Review: The Border Kingdom by D Nurkse

In much the same way that D Nurkse’s seventh collection of poems, The Fall (2003), comprised of three sections of grouped poems, his ninth and latest book, The Border Kingdom, is divided into four sequences. The variety of the poems and the uneven length of the sequences, however, suggest that the book’s prevalent theme was not conceived from the outset. Poems, after all, have a useful tendency towards naturally grouping themselves together and forming a coherent whole; different poems extending into one another through recurrent images and themes, as a result of the poet’s preoccupations, interests and concerns. Where The Fall’s sections addressed childhood, married adulthood and illness in old age, then, charting the Blakean journey from innocence to experience and the consequent fraying of our thoughts, beliefs and singular identities, The Border Kingdom’s four groupings of poems approach states of limbo and ambiguity from an assortment of often unusual angles, spanning wars waged from the Biblical to the present and the fractures and fragments left behind, to the legacies of fathers and the complex heritages that they leave their children.

‘Jericho’ opens the book’s first section, ‘The Age of Crusades’, in an intense, if elliptical, burst of imagery. Describing ‘a high window’ where ‘a white curtain knotted against itself / gives a glimpse of the lovers / as they were before the war’, this deceptively simplistic poem depicts the ‘undo[ing] of a mother-of-pearl snap / while a cat perched on the sill / looks down with burning eyes’. Despite Nurkse’s tendency towards the longer, often sequential poem, then, in many ways this short, sparsely rich account of intimacy in a city dominated by conflict sets the tone for the rest of the book: tender, humane and evocative whilst at the same time darkly political and historical, Nurkse’s poetic voice combines felt emotion and level-headed thinking to impressive effect. In ‘Albi’, for instance, another poem in the collection’s opening section, the narrator’s harrowing tale of his being ‘sealed up in a wall’ is related matter-of-factly in precise, conversational lines, but with an eerie feeling that is – as good poetry should be – difficult to describe; emotional and strangely spiritual, yet also markedly impersonal: ‘Then I was the wall itself, / everything the voices long for / and cannot have – the self, / the stone inside the stone’.

It is this captivating style that lends Nurkse’s poetry its sometimes startling originality. This is especially evident in ‘Ben Adan’, an arresting poem in which a seemingly innocent prisoner is instructed by his captor to dig his own grave. Here, it is less the haunting beauty of the poem’s imagery, despite its imaginativeness (‘At thigh-depth I found / a layer of black loam / and a tiny blue snail / that seemed to give off light’) than the disconcerting yet well-pitched tone of the narrator’s voice (‘perhaps in a moment / he will lift me up / and hold me trembling, more scared than I / and more relieved’) that gives the poem its poignancy and delicate weight. This allows the poem to interrogate the reader’s notions of power and captivity (in both a psychological and physical sense) in ways that a more straightforward engagement would fail to hit upon, and Nurkse’s work with human rights organisations have no doubt helped contribute to his producing such accomplished poetry on the matter.

In the book’s second sequence, ‘The Limbo of the Fathers’, there is a continuation of this type of (im)personal political poetry; finding poignancy and wide-reaching revelation in the nuanced specifics of individual lives, rather than looking for history’s lessons on a larger, grander scale. ‘In the Hold’, for example, is an affecting account of the poet’s father leaving Nazi Germany as a stowaway in ‘the stifling void’ of a boat, depicting how he ‘counts the coins in his sack, / the stitches in the gunny weave – / takes his pulse, then having / no more real things, he counts / the members of his family, the chimneys / of his village, all the days / of his life in the old country’. Similarly, the deft specificities of the poet’s memory in ‘Practice’ – recalling his throwing ‘a white Spaldeen / shaped exactly like a baseball […] / all morning at the fence post’ as an extended metaphor for our childhood ‘practicing’ at adulthood – makes for an enjoyable and gently nostalgic, if slightly inconsequential, poem; the poet ‘relieved of a great burden / to see [his] father so clearly, / shivering, gray, stammering to himself, // mincing a clove of garlic / until it was fine and plural / as the gesture itself’.

Unfortunately, The Border Kingdom’s third sequence, ‘The Limbo of the Children’, is less engaging than these earlier poems. This is perhaps odd as the section also contains a handful of the book’s best pieces. Among these is ‘Canaan’, a short lyric on the failures inherent to language which, though bringing little new to our postmodern understanding of drifting, unpredictable signifiers, finds, in both senses, fantastic images to evoke our relationship with the spoken and written word: ‘How the mind wound up the doves / and sent them volleying / over the shepherds’ low fences’. This delight and frustration with the failings of communication is also conjured effectively in ‘The Child’, in which the young narrator describes how ‘no one calls me you. / I am addressed in the third person / as if I were sideways to the world’. It is a shame, then, that these poems sparkle among a sequence which is otherwise littered with numerous narratives reflecting on nature and mountains in particular, which, though often richly descriptive and subtly musical, are too often full of inactive lists that do little more than to describe (albeit atmospheric) landscapes (‘Hitching to Mount Hebron’, for example, or ‘At High Falls’).

This aside, however, when Nurkse hits his stride such writing can begin to evoke the Hopkins of ‘No Worst, There Is None’, and even the Wordsworth of ‘The Prelude’, in its merging of the landscape with the poet’s state of mind. In 'The Border Range’, for instance, the narrator states how: ‘Sometimes we boasted / of the waterfall, the whirlwinds, / the downy soft-pinioned owl / drifting in daylight / with a hole in his voice, / the immense cliffs’, before concluding: ‘And that is all anyone knows / of those years of marriage, / labor, voluntary poverty: / those mountains were perfectly flat / and exist only as a little rip / where the map was folded once too often’. Through taut language and economic use of imagery, this poem succeeds in adopting our relationship with nature as a metaphor for our often difficult relationships with one another, an impressive feat which Nurkse pulls off with considerable skill.

It is satisfying to find, then, that the closing sequence of The Border Kingdom, ‘The Gods’, is the best of the collection; comprising of consistently engaged and engaging poems on the difficult subject of conflict in the contemporary world. The success of these poems often rests on their approaching subject matters from oblique angles: in ‘Late Summer’, for example, an unknown terror grips the narrator who ‘ha[s] to remind [him]self: / this is darkness’, while in ‘Liberation in Winter’, the threat of a bombing is described as ‘maybe just a faux pas between lovers // who lie naked, an inch apart, / in the stepwise shadows of the blind’. Similarly, the fallout of 9/11 is addressed with care and subtlety, imagining ‘children [drawing] the plane, / sticking out their tongues, pressing / hard with crayons, never looking up / as if they’d seen it all their lives’. Here, the towers in the child’s drawing become ‘a huge box’, ‘the fire – an orange flower: / God – a face with round eyes / watching from the margin’, and ‘the fireman in his smudged hat / running with outstretched arms / up a flight of endless steps / that veered suddenly off the page’.Just as the sequence, and collection, closes with the image of ‘round pools, / […] trembl[ing] as if a child swam there’, then, the thought-provoking child’s drawing in ‘After a Bombing’ most starkly suggests an idea that recurrently surfaces throughout this deeply philosophical, deceptively simplistic, and often rewardingly discomfiting collection: namely, that our habitual handle on the world is often staunchly limited, narrow, and thus frequently inadequate, and that greater understanding, even redemption, may often lie in a freer, fuzzier, and more openly imaginative approach to the world.

It is to Nurkse’s credit that he has written a book of poems which expresses this so unprescriptively and effectively, then, and that explores a great deal more besides in diction and syntax well-pitched between ordinary speech and poetic elegance; a collection which is much more, as the narrator of ‘Canaan’ states, than mere ‘signs on the blank page’.

This review originally featured on Eyewear.


Live Poetry in Sheffield

With the shop’s back room packed and excellent readings from Helen Mort, Chris Jones and Frances Leviston, last week’s poetry event at the Oxfam bookshop on West Street, Sheffield was a modest success. It was a pleasant feeling to be promoting Sheffield poets while also making money for such a worthwhile cause – through a mixture of kind donations on the door and book sales, including Helen Mort’s new tall-lighthouse pamphlet, A Pint for the Ghost.

Her performance included a number of poems from this new collection - eerie and provocative pieces on the ghosts and pubs of Sheffield and Derbyshire, past and present - and a handful from her first, the shape of every box, including an atmospheric poem about Division Street, located only a stone’s throw from the venue. Unsurprisingly, copies of her new pamphlet were quickly snapped up after the reading.

Chris Jones also performed a wide selection of his published poetry to date, from affecting vignettes about his young son from his pamphlet Miniatures, to powerful poems on his time spent as writer-in-residence at a prison, as well as pieces on the themes of family, friends and home, from his first collection The Safe House.

The evening finished with a reading by Frances Leviston, who read a selection of thought-provoking and vivid poems mainly from her first collection, Public Dream, including the meditative ‘I Resolve to Live Chastely’ and ‘Scandinavia’, an unusual love poem entitled ‘Gliss’, and ‘The Fortune Teller’, an update to, and reworking of, Richard Wilbur’s ‘The Mind Reader’. We were also treated to a few new poems, including a short, suggestive lyric, ‘Two Owls’.

I also gave a shortish reading on the night, and since it seems to have become a bit of a feature on UK poetry blogs, here’s my ‘set list’:

1. Crux
2. Sunday
3. Filter
4. Home
5. The River Don
6. Familiar
7. Wednesday
8. Gesleham-on-Stour
9. Itch
10. Hex

Given the success of the night, I hope to help arrange something similar again with Oxfam – though perhaps in a bigger venue than the shop, as that back room can get quite stuffy at times. If I do, it’ll be posted up here closer to the time of course. For now, thanks again to everyone who read, and also to all who attended – a fun night.


Tonight: Oxfam Poetry - Four Sheffield Poets

Oxfam Poetry Night @ Oxfam Bookshop (West St / Glossop Rd)

featuring four Sheffield poets:
Frances Leviston, Chris Jones, Helen Mort, and Ben Wilkinson

Tonight (Wednesday 15th July), 6.30pm - 9pm

£2.50 donation on the door and free poetry CD

The Mole

Over at her blog, should you fancy a look, Carrie Etter has kindly featured a poem from The Sparks, as part of a (very) brief tour of blogs I thought I'd do to promote the pamphlet.

The poem is 'The Mole' (hence the photo above), and was first published in the Times Literary Supplement early last year.


Latitude 2009

Well, it's that time of year again... When those festival goers with exceptional taste head out to the Suffolk countryside to enjoy three days of great music, poetry, literature, cabaret, film and comedy at the wonderful, indefatigable Latitude festival.

Sadly though, I won't be attending this year, and am particularly gutted as the line-up for the Poetry Arena looks at least as strong - if not stronger - than when I was reviewing and blogging on the festival last year and the year before. Tim Turnbull, Tim Wells, Jackie Kay, Simon Armitage, Kathyrn Simmonds, Helen Mort, Caroline Bird, Emily Berry, Andrew Motion, Paul Farley - Latitude attracts some serious poetic talent, and unsurprisingly the tent's audience often spills into the sunshine outside: Armitage was particularly popular on both the Poetry and Literary stages last year, and Daljit Nagra drew a big, midday crowd.

This year, there's also music from the likes of The Pet Shop Boys, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Regina Spektor, Patrick Wolf, Bat for Lashes, Editors, Gossip and Spiritualised, and comedy from Stephen K. Amos, Dave Gorman, Rufus Hound, Jo Brand, Lee Mack, Marcus Brigstocke and Ed Byrne.

As I say, I'm gutted I'm not going. Maybe next year...

Poetry London - Summer 2009

So I'm reliably informed that the latest issue of Poetry London has been launched, at the Ledbury festival no less, and though I haven't had chance to read a copy yet, it looks like an excellent issue.

New poems from Paul Farley, Heather Phillipson, Jacob Polley, Christopher Horton, Sam Riviere and many more besides. I'm particularly looking forward to seeing two poems in the issue by Mary Jo Bang, whose work I intend to read more of.

The issue also includes poetry reviews by Todd Swift, Helen Mort, Jack Underwood and Katy Evans-Bush, and a vignette of a poem, 'Camouflage', by yours truly. A sample of the poems and features in the issue can be read online.



For months it sits unplugged,
collecting spider webs spun and undone,
while dust complicates sunlight

through the shed’s single window
at the broken egg of dawn. Or
nursing the dregs of blackness

that settle in its gut as you haul it
out onto the lawn, plug it in
or fill it, yank at its ripcord –

the sudden hum of blades
and the patch of mown green,
now glowing. It churns

like a stomach hungry for anything:
leaves, daisies, insects, dogshit;
the sheer weight of things

bulked to a cube inside of it.
Afterwards, the lines of the garden
shimmer like wood grain,

pious tree rings unravelled and planed
down to chair legs. Or the glint
of varnish as you empty the basket

into the brown bin:
the painted toy man of a toy set
or model village, still smiling.

poem by Ben Wilkinson
first published in Brittle Star, issue 17, summer 2007


The Bloody Apprentice

A friend pointed me to this the other day, and quite funny it is too - footage of the BBC's popular reality show The Apprentice, painstakingly edited so as to make a monkey out of Sugar and its contestants (though they often do a fair job of that themselves). Contains some strong language though, so don't watch if you're easily offended.

And while we're on the subject of The Apprentice - does anyone actually know what job it is that the winner gets? Organising the stationery at Amstrad HQ? Or perhaps researching new areas for Sugar's businesses to expand into - as in Harry Hill's gag about 'Amsstairs' ("No, we don't sell 'amsters, we sell Amsstairs")? Any suggestions welcome.


Maurice Riordan

Just a quick heads up to those interested - I notice that Faber poet Maurice Riordan's entry on the PoetCasting audio site is now online, including readings of his poems 'Fish', 'Silenus' and the excellent 'Southpaw'. Well worth checking out.

The recording was made on the same afternoon as my own, and along with another Sheffield poet, Chris Jones, whose readings are also now on the site - of the four poems featured, I'd recommend 'Work' in particular. Jones will also be reading at the Oxfam Poetry Night taking place at the Oxfam Bookshop on West St, Sheffield, alongside myself, Helen Mort and Frances Leviston.