Feb '03 [Home]


D. Nurkse's The Fall
(Knopf, 2003, 99 pp. $23)

by Philip Miller

Suzanne Burns's The Flesh Procession
(Bleak House Books, March 2003)

. . .

Many collections of poems are really anthologies of the poets' latest works without a driving principle of selection. D. Nurkse's latest book, The Fall—his eighth—provides an underlying drama of a man's life—in the collection's three parts—from childhood to middle age. As that life develops and changes, Nurkse transforms his narrator into a full-fledged character as in this childhood observation: " . . . my father whispers/glass of water. /Fresh compress  . . . /memorizing the traps/—slippers, Sunday paper—/with the cup in my hand/trying not to breathe.  . . . " ("The Migraine")

Nurkse's poems focus on relationships, especially about the distance between father and son, and, for reason of that distance, the poems discover a closeness between them as well as in "The Swing" (part 2 of the poem, "Play Hour")":

Father pushed
and puffed on his pipe,
nearer, more remote,
as the yard assembled itself,
delicate with distance:  . . .

Why were we so lonely?
At last we felt no one
behind us and slowly
returned amazed to earth.

Poems in The Fall provide the essential connections that reveal the meaning of each stage and relationship which make up the narrator's life. Each poem develops a small drama, as the introductory notes suggest, each one a "small 'fall' that carries us further from our early innocence" as in the narrator's first realization of his father's death:  "That night my mother/shook me from a dream,/whispering he was dead,/he was dead, he was dead/as if to teach a language/and I answered:  he is dead." ("Cat's-Eye") Later poems about the narrator's own illness in a sequence of hospital poems echo earlier work about his father's death, as in the subtly ironic opening of "Tests":

I was put in a machine
shaped like a coffin
and told, wait a minute.

"Music from an Inner Room" offers connective tissue: "I'd been sick many nights/and my sheet clung to me like a lover's body. . . .//my pillow rolled itself/in a tight ball/like a loyal child. . . .//Who filled the glass/just out of reach on the nightstand?"

There is a notion that contemporary poetry is written only for other poets. Nurkse's poems, however, engage us quickly and calmly by their exactness of language, welcoming us into the creative process. Accessible poetry sometimes means simplistic or shallow, but Nurkse's work varies as to accessibility—as most poetry does—disclosing meaning clearly but stealthily, line-by-line and turn-by-turn:

We feathered our oars
and let the current carry us.
The weather was so calm
we felt we were dead,
our faces slightly blurred
by the breeze, by happiness.

("Black River")

Afterward, what seems easy or difficult to read, still remains in the memory, suggesting more and more as it grows in its intensity. This offers the reader pleasure and discovery on the first reading and richer rewards on repeated readings.

Poems in the second and third parts of the collection, poems of early and late adulthood, are haunted by the conflicts and images of earlier poems as the narrator loves, marries, separates: "We were coaxing each other to paradise/and also locked in a game of chess/—each cheating to lose." ("The Engagement") In "Honeymoon in Varia," the narrator and his new wife wake "  . . . at dawn/envying our shadows/their chance to return  . . . //We had become the same person//but with a mind of her own."

There may be no more difficult subject for poetry than divorce; Nurkse uses just the right particulars to convey the underlying emotions:  "We caressed the cat/instead of each other.  . . .//We had a single heart but it turned against us.  . . .//and the cat stalked/from sink to hot plate/in that tiny room,  . . . " ("Marriage in the Infinite City")

I have read Nurkse (winner of several prizes including Poetry's Bess Hokin Prize) over the years, especially in small press journals and magazines. What I remember most is his control of tone, his emotional restraint, his irony and understatement, and his use of line, line as William Blake valued it:  "The more distinct, sharp, and wiry the boundary line, the more perfect the work of art.  . . .":

The children sat rigid
in pajamas, transfixed
in that constant shifting gleam:
          at their feet, a heap of dolls,
dinosaurs, skeletons, small gods,  . . .

("The Custody Wars")

"The Fall" becomes a resonating metaphor as it takes on various meanings throughout the collection. Not only does it mean a "lost innocence," but seems something inborn as in "The Red-and-Silver Schwinn": "When I wriggled in that cruel seat/a blind force—perhaps hope—//smashed me into the sprinkler system .  . . .//It seemed the fall/was planned within me." But the narrator's fall is also chosen: "I fell and loved falling./ I practiced suffering./I lived in midair,/in my own breath .  . . ."

In short, D. Nurske (a poet from Brooklyn, New York) has written a book that embraces both death and life. It uses the myth of the "fortunate fall," a fall from innocence and grace into a human world of suffering, but also into a world with the riches of newfound knowledge, knowledge the collection also generously offers the reader. The title poem, "The Fall," tells us:  "A child whose father died/is following the body,  . . ." The narrator watches, and the child "As if he hears me/  . . . stumbles and begins racing/and the gate closes behind him." But his last dream-like vision of "the fall" is both comforting and life-giving, restoring the narrator, temporarily, at least, to innocence again:  "The bells start tolling,/first mourning, then gloating./I count midnight, echoes,/until there are no more numbers/but only music,/and the breeze rocks me."

(Philip Miller is a contributing editor to the magazine [Masthead]. A version of this review appeared in the Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.)

~ . ~


Suzanne Burns's The Flesh Procession

Bleak House Books (a Diversity imprint)
953 E Johnson St, Madison, WI 53703
82 pp $14

'Lebensbejahend.' I first encountered the term during my expressionist/secessionist university days in Vienna and dismissed it, like operettas, as too sentimental and sloppy to reside in the Jugendstil architecture of my heart. Cynical or not, any reader wearies of the praise, often faintly damning, for works of poetry and fiction — and an endless, blurbed parade of them pass at all times — which sound la voix humaine to reveal la condition humaine, now wretched, now glorious, but all taxed and spent, all rewarded and ennobled by the collective striving toward (maybe meaningless) continuity of the race. ("When a cop's beating up on some guy in Chicago, I'll be there.…" —Tom Joad, The Grapes of Wrath). Until one encounters a work from which life-affirming is all but absent.

Deformities and sexual mortifications. Ms. Burns's five-part collection shares these with Kimiko Hahn's The Artist's Daughter. But, whereas Hahn's book feels sprung from a source idea which the author pursues through a winding, often dangerous terrain, Burns's source feels like a book. The reading experience is rather like that had with the ekphrastic poem that itemizes the elements in the painting but establishes no personal transformative, rather only a recorder's relationship to the whole of it. The result is flatness and a nagging sense of caricature.

As a collection, The Flesh Procession is quite well planned, though perhaps too visibly so. It skillfully combines historical breadth (1811 Siam) with pop culture references (Jim Morrison); epigraphs, quotations, and dedications serve dutifully ("for Robert Wadlow, world's tallest man; for Etienne de Silhouette"). Its ultimate effect, however, is like a rainy night stroll through the carnival, where the hawkers of too many weird attractions compete amid the wet, distorted glare. Coins and other forms of lucre frequently change hands. "There is innocence in admiration" reads the Nietzsche quote for Part 2. But one doesn't admire; one shrinks from the humanoid, feeling sullied, if only with one's own shame. And since the stars are ever-present, feels the guiltier for being observed.

Admittance to the poems is often steep in linguistic terms ("Tonight when tent poles amputate / their charlatan robes"). Once entered, their syntax erects further obstacles, though not often the pauses made to acknowledge ingenuity so much as unresolved, unintentional incongruity.

Sequestered in your immortal bed,
I memorize your lips,
their lexicon, adverbs
pirouetting on the upper tips,
bottom pout resting
like a precious stone
patient for my foundering
my fitful excavation.

.  .  .

In quiesence your features attain
the grace of bisque.
Your breath is a zephyr
even princes at rest ambitiously
chart on their cartography of skins.

("Sleeping Beauty")

This piece bears an epigraph from Sappho:  "I served beauty. Was it in fact for me something greater?"

They attempt to possess
your temptations. Sleeping
like a Valentine pressed in a book
my beauty, my princess, shows
no remorse in her moors of ignoring.
One thorn and she is pricked
into a permanent dream,
sparking the flint of any aspiring prince.

The reader's patience is tried here just a bit, since we know the story backwards and could resume anywhere without scene-setting. Here, internal sonorities are unremarkable and elsewhere perhaps better left unindulged.

The gods did mold my lips
to graze the back
of her distinctive knees.
A sip of her tea sweetened
with possibilities.

The turn on the tale may, however, cleverly justify the epigraph, concluding,

What potion in a thorn's enchanted tip
does dare to halt your waking when we kiss?
Your eyes will open.
You will lose your tangle of thorns.
Let me be the one who knows.
Lip to lip, breast to breast…
let me be your shining woman.

Gretel is read her Miranda Rights and "as the howl in [her] belly testifie[s]," the witch appears and she begins her conversion, soon joining a coven. "We bewitched my ancestry into the pot / and stewed until their meat released its bone. / The digestible foundation of home. / I even smiled while I ate." She dreams of gingerbread. The fractured fairytale, designed perhaps to depict the lengths to which hunger will drive us, instead leaves a bad taste of remorseless greed.

I think everybody feels a bit like an outsider.
I think everybody hides many things inside them.

— David Lynch

Perhaps concealment is the more divine horror. Individual poems in this collection are stunning, experienced in isolation. But, while skilled and quite inventively conceived, this human bestiary displays the freakish creatures of an uncompassionate god.