Issue > Poetry
D. Nurkse

D. Nurkse

D. Nurkse is the author of ten books of poetry, most recently A Night in Brooklyn. New work is in the 2013 and 2014 editions of Best American Poetry. He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.

The Leash

I had a dog who followed me everywhere
and howled outside the candy store,
except he did not exist, he was just a name,
Rufus, and a story: Rufus who came bounding  
out of the azalea, Rufus in a frenzy
when I limped home. How fiercely he loved me,  
growling at De Sales, licking Constance,
nuzzling Justine under the dark elms—   
Rufus chewed the antimacassar,    
scarfed the Christmas tournedos,
pissed on the red Bokhara rug,    
bit my mother on her tender calf,
nipped my father's musical fingers,    
and chased the cat to hell.
At dawn he vanished. I put signs
on every lamppost and bulletin board,
and the drawings were real, though clumsy,  
but the thing was not, though swift and loyal.    
I came home with my pocket full of tacks    
and my fingers blue with Magic Marker, crying  
because he loved me, though he was no one.

The Siege

When my father died, the older children
appointed me Commander of the Leaf Fort.
I directed a chasseur to the outer ramparts,
sappers to the crumbling foundation.

But I knew it would not last. They obeyed me
only out of mercy, to distract me
from blankness with a task and title.  

At twilight, the horde of six-year-olds  
passed solemnly on scooters as if
drawn by elastic bands to a lit window.

A neighbor boy hurled a red Spaldeen
so high it vanished utterly,
then smacked into his waiting palm.                                    
Teens traded bottle caps for knives,
Romular for snapshots of naked girls.        
And I had until dark to make a stand
against my enemy, the constant south wind
that sifted minnow-slim serrated beech leaves,
lifted oak leaves like red-veined hands,
and whistled dry seeds back to a barren tree.

First Love

Lo Presti would pick me up in his Camaro
and we drove around looking for girls.

When we saw two—they traveled in pairs—
we honked, they waved, we waved,
they waved, we honked, we drove away.

That countryside was vast: malls,
subsidized cordoned-off wheatfields,
missile silos, CENTO testing grounds,  
even the access roads closed, prisons,
huge parking lots, floodlit churches.

Some nights, he flourished a Schlitz
and we willed our sips to be equal.

After midnight, all we saw was oncoming lights
and the letters of marquees, lurid red,
that burned with an unnerving intimacy
as if spelling out our unknown convictions.                                
I think we loved each other            
but we never interrupted the radio  
with its lavish frantic monologue,          
its jingles that continue in the mind,
out-themes like distilled loneliness.    

The Shondelles, Belmonts, Five Stair Steps.  

At dawn, he dropped me off.  
I slipped into my mother's house  
turned down my sheets, punched my pillow,
dressed for school, and walked groggily
to pale orange juice and a bowl of Rice Krispies,
'the cereal that talks.' Even now
the darkness of those roads opens before me
like a mind that knew and cherished me.

Linoleum Embossed With An Oak Grain

Mr. Hullitt said, how badly do you want to mop the floor?
I was seized with the desire to mop it bitterly, furiously,
tenderly, to condense my brief life into that action,
to leave myself looking up dimly from the sheen of parquet.
Mr. Hullitt said, show me, so I grabbed the broom handle
but at once I met subtle resistance, my sincere lunge
created streaks, the mophead bucked away. I resorted
to the circle, the grid, there was charm in those absolutes,
but the corners held out. Always I felt watched.
As in the crib. Fat white eyes on me like collar studs.
Turning me into a story. My defense was to work fast,
faster than June twilight streaming in columns of dust
through the barroom window. I wasn't sure what victory meant:
when I wrung green bilge through flanged bucket wheels
I was entirely acting. I stood back to admire my triumph,
hands on hips, lips pursed in a whistle, so much conviction
Mr. Hullitt nodded and handed me a white linen hat adorned
with the name Steve in blue thread and the scorch marks
of too many irons, and an apron fastened with a wispy white cord.
That night I told you we can have the child but you sighed
and rolled to the wall. I lay listening to the swish of cars
receding and at dawn I decided that exhalation was not disgust,
fear, resignation, disbelief or relief—just breath.


We had been preparing for that birthday
since fall, stockpiling crinkly orange crepe,
a pile of masks that fitted inside each other,
whistles that flared and buckled,
blindfold games, but when the first guest came—
frizzed child hunched shocked in the doorway,
sleet on a shirred ribbon, receding Honda fanlight—
our daughter wailed, louder and louder                                
as new guests rang. She cried to be five
and made of days, until each silver balloon
nudged the low ceiling. When the cake loomed,
five candles guttered of their own accord.
Snow whirled in mirrors, a tin trumpet sounded.
We were still married, until death do us part,
but tired of counting the hours: still we tried
to blow glitter from our thumbs and coax
the icing back into its crimped tube.


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