Good Morning
we suffered ecstasy
but if it forecast rain
we panicked: fatal mistake
a moment before healing.

How we feared the visitors!
—huge clammy hands
sometimes not even clean,
palpating as if suffering
had ripened us like fruit.

Did we suffer or they?
When they were gone
we bragged of them:
their size, heft, hue,
the insoluble love
that drove them to Mercy
instead of bridge or tennis:
how they came to look like us—
a crease between the eyes
that was either sorrow
or a hard presentiment;
the gifts they brought us:
grapes, magazines, many Bibles
differing in key passages,
little empty boxes,
wiltless flowers, ribbons,
trophies for enduring,
for never sleeping,
for constant waiting—

while further in the ward
the real patients lie
who have no names,
whom no one visits,
whose cries you might hear
if the gunplay faltered
on the high screens:

they cry without will,
helpless as passing clouds,
just voices, and we,

we would know them
and cry for ourselves.

(Prior publ.: North American Review.)

~ .

The Parasite

The doctor looked angry
and I too began to choke
with rage at all those shadows
who take up all our time
with their uncontrollable desire.

The doctor removed his glasses
and began to clean them
pensively with the hem of his gown.
The room became hazy, intimate.
A file cabinet hovered beside me.
The doctor was a small white cloud.

At once I saw clearly:
it was all my fault.
The bitterness, dizziness
in middle age, a fall,
the beautiful work
suddenly turned incoherent.

The doctor put his fingers together
as if they fitted in a special way—
a gesture that would take years to master
and there was so little time,
every second was measured—

and he spoke very softly.
I sensed his great weariness.
I wanted to rock him in my arms.

Rest, he said, night after night
of sleep without terrible dreams
And work. And loved ones.
Patience, said the doctor, barely audible
above the sweet constant music.

(Prior. publ.: Poetry)

~ .

A Prayer For Patience In Sickness

I waited for you as a child
memorizing the signet-ring scratches
on the cut-glass doorknob
until I expected no one
and into the small hours
when I no longer expected to be myself
if the door should open.
      Now you are here
at the other end of my life
and you are the silence in the room,
the light sweeping from wall to wall,
fever itself, no longer just my father.

(Prior publ.: Pivot)

(D. Nurkse's recent books, all from Four Way Books, are The Rules of Paradise, Leaving Xaia and Voices over Water. The Fall is forthcoming from Knopf.)