‘Voices Over Water’: D. Nurkse and the Through-Narrative

Hello again. Firstly I ought to start with an apology…it’s been ages since I last posted anything, but I promise I’ve been keeping busy. Essays, musicals, races, exams, internships (okay, well just one internship!), etc., all of which have been or still are great fun and very rewarding, but haven’t left me time to scribble anything coherent, worthwhile or blog-worthy. And I don’t want to write things on here for the sake of keeping the blog “fresh”, contrary to established thinking on the art of blogging. So, sorry if it seems that this has become somewhat stale – I like to think of this blog not as a freshly-baked, daily dose of loaf, but rather of each post as an individually wrapped bake-at-home bun, still warm from the oven and tasting just as good but only baked when required, rather than rolled out mechanically every morning. I mean, what if you don’t want rolls for breakfast? What if you want muesli?
Anyway, this tenuous metaphor aside, I want to tell you about the joys of reading a collection of poetry from cover to cover. Last month the University of Brum was lucky enough to host Dennis Nurkse (he writes as D. Nurkse, but with him it somehow isn’t pretentious) for a reading and Q&A in the Arts Main Lecture Theatre, a room that couldn’t really lend itself less to intimacy, save for replacing the beige blinds with barbed wire. Still he managed it, inviting an utterly enraptured audience in to some of the most personal and fragile moments of his own and his ancestors’ pasts. Nurkse read from, among other things, his 2011 Forward Prize shortlisted ‘Voices Over Water’ (first published in the States in ’96), a moving collection that is simultaneously a portrait of a country and a married couple. The country is Estonia and the man and wife are Nurkse’s grandparents, who emigrated to Canada shortly before the second World War. When reading, Nurkse had a remarkable knack of presenting each poem with almost emphasis-less objectivity; not monotonous or uninteresting, but quietly powerful. All of the meaning was drawn from his words, not from the way he spoke them. Or, perhaps, perversely, it because of the fact that he was able to transcend the personal poignancy of his own writing in order to put his poetry first that it harnessed such power. Whatever the reason, it was exquisite, so naturally I ran straight to Waterstones (walked at normal speed, the next day) and purchased the book. ‘Voices Over Water’ was the first poetry collection I’ve ever read straight through, in printed order, in a short space of time, and it was far more rewarding than I could have imagined. In the course of two days (or rather two evenings of two days) I poured over the three parts (‘Leaving Estonia’, ‘High Canada’, ‘Easter Snow’), traced threads of character and voice through every poem; sometimes explicit, often deliciously latent. I realised that, in the hands of someone as efficient as Nurkse, poetry can produce a narrative at least as fluid as prose. Each title becomes a chapter heading, and what follows is an abstraction, or single, well-wrought moment, in a long, meandering journey, not all of which is documented, but what is is rendered so harmoniously that nothing seems wanting or unexplored. Indeed, anything else might be superfluous, so vivid and real are these characters and the scenes they inhabit. To pick out a favourite poem (although, of course, there are highlights) would be to say ‘Chapters II, IX and XXVI are the best’ when really you ought to read the whole novel.

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2 thoughts on “‘Voices Over Water’: D. Nurkse and the Through-Narrative

  1. Pingback: Ledbury Poetry Festival #1 : Owen Sheers « Ben Norris

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