A Country of Strangers: New and Selected Poems

Knopf. Apr. 2022. 304p. ISBN 9780593321409. $35. POETRY
What a stellar array of poems from Whiting/Guggenheim honoree Nurkse (Love in the Last Days), encompassing both new work and a large sampling of poems from 11 previous collections dating back to 1988. The settings range from thin-walled New York City apartments to wharves and factories to tree-circled lakes, while the subjects range from love, marriage, and parenthood to the world stage: wars, immigration, workers’ rights, protests, and displacement, including his parents’ flight from Nazism. The war poems are among the most striking, as when Nurkse imagines an Estonian couple escaping a damaged landscape or writes “They came back, to our village, to apologize./ But by then we were just eyes in the forest,/ whispers in an extinct language.” The most poignant poems involve children’s power to expand our lives, yet Nurkse also implies the unfathomable distance between people, whether parents, lovers, or children. The new section showcases many prose poems reflecting on mortality, while the natural world provides respite throughout (“Thrush or vireo, loud and invisible,/ slurring two maniac notes”).
VERDICT In intelligent, lyrical poems often tapping into deep emotion, Nurske brings humanity to his subjects. He could be describing the writing process itself when he says: “When I skipped rope before memory/ the song was already in my mouth.” Highly recommended.
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