(cited in BAE 2015, 2016, 2020, 2022); PUSHCART poetry finalist

Dennis Nurkse’s new collection reviewed by Richard Hoffman

Book Review
A Night in Brooklyn, D. Nurkse. New York, Alfred A. Knopf. 2012

D. Nurkse’s tenth collection of poems, A Night in Brooklyn, is the spiritual chronicle of a marriage. The couple, making every effort at a true mutuality, even a revolutionary parity, contend with themselves and one another in a skein of lyrics that accrue to a narrative of maturation and growth. Nurkse’s voice in these poems is resonant and haunting, both admiring of and compassionate toward the younger selves of the speaker and his love, to whom these poems of reflection, remorse, and celebration seem addressed. The pronoun that presides over the entire book is we. Allow me to quote the title poem in its entirety:

We undid a button,
turned out the light,
and in that narrow bed
we built the great city—
water towers, cisterns,
hot asphalt roofs, parks,
septic tanks, arterial roads,
Canarsie, the intricate channels,
The seacoast, underwater mountains,
bluffs, islands, the next continent,
using only the palm of our hands
and the tips of our tongues, next
we made darkness itself, by then
it was time for daybreak
and we closed our eyes
until the sun rose
and we had to take it all to pieces
for there could be only one Brooklyn.

And yet this we, private as it is, intimate as it was, invites us to feel a like empathy for the lovers whose story is told in the thirty-one poems of this first section, and to situate ourselves in relation to our several pasts with the hard-won clarity and compassion the poet’s voice models for us here.

The Brooklyn that comes alive in Part One does so via jump-cut luminous details, imagery deployed with the velocity of a music video but the indelible stamp of the essential:

In these long slant-lit streets, she says
you will find factories that once made shoehorns,
waffle irons, or pearl cuff links, 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,…

             —from “Twilight in Canarsie”

             The poems are sometimes plaintive as if, reconsidering the immense challenge of bringing together two enormous solitudes, the memories are opening the speaker to unforeseen emotional depths. Nurkse has no need to have the last word; he knows there is no last word; indeed, even early in the book, in the poems “The Dead Remember Brooklyn”, and “The Dead Reveal Secrets of Brooklyn” the city outlasts even oblivion:

Remember, death does not last,
not even a breath,
whereas the city goes on forever,
Cypress Hill, Gravesend, Bath Beach,
avenues screened by ginkgos,
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.

            Part Two, Elsewhere, opens itself to a consideration of other locales and their influence on the Brooklyn couple: Evora, Caceres, Andalusia, the Dolomites, and opens also to other poetic strategies: the anecdote, the riddle, the epigram:

If I had five fingers,
I’d give one not to have met you.

I’d give my fourth finger
not to know your name.

I’d give my third
not to have touched you.

I’d give my second
not to have made love.

Christ, if I had only one finger,
I’d give it up happily
never to have seen your face,

firefly of the morning

            —from “Andalusian Coplas and Song Fragments: Versions of anonymous originals”

Or this, from “Eight Spanish Riddles: Versions of anonymous originals”:

I was quiet in my room
when they came for me.
I’m still a prisoner, but my house
escaped through the windows—
who am I?
Fish in a net.


Part Three, No Time, returns us to the narrative that has been accruing from these moments in the “scenes from a marriage” but with the ache of hindsight and mortality that only serves to deepen the mystery of the couple. The word I am looking for, I think, is respect; Nurkse respects the couple and all they have come through. He looks and looks again, and what he sees he finds deserving of investigation, compassion, and wonder.

A Night in Brooklyn is a rich and deeply textured investigation of the intersection of memory, imagination, and history. It offers its humane and elegaic vision with the tonal range of a mature artist who has forged a voice by turns sorrowful, passionate, whimsical, and reflective. This is the finest book yet of one of our finest poets; no serious reader of contemporary poetry can afford to overlook it.

1 Comment

  1. Tom Mallouk

    Having grown up in Brooklyn and finding Hoffman’s review intriguing, I am looking forward to reading Nurske’s new collection. There are a few places in my life that are in my blood and Brooklyn is one of them. Thanks for the review.

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