The Stuff of Legend: On D. Nurkse, Sina Queyras, and Nicole Sealey
Love in the Last Days: After Tristan and Iseult, by D. Nurkse, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 112 pp., $27.
My Ariel: Poems, by Sina Queyras, Coach House Books, 159 pp., $19.95.
Ordinary Beast, by Nicole Sealey, Harper Collins, 64 pp., $27.
The three volumes of poetry under consideration here riff on legends both historical and literary by redelivering traditional tales, reconsidering mythic texts, or drawing new legends into the poetic fold. D. Nurkse offers his own version of the Tristan and Iseult legend. Sina Queyras revisits Sylvia Plath’s mythic book Ariel. And Nicole Sealey tackles the sinister legacies of American history while creating her own pantheon of legends. In the process, all three poets invite readers to examine how the self is shaped and sustained by myth.
In “The Next Apartment,” a poem from D. Nurkse’s 2012 collection A Night in Brooklyn, the speaker—presumably a middle-aged bachelor—is privy to the next-door couple’s endless cycle of makeups and breakups. He notices, when one of them is gone, how the other carries on their argument alone. Running into the couple in the stairwell, the man considers asking them a spooky existential question, but restrains himself. Instead, with no comfort or wisdom to offer, he makes small talk about baseball. As the couple takes their leave, he watches as they turn “the key in their lock: male, female, it made no difference, they were the same person, and entered their tiny room, and I entered sleep.”
The beauty of that last line, with its surprising emphasis on the speaker’s sleep, is that it collapses the line between the real world of Ebbets Field and the larger universe of the imagination. You get the uneasy feeling that the couple is merely a fabrication of his fancy or a memory from his own romantic past—that we are all, in fact, locked in our own tiny room.
In Nurkse’s follow-up eleventh collection, the former poet laureate of Brooklyn has swapped the recent past of Ozone Park for an imaginary past of mythic forests. Yet his subjects are still tormented by love and confined to the little room of the self where each of us wages his or her private battles. Love in the Last Days: After Tristan and Iseult is a retelling, mostly in the form of dramatic monologues, of the popular medieval tale about a Cornish knight and an Irish Princess who fall in love after accidentally drinking a potion and as a consequence are banished to the forest by the king.
The influence of the Tristan and Iseult legend can’t be overstated. The story has come down to us for centuries in Celtic lays, German operas, and Czech verse. Even Bollywood has drawn on the story’s power. Yet despite its many remixes, the story’s principal theme has remained, and remains here, the lawlessness of love. That the lovers are held sway by a potion they drink unwittingly frees them from any responsibility for their subsequent actions—and it is that premise which gives the story its moral complexity. Like the couple in “The Next Apartment,” Tristan and Iseult are held hostage to a love that cannot, to paraphrase the French medievalist Joseph Bédier, be measured by social law but only judged by God.
Nurkse has fun with the myth, testing the tolerance of prudes. He places the lovers mid-fling in the king’s bed with the king’s sleeping arm hung across them, and sprinkles old-fashioned bawdy humor on the leper Ivain, who is forced to ring a bell to warn people of his presence:
More often than not, the men are on the receiving end of Nurkse’s jokes. Here is the servant Brangien narrating the scene—half violent, half comic—in which, at the behest of Iseult, she must take her mistress’ place in the bridal chamber:
(“The King’s Chamber”)
The dramatic monologue has an alienating, “one-person” effect befitting the plight of Nurkse’s protagonists, who feel estranged and bewildered by their attraction to one another. Tristan and Iseult are acted upon, repositioned by forces outside their will, like chess pieces (a running metaphor in the book), and the connection between them often seems as tenuous as that between Brangien and the King. After Tristan showers an indifferent Iseult with compliments, the young knight strides off, “almost happy to be me, just another sword, paid off with a title.”
Iseult is equally at a loss to explain her emotions. In one of her two monologues—as opposed to Tristan’s dozen or so—she comments dryly, “I love him for no reason, as you might laugh at the pine breeze.” Even at the end of the story, when her crew hoists a flag that will hasten Tristan’s death, Iseult admits a sort of behavioral impotence: “I did not command them not to and cannot say why not.”
A native of New Jersey and the son of Estonian immigrants, Nurkse has worn many professional hats—bartender, construction worker, harpsichord builder, street musician—before going on to teach at Sarah Lawrence College. His blue-collar background may account for his acute sensitivity to process and surface detail. (The poet himself has said as much in interviews.) It is that sensitivity—Nurkse’s relish for what Seamus Heaney mouthwateringly described as “the primal reach into the physical”—that brings this version of the legend to life. Every page of Love in the Last Days comes with a full supply of captivating stuff: a Toledo steel and argent-gules escutcheon, gooseberries in papery cases, plummy Vouvray. When this level of surface attention grounds the narrative, the effect is riveting. Take, for instance, the following scene in which Tristan watches a group of hunters divvy up the their spoils:
The care with which the action is described and the telling particulars—the twelve-pointed antlers means the animal is neither an imperial nor a monarch stag, but, like Tristan, “merely” royal—flesh out an otherwise predictable metaphor. (At the time of the scene, Tristan and Iseult are themselves being hunted in the woods.) The stag scene also looks ahead to the demise of the book’s narrator, an anonymous harp-maker who may or may not be another version of Tristan and is ultimately stretched on the rack. Occasionally the litany of objects becomes more of a tic than a tonic, as when Tristan’s horse catalogs the kinds of trees it trots by. Tics aren’t necessarily bad; they lend continuity to this series of monologues. That said, Love in the Last Days takes little interest in tonal variety. With the exception of Iseult, everyone, whether animal or vegetable, sounds a lot like Tristan—medium-cool, earthy, and slightly puzzled to find himself stuck in the same story.
The legend at the center of Canadian poet Sina Queyras’ fifth collection, My Ariel, is Sylvia Plath. But as the title acknowledges, the book also owes a large debt to another major American poet, Susan Howe. Like Howe’s contemporary classic My Emily Dickinson, Queyras’ My Ariel is a hybrid work that incorporates autobiography, biography, literary criticism, quotation, and artistic manifesto. There are poems that engage with Plath’s work—revisions and responses to poems in the original Ariel—and poems that take up the Plath myth, quoting freely from her letters and responses to her work by critics and peers, including Elizabeth Bishop, Elizabeth Hardwick, Marjorie Perloff and Anne Sexton.
Despite the abundance of biographical detail, My Ariel does not provide us with a definitive portrait of Plath. Literary biography is, at least partially, beside the point. Plath remains, as Queyras writes of another literary mother, “a destination one travels to but can never reach.” Instead the book is a record of Queyras’ reckoning with Plath, in which Queyras examines her own life and poetic career, and what it means to be a woman artist today.
If some of the arguments in My Ariel feel familiar, that is because our culture doesn’t appear to have moved far beyond Plath’s own era. Even in the age of identity politics and nonprofit feminist organizations like VIDA, women continue to come up against a patriarchal publishing world, feminist critics still struggle to place gender at the center of literary analysis and recover historically marginalized voices, and the derision of confessionalist poetry as self-absorbed or passé, especially when written by women, is ongoing. The reaction of Queyras’ peers when she expresses her interest in Plath goes to show how unsettled the question of Plath’s significance remains:
Plath, in Queyras’ experience, finds a better reception among the young. Her intensity, wit, and bucking of female literary norms—her indifference to being a “good girl”—make her a precursor for Riot Grrrl bands and superheroine chic:
The students will not bow, or pirouette, though they trace the stations of your exit, like Alice, diving into the wreck. They love all the plunges, all the feels. The layers. The layers. The rage. The ravage. The pills. The outfits. The wit. The sex. The smoulder. The double-barrelled insults, the eye rhymes, the sullen, the anger: the smart ones stab that and ride it, one middle finger erect in your face. The adoring ones sharpen your barbs, they would draw blood on your behalf, strap Ariel on their back and leap off tall buildings.
The irony of this passage is that, unlike Queyras’s peers, the students do not respond to Plath’s person (neither “bowing” nor “pirouetting” to her suicide) but to her work. The passage also helps us peel back one of the many layers of the book—that is, Queyras’ consideration of her own role within her generation. Queyras was born in 1963, the same year Plath took her own life, just early enough to make her a member of the baby boomer generation, and is now, by her own description, a “mama-daddy” who at “mid-life, all vitality spent” remains “unruly, bright as traffic pylons … loose and loud with life.” Queyras’s return to Plath—whose death at the age of 30 precluded her from ever growing old—suggests that Queyras refuses to accept the judgment of her peers.
This desire to remain young at heart is established immediately in the playful, in-your-face tone of the book’s pair of epigraphs:
The book’s youthful quality is further evidenced by Queyras’s liberal use of pop cultural references, from Beyoncé to “House of Cards.” (The first section of the book is titled “All the Dainty Broads,” presumably an echo of Beyoncé’s 2008 uptempo paean to jilted women, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).”) Many of the revisions or ghostings of Plath’s poems have an irreverent, entirely un-solemn quality to them. Here is the opening of Queyras’s version of “Morning Song”:
While the language has a teasing sophomoric quality to it, the poem raises serious themes that resonate throughout the book: the poet’s anxiety about the authenticity of her poetic enterprise and her own agency in its publication, her awareness that confessionalist art is largely performative, and her creeping sense that a book, Plath’s book, is staring back at her. The comparison of opening a Twitter account to giving birth is both a funny and sad statement about our unoriginal, quotation-saturated culture. By trading in Plath’s “Victorian nightgown” for a men’s nightshirt, the speaker may be saying she is free to choose or ignore gender. It may also mean that women continue to be defined by men. (As we are reminded in the collection, Plath’s Ariel was rearranged for publication by her husband, the poet Ted Hughes.)
All of this is prelude to the most poignant and autobiographical—or mythobiographical—section of My Ariel, entitled “Years,” a long poem in parts that interweaves Plath’s life with—if we take the poem at face value—Queyras’s own family history, particularly her relationship with her mother. Two years Plath’s junior, the mother in “Years” is, in the poem’s timeline, dying at home, a “ghost woman, floating on a berg in a large green room.” Visits to her mother prompt the speaker to reflect on the particulars of her mother’s life, especially her tumultuous marriage to the speaker’s father, the son of a French peasant. The comparison of the parents’ marriage to the marriage of Hughes and Plath is inevitable: both belong to a generation in which marriage was defined in part by Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
The mother in “Years” can be both funny and cruel in the way only mothers can be. “Why do you dress as if you want to disappear?” she asks, before going on to comment on her daughter’s “flat ass”: “It’s like you’re dragging matching luggage behind you.” The mother is, like Plath, both hero and victim—half Ava Gardner, half Marlon Brando—who could be bullied by a man for years yet in a moment of courage is capable of slamming a cop’s hand in a cruiser door. In her conflicted feelings about such a mother figure, the poet finds the most coherent expression for her engagement with Plath:
“I won’t bore you with my biography,” writes Nicole Sealey in Ordinary Beast, her slim but rich debut,
The poem, one of three sonnets in the collection entitled “legendary,” brings formal rigor—note the nimbly handled Shakespearean rhyme scheme—to bear on a subject often excluded from (especially formal) poetic spaces. Pepper Labeija is an African-American female impersonator featured in the documentary Paris Is Burning, a figure even the author of “My Mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” may never have envisioned as occupying the form. By “highlighting” Labeija’s résumé, Sealey elevates the performer’s life over the man’s, the life we define for ourselves over the life determined by the accidents of birth. Labeija may be immaterial “outside these walls,” but within the covers of Sealey’s book, Labeija’s kind takes pride of place.
Sealey, a native of the U.S. Virgin Islands and current Executive Director of the Cave Canem Foundation, likes to raise the height of her hurdles, adding formal constraints to already cramped forms. In one version of a sestina, rather than recycling end words, each line ends on a variation of the word “pit” (“Pity,” “Jolie-Pitt,” “pitter-patter,” etc.). There is also a double sestina with an extra envoy, an erasure of a double sestina, and a sonnet whose every line but one ends with the word “white.” A meditative cento runs along effortlessly and to great effect.
Her variations on traditional forms mirror the larger themes of Ordinary Beast, a book that thrives on the tension between memory and imagination, between the restrictions of the past and the autonomy of the creative mind. Sealey may not be interested in rehashing her biography but she is too acutely aware of the past, particularly the legacy of racism, to expect the imagination to sufficiently remedy it.
In a palindromic poem, “candelabra with heads,” the imagination’s ability to offer comforting images breaks down in the face of experience:
(“candelabra with heads”)
“candelabra with heads” is written in response to a 2006 sculpture by Thomas Hirschorn that features a group of mannequins suspended on a wooden scaffold and enveloped in brown packing tape, nothing exposed but a chin here and a forehead there. Unwitting viewers might mistake the mannequins, as Sealey’s speaker tells us, for the comforting image of “infants swaddled” or “fleshy fingers” or figures in a family tree. But a mind “made” by history cannot escape the reality of the past. “Who can see this,” she asks at the poem’s end, “and not see lynchings?”
That question sounds one part rhetorical and two parts damning. But in a defense of the poem later in the collection, Sealey returns to the question and answers it as if it were literal, attempting to conjure a person who might one day look at Hirschorn’s sculpture and miss the historical connection:
(“in defense of ‘candelabra with heads’”)
Sealey understands that poems can’t change history. Implicit in the word may is the poet’s recognition that the world she is describing is entirely hypothetical, and the placement of the poem in the right margin suggests the remoteness of her vision, the unlikelihood that people in the future will be unfamiliar with lynching.
The only unsurprising thing about this surprising and original debut is that it begins in the past and ends in the future. In the opening poem, “medical history,” a catalog of family maladies provides the speaker with an explanation of her own current propensities:
By understanding the past we can, of course, grasp our present circumstances and intuit the future. Yet history also provides too many examples that make any forecasts murky at best:
“Though we’re not so self-important as to think everything has led to this,” she writes in the last poem in the collection, “everything has led to this.” “Object Permanence” is a moving love poem that admits anxiety into the bedroom. Bewildered at their union, the lovers “[pet] the sheet to be sure” the other is there, and the speaker looks ahead to a time when she will miss the object of her affection—to a time when both are dead. If the denouement is downhearted, it may be because Sealey understands, even at the beginning of her career, that the imagination can steer physical forms toward their disintegration. In the future she imagines, her poems are no longer relevant to a reader’s direct experience. Or so, dear reader, she hopes.
Will Schutt is the author of Westerly (Yale University Press, 2013) and translator of My Life, I Lapped It Up: Selected Poems of Edoardo Sanguineti (Oberlin College Press, fall 2018).