D. Nurkse: Early Anthropocene

D. Nurkse: Early Anthropocene
November 2, 2013 Plume

Plume: The closing line of the poem “Anthropocene”published by the Virginia Quarterly Review in 2007- asks the question: Is there shelter in the blank page? Similarly, one could ask if humankind takes shelter in the start of its own “blank page,” in the continuous restart which is always the awareness of there being a new day, a next day, and a tomorrow. In this poem, “Early Anthropocene,” Anti-Earth (or any of the other “Anti” references) can be viewed as that which is taking place elsewhere during our moments of observation or lack thereof; the closing stanza, hi-lighting mankind’s misalignment of mindfulness, as though we are never in line with a much-needed key observation, that ah-hah! moment needed to positively transcend this current epoch. Would you care to expand on this view of the poem and on that which seems to be a gesturing towards an “Anti-Observation”?

DN: “Is there shelter in the blank page?” meant:  ‘here I, the speaker, end, and the margin begins. You agreed with me, but now will you adapt to silence?’ I had trouble with the question, though. In context, it’s a little preachy.  It smuggles in a desired answer. It’s not sufficiently defenseless.

”Anti-Earth” I took from Pythagoras. He uses the concept to round out a gamatria series. In this poem, it might mean the universe of signs. The world of the equation, in which identity mirrors itself. As opposed to the world of sparrows, cranky dogs, and almost-rain.

Hannah Arendt gets chills when she quotes Archimedes saying “give me a lever long enough and I could move the earth.”  She bridles at situating truth outside mortality.  

I grew up in the Cold War.  Yes, there were squirrels and acorns, but the possibility of annihilating them had already been factored in, discounted.  I gave assent to that. It was so radical an idea, it seemed fussy to object. That could be an early “anti-observation.” I like your term. “Anti-Earth” could be the world of the simulation. Where there’s the possibility of downloading your brain onto a self-regulating machine.


Plume: The title “Early Anthropocene” is interesting. Fragmenting this specific geological epoch to a point where one references it as “early” is effectively troublesome, because the word “early”, and the repetitive use of “Even then” in the stanzas that follow, in turn, ask how far we are into this Anthropocene. This, with the opening stanza, really hones in on the passing of time and all that one can miss in a moment and or a culmination of moments. Lapses of time and the knowing that something was missed during those moments play a key role in many of your poems, but especially “Early Anthropocene.” How important is time, both literally and figuratively, to you, and to what extent does its power have in shaping your poems? The last 3 lines of part 2 come to mind:

The whole idea of space
and time
was between us and it.

DN: The poem is very much about time. I hope the reader has a sense of the time of the forecast and computer model playing against the time of the body.


Plume: If the lack of mass protest is one example of an Anti-Wave, what are some of the others, in your opinion?  The current re-embrace of post-apocalyptic stories, both in the literary world and film industry, is one example that comes to mind as almost an unapologetic, “we will end up here regardless” wave; a wave that prophetically and paradoxically promotes an outcome rather than suggesting movement to stop the endless scenarios of apocalypse.

DN: The Anti-Wave could stand for all the things we know but don’t act on. All the information which feeds on itself and never breaks through to daylight. It also refers to my abstraction of the realities of nature. I was at the XL pipeline demonstration in DC in February. The Caucasian speakers seemed to think of nature as a past to be preserved. The First Nation representatives spoke of Manitou: provoke this force and you will vanish.

In early versions of this poem, I had “the shift”; I was thinking of the tipping point.

I worry about disaster porn. It’s a problem with this poem. Am I just coaxing a mesmerizing spectacle to the page? In league with thanatos? In my defense: I only work here.


Plume: One of the recurrent subjects in your writing is physical challenge/the failure of the body. Is it fair to say that here, an observance can be made regarding the failure of the spirit and its capabilities to make waves of positive change or benefit?

DN: Yes.


Plume: At times it appears that the couple in the poem is attempting to rekindle love or at least work on maintaining a love that is present between them. In what way does this parallel our relationship with the world we live in?

DN: That’s a deep question. I wanted this to be a love poem. I have no idea why…


Plume: A bit from the start of the poem: anti- elegiac, archeological, “erasure” in poetry – do any of these apply?

          one showed a man on his knees 
          presenting a ring to a woman
          whose face had peeled back to plywood.

DN: In the world of the sign, I have no privacy, not even from myself. I open my email for news of myself. The couple in the poem is seeing their intimacy mirrored back to them at random angles.


Plume: These lines:

the anti-wave was a Hokusai print 
with an ersatz Mount Fuji;

I have this print above me as I write: is there a doubling of the distance, the inferior – “print” and “ersatz?” As perhaps a B & B is an ersatz home? As you know, an odd perspective of Mt. Fuji in this print: diminished, observant. And so the distance tripled? Distance from what – or all? See, too:

but when we came closer
we saw they were an exact copy,
not the person.

DN: This poem is all about the simulacra. In La Vita Nuova, Dante sees a vision which warns him against the simulacra. Everything here, from the poem itself to anti-earth, is a simulacrum.


Plume: How did you write this poem? This interests me: did it unfurl in one long swoop and then revision? Piece by piece? Each new piece a revelation? Was there much revision aside from the particular – was the narrative in your mind as you wrote or reveal itself as you wrote? How long, would you say, you worked on this? (I am starting to sound like Padget Powell in The Interrogative Mood – sorry.)

DN: It takes me forever to write a poem. Usually there’s a mass of junk and then a flick of revision makes it come alive. Or at least twitch. In earlier versions of the final stanza, I had all kinds of lame orbs—Wormwood, man-made stars, Atherel, Koab. Some of that I could use elsewhere.


Plume: When an especially pleasing image comes or series of images – for example —

here and there plywood was pried from a window 
so you could see clear to the next highway.
The landscape flattened as if ruled
by a spirit level, the last dusty gingkos vanished–
surely some were art projects made of recycled tin–
we passed a padlocked aquarium.
In a doorway an old woman knitting
glanced up as we slowed to wave,
but bit her lip and bent to her work
as if a secret were being revealed there.
Mile after mile of empty compound,
padlocked resorts, mini golfs in the moonlight,
giant concrete Squids and Porpoises,
drained swimming pools with high twisting slides.

does this impel you to continue writing – or knock off for the day?

DN: I’ll have more coffee.


Plume: How much does enjambment interest you? It doesn’t seem a great presence here, or at least not a heavy-handed one.

DN: I love enjambment. If it’s not here, it’s because this poem is a little disembodied, oneiric. Enjambment gives you a physical entrée. Thud of the pulse.


Plume: “where the sea once was,” The Aral Sea in your mind? Something of an anti-Balboa feel. Does this make sense?

DN: Yes, the Aral Sea, but also the ocean receding to the horizon in the seconds before a tsunami. Millions of people died in the last great tidal waves but we have no Shoreline Security. I was thinking of the thrill of the times when nature offers no resistance, and the danger is in the sense of omnipotence.


Plume: A masterful stroke, the “rising in the west” and the use of the present rather than the future tense: “the planet on which we live forever.” Shivers. How did that come to you? Do you recall where and when?

DN: It’s a bad joke—‘we could find technical means to prolong individual life artificially forever, but the external world, the planet, could be hurt beyond recovery’. Grinding my teeth on that led me to the current ending.  


Plume: The grind of sending out work – how do you manage?

DN: It’s a blue-collar thing. You make a chair, someone likes it, someone doesn’t. It’s healthy. Your poems can’t climb into your brain and boss you around if an intern is making them into kitty litter.


Plume: Does print have a hold on you still, or have you come to terms with digital?

DN: Print. Digital is the simulacrum. Except for Plume.


Plume: Early influences?

DN: My mom was part French and I loved Michaux, Supervielle, Apollinaire. Lorca. The Duino Elegies. Blues lyrics. Sparse poets like Reznikoff and Blaise Cendrars. I love them all more even now.


Plume: And, of course, who are you reading now, what pleases you – and what doesn’t?

DN: I had the honor of working with dg nanouk okpik. She has beautiful recent poems. Novels of Agata Kristof and Patrick Modiano.  I’m re-reading Louis MacNiece and Marilyn Hacker; they are masters.

12 October 2013



Early Anthropocene

We drove down a road cut
in the center of a disused highway.

Southward through that ferrous moraine
billboards flew backwards,
mossed-over, streaked with mold–
one showed a man on his knees
presenting a ring to a woman
whose face had peeled back to plywood.

No traffic. Long winding tunnels.
Pine torches: the moth people,
camping since the war.

We touched each other lightly.
What if we hit a child?
Would we dare stop?
For we were speeding,
sometimes glancing in joy at the needle
trembling before the highest zero.

We slept in a motel
with the motif of the anti-wave
embossed in the ashtray and drapes.

We rested at a Bauhaus campus
where the anti-tsunami was rendered
as a small mechanical fountain
at the center of a concrete plaza.
There were no students.

Next night we spent in a B & B
–the anti-wave was a Hokusai print
with an ersatz Mount Fuji;
a rhinestone child was fishing
in a black velvet sequined ocean.

We kissed politely, perfunctorily,
as if the unwavering white line
were ruled in our bodies also,
and then lay listening for rain.

We thought, it’s human like us.

That helped us sleep without dreams.



Remember the old days, when we protested?
Those meetings were packed:
unions, churches, synagogues, mosques,
with their great banners warning:
if Coriolis turns, it will be too late.

The speaker said:
if you each convince two friends,
and they each
convince two friends…

But it was just us, hand in hand:
sometimes in those surging crowds
we thought to see a high school friend,
an old dentist, a track coach,
but when we came closer
we saw they were an exact copy,
not the person. Or a strange shame
kept us from acknowledging them.

Even then, museums were devoted to the anti-wave.
The walls whitewashed, dazzling,
the floors colonial oak, obsessively varnished.
No velvet ropes: just a dozen tasteful dioramas,
the consequence glittering in electronic spume.

Even then, the lowlands were emptying.

In storefront churches
the anti-tide was worshiped as judgment.
It was chiseled on tombstones.
Once we found a penny
with the anti-tsunami instead of Lincoln,
the reverse already worn smooth.

Even then, if people mentioned it,
they said, unimaginably swift,
but less so than you expected–
but what could they know?
The whole idea of space and time
was between us and it.



In the plains we found a drive-in
and parked and ordered popcorn.
On the screen the violence of waiting
revealed itself with an eloquence
we could never have imagined.
We made love as I always wanted to
in those few feet of hard breath
behind the gem-like dials.

There were no other customers.
The clerk who took our sheaf of piastres
had been too listless to count them.



At Gilead the billboards changed:
sometimes an old couple,
she pushing him in a wheelchair,
sometimes just great blurred figures
you knew by instinct were naked.

The lights of the city
hardened in the night sky.



So we passed the outskirts,
the zone of mock-Tudor libraries
consecrated to Anthropocene,
the history of its thousand thresholds,
how its parameters correlate
in the mind, numbers, language,
the recurring dreams of childhood,
the trembling of foliage:
its causes, the attempts to stop it,
the counter-theories, the solutions:
freighters full of iron filings:
green algae: the brick in the toilet:
the calibrated showerhead:
methane traps, fermented corn husks.

Wreathed in ribbon wire,
the Institutes that measure height and speed,
pressure, velocity, potential whirlpools.

Buttressed rectangular buildings
with an occasional high window still lit
where the simulations are stored,
the print-outs, the papier-maché models.

Once we actually saw a worker
in a high office, scribbling calculations
under a gooseneck lamp
and we thought, ‘even here,’ ‘as in childhood.’

We passed the riverfront warehouses
where the speeches, petitions, protest letters
are saved–for nothing has ever been destroyed.

Zinc-windowed facades scrawled with letters,
fragments of huge names, impossibly stylized–
we recognized ‘Thor,’ ‘Shiva,’
here and there plywood was pried from a window
so you could see clear to the next highway.



The landscape flattened as if ruled
by a spirit level, the last dusty gingkos vanished–
surely some were art projects made of recycled tin–
we passed a padlocked aquarium.

In a doorway an old woman knitting
glanced up as we slowed to wave,
but bit her lip and bent to her work
as if a secret were being revealed there.

Mile after mile of empty compound,
padlocked resorts, mini golfs in the moonlight,
giant concrete Squids and Porpoises,
drained swimming pools with high twisting slides.

We arrived at the place where the sea once was,
basalt littoral strewn with volutes,
latticed arabesque grooves where shells
had crumbled and blown away, wisps of nori,
blocky hermit exoskeletons, whorled conches.

The car jolted a little, the task
soon over–we drove toward sunrise,
sometimes touching each other on the cheek
or the thigh, our wheels swerving
imperceptibly of their own accord, hydroplaning.
A curtain of spray rose around us.

At first light we braked and clambered out,
a little dizzy under the towering horizon.
Damp sand bunched between our toes.
Braided rubbery kelp chambers
popped under the balls of our feet.

The car dwindled behind us.
The haze of towers dimmed.
A new cold rose to our ankles.
We kissed, thanked each other,
and stumbled on, righting each other
with a hand to the elbow,
salt at our thighs–ahead of us

a buoy tolling at the horizon,
and rising in the west, Anti-Earth,
the planet on which we live forever.



D. Nurkse is the author of numerous books of poetry, including A Night in BrooklynThe Border Kingdom, and Burnt Island. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Poetry, The American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, The Times Literary Supplement (London), Ploughshares, The Paris Review, and the Best American Poetry series. He has taught advanced workshops at The Writer’s Voice, The New School, and the Brooklyn College MFA Program. He teaches at Sarah Lawrence.