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The edge of paradise

August 17, 2008|David L. Ulin

In His ninth book of poetry, "The Border Kingdom" (Alfred A. Knopf: 98 pp., $26), D. Nurkse begins with a whisper: "Jericho," a short poem that promises, "Sometimes in a high window / a white curtain knotted against itself / gives a glimpse of the lovers / as they were before the war."

This is a perfect introduction to the collection, which moves from the landscape of the Bible to that of New York after the fall of the towers, considering it all with a certain quiet centeredness.

Nurkse sees the nuances in the smallest moments, the kind that generally pass unobserved. In "Lament for the Makers of Brooklyn," he turns the loss of a certain neighborhood type into an elegy for an entire culture: "Policastro the locksmith . . . / Half-blind, he wore two pairs of glasses / held together with duct tape / . . . Mr. Fuchs with his green wrench / consulted a brass thermometer / and opened the hydrants in the great heat."

Everywhere is loss, but also, if we know where to look, transcendence. As he writes in "Late Summer": "When the rain woke me / I no longer knew / and had to remind myself: / this is darkness, / that is the wineglass, / this is the blowing curtain, / that's the immense city, / it's late in my life / but early in August, / this is my wife / naked in my arms."

The title of "The Border Kingdom" is explained in an epigraph defining Limbo as "the 'second kingdom,' adjoining paradise." It's a pretty good explication of what Nurkse is after here. Paradise, after all, may be elusive, but if these poems have anything to tell us, it's that we may somehow be transfigured, not least by "the pulse, love, . . . / that maddening relentless code."

David L. Ulin


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