A brief interview with Dennis Nurkse

D. Nurkse’s collection, A Night in Brooklyn, captures a Brooklyn of both the past and present in lyrical poems that are both intimate and political.


Here is Nurkse discussing his book with Andy Kuhn of the Katonah Poetry Series:

My family came here from Europe as the Nazis were coming to power, and we moved back to Europe briefly in the early sixties. My family members got by in many languages, but English was my first language. That’s probably an affinity to Brooklyn: living there is like traveling, being everywhere and nowhere.  My current neighborhood is a place of immigrants, and I like their outlook. They take nothing for granted.

A theme of A Night in Brooklyn is how we make up stories, believe them, and live in them as if they were worlds.

Brooklyn throughout my life has been a place of vastness and wildness. I remember immense ruined factories; neighborhoods where diners sold ake ake, saltfish, cowsfoot soup, comfort food from West Africa; neighborhoods where you would hear Malayam, Quechua, Ladino. I once accompanied a great Irish poet who read in Gaelic in Irish Brooklyn. I remember bars where ex-guerrillas spoke of fighting the Bloody Black and Tans. I love the sea and the mountains. Brooklyn really had the same sense of being beyond measure. I remember teaching poetry to Orthodox Jewish children. One young girl came up with the line “red is the color of dying in your sleep.” The parents were startled, halted the workshop, and consulted a rabbi as to whether the exploration of poetry was safe or psychically dangerous. The rabbi felt that confronting the depths was entirely healthy and the parents invited me back.

The Surface

The sandhogs who blasted the Battery Tunnel
jerry-rigged an escarpment a quarter mile down
but it buckled at rip tide and one journeyman
was sucked into the air pocket, up through the lattice,
through the ooze under the East River, to surface
in daylight—how the hell did he remember
to drop his ninety pound jute sack and let himself float
until a tug lowered a skiff—now no one knows his name—

Mr. Modesto, in for his second hernia, told this story
in the waiting room behind the nurses’ station
at Downstate—view of a gasworks, Szechuan takeout,
cat hunting a spindled leaf, laundry on tenement roofs,
three clouds, one bright, one tinged, one darkening.

Mr. Solaris, like me a recent father, nodded sleepily,
scratching his head and mechanically rolling the dead skin
between thumb and forefinger, perhaps to release the odor.

But Mrs. Hiram Q. Pace, whose brother had Alzheimer’s,
never looked up from her sudoku, and the nameless man
in the seersucker suit with the hairline rip at one elbow,
who had never spoken since the beginning, swept up his Patience
to re-shuffle—how could he shuffle for himself—
so the cards hung luminous between his hands

when the nurse in the corridor cleared her throat
and we each looked up with a question on our lips
but I was the one the crooked finger summoned
to kneel by my wife and hold my breathing child.



Twilight In Canarsie


In these long slant-lit streets, she says,
you will find factories that once made shoehorns,
waffle irons, or pearl cufflinks, 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,
the tenement where we made love and each thrust
carried us deeper into the past, as if we were an engine
careening back to childhood, then the shunting yard,
the park with its whirling jump rope, the red brick school
that manufactured absolutes, Sphere, Pyramid, Dodecahedron,
while children tried to carve their names clear through their desks,
the cemetery of lovers immobilized by marble wings—

why is it always twilight when we die, she asks,
and Canarsie where we are born again?