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A Night in Brooklyn
D. Nurkse
CB Editions, £8.99

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reviewed by Harry Giles

Making and Unmaking a Poet's City

The running image of A Night in Brooklyn is one of making: the narrator variously “cut plexiglass on a table saw” (Making Shelves), “buffed mitred staves on a grinding wheel”, learned “to finish interiors in Cloverdale”, and so on, the references to handiwork sounding rhythmically through the 80-page collection. The conceit will thus of course be that if Brookyln is the subject then the poet is making and remaking the city with words; the twist here is that all of the city-building is done not by an authorial “I” but by a coupled “we”. The collection opens with “We wanted so much that there be a world” (Waking in Greenpoint in Late August), the main sequence closes with its title poem in which “we built the great city”, and throughout the collection Brooklyn is performed through the knotty couplings of its lovers.

These family poems are the treasures of the main sequence, playing on poetry's abiding purpose: to name the sorrows of the world and to give comfort.

Around half the collection, and certainly the more difficult half, is written in a confessional (or at least regretful) first person: a series of enigmatic love poems not so much detailing as obliquely referencing the various crises and joys of a long-seeming Brooklyn relationship. Sex is ever-present and its motions explicit, its physical primacy intertwined with personal commentary. Waking in Greenpoint in Late August opens with lovers who “lay naked on our gray-striped mattress” and “lick each other dry”, but later it is said, perhaps of the same couple:

We would deceive each other
to explain the ache of estrangement,
we would abandon ourselves
to make sense of that loneliness
(The End of Lunar Days)

The contradiction between celebratory physicality and moody relationship therapy, often within the same poem, is peculiar but carefully considered and thematised: in the same poem the narrator remembers “we were in love and the mind / had just begun to feast on us”. That said, the self-analysis is distinguishable from juvenilia merely by Nurkse's practiced use of language: the content is the same as a teenagers' notebook, only with better vocabulary and a lyrical ear. Frequently the poet tries to rescue a duller theme with aphorism, such as in Furnished Room on Pearl Street: “We forced ourselves to betray each other: it seemed a good use for twilight”. Perhaps it really did seem a good use for twilight , but for me the words sound good but ring hollow.

The poetic craft, however, is not to be undervalued: it glitters throughout the collection. Even when the content is perplexing (or just dull), the music is all in tune, the language gently beautiful. The poems are almost entirely free verse, with irregular lines and stanzas, and yet always feel tuned and rhythmic. The skill is best showcased in the material descriptions of the city:

Behind the tenements lay wild gardens:
a swaddled fig tree, a muscat arbor.
I propped by forty foot ladder against a shim
and climbed and began searing the high porches
with a butane torch.
(Central Brooklyn)

Though here the subject matter is the most ordinary, the gorgeous craft brings real excitement. This is a long-practised skill.

Among the love poems, I had more success with those written about “they” rather than “we”: couples the narrator observes longingly. Perhaps this is because here Nurkse is forced to ‘make’ the lovers in a more considered way, rather than relying on self-description, though that may be conflating author and narrator too carelessly. More successful still, for me, are the poems on family. Death, aging and loss are the main theme here, but First Night brilliantly and beautifully breaks the pattern with the story of a newborn:

We slept beside her in our long coats,
rigid with fatigue in the unmade bed.
Her breath woke us with its slight catch.
Would she approve of gray winter dawn?
We showed her daylight in our cupped hands.

Heartbreakingly, the next poem in the collection, The Living Will, winds through a series of Brooklyn snapshots (“children playing ball / on a little diamond”, “an old man in sandals / lugged a sign Repent”, &c., &c.) to the point where we learn, in the final line, that the will reads “no life support”. These family poems are the treasures of the main sequence, playing on poetry's abiding purpose: to name the sorrows of the world and to give comfort.

Along with the main sequence, around two thirds of the book, there are two secondary sections – “Elsewhere”, for poems set outside of Brooklyn, and “No Time”, a philosophical set of mainly love or break-up poems held together with a motif of time. The unbalanced lengths of the sections make these parts seem less counterpoints than bonus extras, like the alternative takes released along with an album. In “Elsewhere”, there are also cover versions: Andalusian Coplas and Song Fragments, Eight Spanish Riddles, and Old French Riddles. Although these stick out from the collection for their tone and form, I was utterly disarmed by their wit, joy and punch. Fragments like this became my favourite work in the book:

Get out, fuck you,
you're like a lamp in a toilet,
you shine on anything.


Darling, when you're with strangers,
don't do that little thing
you did for me.
(Andalusian Coplas and Song Fragments)

It is strange that these are the most memorable moments, and that I wasn't, after 80 pages, left with any strong sense of Brooklyn itself. Perhaps if I had lived there then the namechecks and cute children playing ball would have rung more happily for me; as it was, I felt that I had been given a reiteration of the cinematic image of Brooklyn. The poetry seemed more to picture the image of Brooklyn than build it anew. This may have been due to the frequent use of generalities, such as:

walking home down leafy avenues
etched with the faint double line
of extinct trolleys, caressing
carved hearts
(The Dead Remember Brooklyn)

Sure, but what leafy avenue, what extinct trolley? Without a firm poetic image to grasp, I'm left only with the vaguer sense of Brooklyn as-seen-on-TV. A Night in Brooklyn ends by saying “there could only be one Brooklyn”, but for all the excellent craft and many pleasures of the book, I still wasn't sure what that Brooklyn was.

Harry Giles grew up in Orkney and now lives in Edinburgh. In 2010 he founded Inky Fingers, a spoken word events series which he continues to help run. He has given feature performances at nights, including Chill Pill, Jibba Jabba and Last Monday at Rio, won multiple slams including the UK Student Slam (2008), the BBC Scotland Slam (2009), the Glasgow Slam (2010), and been published in journals including Magma, PANK and Clinic. He makes theatre as well as poetry; recent projects include What We Owe (The Arches, October 2012), This is not a riot (Crisis Art Festival, July 2012) and Class Act (Ovalhouse, May 2012). His pamphlet, Visa Wedding, was published in November 2012 by Stewed Rhubarb Press.