Winter 2005

D. Nurkse


D Nurkse D. Nurkse is the author of eight books of poetry, including Burnt Island, (Knopf, January 11, 2005) and The Fall (Knopf, 2002). He has recent or forthcoming work in The Kenyon Review and The Atlantic Monthly. He teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, and at the Rikers Island Correctional Facility.
Terra Nova    Click to hear in real audio

           after Samuel Elliot Morrison

Land, said the Commander. That glint is a beacon on an island in the fog. But all we saw was igneus fatuus, light of the eye, the inward-fire of separation: too many nights dribbling into a stiff blanket, under the bo'sun and on top of the gromet.  

When that gold-brocaded sleeve gestured, we actually saw a little firth, a palm like an eye-lash, huts, a woman in a doorway waving. But that was our longing.

Natural harbor, shade, and leeway, said the Commander. That way he was sure to win the Queen's purse, ten thousand maravedis. And we who also saw land—razed hovels, burnt cassava fields—we said nothing.

So we came to Salvador—seven low hills that fused to one island. Hardscrabble dust and mica, but after the sea, paradise.

Instantly the Indians became our brothers. They paddled out in balsa pirogues bearing corncakes, parrots, roped cilantro, casks of rainwater.

They loved us as no one had in Spain. In mime, they told us we had come from heaven to save them. From what? From the boredom they had never had a word for, until our prow nosed their inlet?

In mime we told them: carry our boat, and they shouldered it, grateful to have been shown their strength.

They gave us their wives, their daughters, their sons. As for gold, it was always on the next island, and there were thousands, each more miserable, emptier, the inhabitants whirling like smoke into the brush as word of our tortures spread.

After the sea, any shore seemed paradise. After Salvador, none.

So we came to Cipangu, city of gold roofs. There the White King blessed us. We gave him lace points and a crystal doorknob. He presented us with a massive-gold globe; thereon he showed us the way home, true north, and longitude.

A thousand leagues from Bilbao, we hated each other. The bo'sun swore we were depraved. The gromet spat syphilis in the leek soup. Each night, a little before dawn, the Indians in the hold let out a soft moan—they had woken from their dream of home.

If we are really explorers, where are the men with horseheads, or diamond eyes in their bellies? Why have we not met our wives, robed and shorn for sacrifice?

Set the sextant on Polaris and deduct for diurnal rotation, trim the yard, and pay out the dipsey line. If it shows alum or foolsgold, you are plotting to kill me, the Commander says.  

He is deep in fever. Lawyers are deciding if he really found the New World. And we have grown old. It came suddenly, like the sirocco in the Straits of Gibraltar. One moment we were poised as always for the great discovery, the next we had stumbled beyond the horizon.



Origins Of Desire    Click to hear in real audio

     After Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan

1. Anima

This is the groundwork:
Autopoiesis, constant creation
of the self from sunlight.

But gender varies like the breeze
and sex like tides.

Thousands of quasi-sexual fathers
might fuse and form our body,
just visible on a net-veined leaf.

We might cannibalize each other
and the indigestible rind
become the partner.

Or we might trade
genes for male and female
like beads or playing cards.  

But we are each built of water
locked in a membrane.
The same comet-tail sperm
in starfish, gingko, and human.

2. Red Giants

Hydrogen caught fire
in the forge of the nebulae
and fused to carbon—

our element, pliant,
ready to combine
with any foreign body:

magnesium, calcium, contaminants
released in the great explosion
that lit the sky like a match

before there was a mind to understand
the advantages of annihilation.

3. Archean Microbes

When the dust-cloud
rolled back from earth
we died of radiance—
the sun burnt holes
in the inmost braid of DNA.

Light-nourished, light-poisoned,
we migrated into rock
or traded little damaged pieces
of self between each other,        

enshrining separation inside us,  
creating the blueprint
for an absolute stranger.

4. The Unlit Room

The mind is a story
that found a way
to tell itself—but who
is the confidante, who
the eavesdropper,
who gropes for a switch
along this invisible wall?

In our narrow bed  
we hear the catch
of the other's breath,
faint Muzak, an ice machine,
a late goose honking    
toward the idea of south.

Between five and six
we whisper our presentiment—
great herds going blind
in Patagonia, a moth species
extinguished at every breath.
We exaggerate a little.
Those extra zeroes
hold our reprieve.

Perhaps it is too late
and we can still make love
and cat-nap toward dawn.

But even if we close our eyes
we are still married.



Poets At The Court Of Caligula    Click to hear in real audio

We have grown hoarse speculating
on the motives of the killers
who sometimes invite us
to declaim at their banquets—

our voices waver with age
as a moment ago
they cracked in puberty—

still we recognize each other
among the courtesans;
we congratulate ourselves
on surviving another foul war
and whisper plunder? vengeance?

while the drunk centurions
roar for a stripper
whose trick is to enter naked.



In The Year Of The Great Marches    Click to hear in real audio

A teenage girl on the train
was handing out leaflets,
shaking a drunk awake,
reading the text to a beggar,
making him repeat it,
confronting a nun, a security guard.

Two lovers were clasped
and she stood over them
rocking with their motion,
until they separated
and rubbed their eyes.

I'll be there, I smiled,
I expected her to grin back,
but she was tired,
I was one less obstacle
and she moved on
staggering a little, a vein
bulging in her calf.

I could read her lips
since I knew what she was saying,
the next four days are crucial,
then the train went aboveground,

a brickworks, whirling snow,
she was gone and the beggar
cleared his throat and announced
I haven't eaten in three days,

and the riders had changed:
soldiers, National Guard
stamping slush from their boots—

the pattern of the treads
was intricate and dazzling
at the point of melting—

and we could almost see our faces
wavering, picking up speed.




D. Nurkse: Poetry
Copyright © 2005 The Cortland Review Issue 27The Cortland Review