Watching horror films, I nestle my tongue into the roof of my mouth for fear of biting it off. Whether the jolt’s caused by the hiss of a pussycat, or an acid drooling alien doesn’t matter: fear grips me. When it all gets too much, I renounce my suspended disbelief by imagining the TV screen as the cine-camera’s lens, and add a boom, bobbing up and down just above the frame. To the left and the right are tripods laden with high wattage lighting and, somewhere behind me, sits the director among acolytes. I breathe easier and relax my jaw, but this habit of seeing the bigger picture is not always calming: looking at the sky, clouds are like the iridescence sliding across the surface of a bubble. The atmosphere is a fragile thing, clutching terra firma as Earth hurtles around the Sun at 67000 miles an hour. The numbers, the vacuum, the debris flying around up there have me holding on for dear, fragile little life.
Oblivion stalks David Nurkse’s A Night in Brooklyn, but not so we’d notice. In The Dead Reveal Secrets of Brooklyn, ‘We are frequently asked, What is death like? // Like tossing a Frisbee in Prospect Park, / making sure the release / is free of any twitch or spasm – / and trace of the body’s vacillation – / willing the disc to glide forward / of its own momentum, never veering, / in a trance of straight lines’. Only the dead can know the answer to this question and their repetition of it sits in space, disconnected from the rest of the poem, calling into question whether the subsequent stanzas, opening with ‘like’, are voiced by the dead, or by another speaker. After all, similes seem disappointingly allusive for a poem whose title promised to reveal secrets. If the dead are still speaking, then there’s a perversity to their response, as the question ‘what’s it like?’ asks for an answer and not a simile. The simile delivered is infuriating, as the Frisbee is casually ‘tossed’ and the words ‘release’, ‘free’, ‘willing’ and ‘glide’ suggest something consensual and effortless – fun, even. Yet underneath this apparent effortlessness is a battle for dignity: nothing comes easily in life, let alone in death. A Frisbee toss only ever appears effortless: concentration and practise underpin it. In each stanza, it is Brooklyn that remains and, finally, the poem becomes a litany: ‘Remember, death does not last, / not even a breath, / whereas the city goes on forever, / Cypress Hill, Gravesend, Bath Beach, avenues screened by ginkgos’.
Nurkse’s Brooklyn, like Thomas Hardy’s Casterbridge, allows him to explore the tension between public and private, expressed in the relationship between public exteriors and private interiors glimpsed through doors, windows and alleyways. Central Brooklyn’s title invites the reader to imagine the sterile, ersatz spaces usually delivered unto us by councils and property developers. Yet Nurkse’s space is chaotic, warm, and alive: ‘Behind the tenements lay wild gardens: / a swaddled fig tree, a muscat-arbour.’ UK readers will generally associate ‘tenement’ with the most deprived communities Glasgow had to offer, rather than with a more neutral idea of rented accommodation. However, either way, Brooklyn reveals a heart to those who look closely and the ‘wild gardens’ suggest untamed passion, while the ‘swaddled fig tree’ suggests familial care of Biblical proportions. Fig and Muscat have entered the language from French, adding a sense of peachy sweetness and exoticism. Yet, at the same time, the inquisitive gaze will reveal stomach-churning squalor, as ‘I propped my forty-foot ladder against a shim / and climbed and began searing the high porches / with a butane torch. I gouged away dead bees, / resin, gum, soot from forges, caulk’. Nurkse has surprised us once already, as the poem shifts in tone from the lyrical to the disgusting, but now the reader is really wrong-footed: ‘Once / the lovers opened their blinds and watched / with pursed lips, hand in hand, her breasts / swayed slightly, his penis limp, their gaze / imperious and forgiving, and I missed a spot’. Nurkse shows that voyeurism cuts both ways and that, in the city, everyone watches. The silbilant slight sway of the breasts makes them stand out from the line and their movement shows the glorious ongoing awkwardness of the scene. The poem’s ending speaks eloquently of the passing of time and the gentrification of the borough: ‘Then I painted white on white, when I finished / those streets were empty, no one lived there / except the rich, chalk-faced in their long divorce’. The painting of white on white has a Sisyphean quality, and we wonder when he finished but, if this was a simple decorating job, then the poem highlights the rapid pace of change. However, the job could also be likened to painting the Forth Bridge, or ‘finished’ could mean when the speaker quit, or retired. This delivers a more gradual dessication of the street, as the thick, durable, flexible house paint is replaced by the thin, fragile, particulate of the lifeless, chalk-faced rich. Nurkse’s thirteen line poem of escalating surprise wants to be a sonnet, a love letter but, in the present day, Central Brooklyn is missing something: there is a void at its heart.
Time and again, D. Nurkse reminds me of John Donne, rebooted for the twenty-first century. Sure, to one another, the lovers’ bodies might feel like the world for a fragile moment but, lacking Donne’s exuberance as we do, we understand that we are the bees, the resin, the gum and the soot cleaned from the city to make room for the succeeding generations. The collection’s title poem ends the sequence. Short lines build and grow in length with the lovers’ excitement and with the intricacy of their imagined, pulsing borough: ‘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’ but, as Donne’s lover in The Sun Rising attempts to assert his authority on the universe with rhetorical sleights of hand, Nurkse suggests that fantasies are, ultimately destructive: ‘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 only be one Brooklyn’.