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Review: D. Nurkse's Voices Over Water

D. Nurkse is an American poet who is relatively unknown to British readers. With the publication by the enterprising CB Editions of Voices Over Water, his second collection, that looks set to change. Charting the lives of a married couple and their emigration from Estonia to Canada in the early twentieth century, it is an oddly gripping read; each page furthering a narrative in which the minutiae of a traditional rural life are caught against a backdrop of violence, war and famine.

This interplay of the personal and the historical is particularly apparent in eye-catching similes. In “Slow Summer”, for example, which views prolonged conflict through the haze of a humid August, Estonia’s borders are seen to “tangle like our bodies / in love”, while in “Plains”, vast silence is “like a strong arm” encircling the narrator’s wife. Yet these rhetorical flourishes are sparingly deployed. Rather, it is plain diction, deft narrative pacing, and an insistent yet unobtrusive musicality that dominate Nurkse’s writing, bringing haunting scenes into sharp focus:
Sunrise was black because we were so deep,
the rustle of the owls stopped,
we came upon a child’s swing dangling from a branch
and then another and another, a forest of swings. 
 Voices Over Water attempts to provide a kind of micro-history of human hope and suffering: replacing objective fact with its subjective account of imagined lives. It succeeds when Nurkse’s earthy depictions render the poems engrossing and believable: from the couple fleeing their home in the midst of civil war, to the shattered porcelain jug - a freighted symbol of frailty, desire, and broken promises - in “Precious Dust”.

The problem is that the poems are typically poised between specificity and vagueness, and over the course of the book, it is the latter which comes to dominate. The catalogue of generic items in “No Harvest”, for example, adds little to the storyline; an earlier domestic vignette, “Equinox”, is similarly ineffectual. These failings stand out because Voices Over Water is an otherwise engaging book, addressing challenging themes - love, grief, displacement, faith - as its unflinching tale unwinds. It reaches a satisfying end with what is perhaps its best poem, “Inventing Nations”, in which one of the couple’s grandchildren attempts to understand their inheritance. Here, a “locket / showing the infant Mozart playing silence” may be damaged, yet still it harbours meaning; a “voice over water” that, much like Nurkse’s poems, continues to carry, in spite of distortions.

first published in the Times Literary Supplement, October 21 2011