D. Nurkse's "First Grade Homework"
Thoughts on turning toward the light.
First Grade Homework
The child’s assignment: “What is a city?” All dusk she sucks her pencil while cars swish by like ghosts, neighbors’ radios forecast rain, high clouds, diminishing winds: at last she writes: “The city is everyone.” Now it’s time for math, borrowing and exchanging, the long discipleship to zero, the stranger, the force that makes us what we study: father and child, writing in separate books, infinite and alone. from A Country of Strangers (Knopf, 2022)
I’ve written about D. Nurkse’s work before, and now I am writing about it again. He was my first serious poetry teacher, and really my only one. In that post, back in 2021, I wrote that Nurkse:
is my answer, perhaps, to the question that I never get asked but would love to get asked: which poet —who doesn’t already have a collected or selected poems published — would you love to see publish an edition of their collected or selected poems?
And now that dream has come true, and D. Nurkse has a book of selected poems out in the world, titled A Country of Strangers. Nurkse is not just my answer to that aforementioned question; he is also — along with Linda Gregg, Larry Levis, Wanda Coleman, and maybe a handful of other poets — one of the people whose writing I turn to when I feel slightly disconnected from poetry. There’s something about his work that stills me and grounds me back into tangible, deeply felt realness. The sounds of things. The shadow-play against a wall. The sorrow underneath it all.
Maybe you have those people, too? Those touchstones? When I feel disconnected from the sentence, the paragraph, the book, I turn to someone like John McPhee — whose birthday is in a few days. And then I am reminded about what a book can do, or just a paragraph. I remember. Oh yes, I say: a book can do that.
See this little burst of prose, from McPhee’s book Oranges:
An orange grown in Florida usually has a thin and tightly fitting skin, and it is also heavy with juice. Californians say that if you want to eat a Florida orange you have to get into a bathtub first. California oranges are light in weight and have thick skins that break easily and come off in hunks. The flesh inside is marvelously sweet, and the segments almost separate themselves. In Florida, it is said that you can run over a California orange with a ten-ton truck and not even wet the pavement.
It’s just perfect. It really is. Reading a few sentences like this is like looking at the inside of an old still-ticking clock, or opening a can of tennis balls, or seeing a thin rivulet of water join another and become a stream — seemingly unrelated things but immensely satisfying. It makes you glad, as Denis Johnson writes, to feel “finally a part / of such machinery.” And I think that’s the feeling I miss when I feel disconnected from my writing, or writing in general. It’s a feeling of seeing the world and feeling not-quite-in-it, and not knowing how to put that feeling into language, into the machinery of curiosity or unknowing or wonder that writers construct out of their way of being in the world. Strange machinery, isn’t it, this stuff we try to do? But brilliant and beautiful.
Today’s poem, originally from Nurkse’s 2001 book The Rules of Paradise, echoes a newer poem published as part of Nurkse’s A Country of Strangers. That poem, “Lullaby,” reads in full:
I rocked the child in the crook of my arm and mouthed "Goodnight Irene" until her moth-wing eyelids twitched, the sobbing stopped, she seemed bewildered not to wail, breath came easy. I set her down softly on her mother's quilt. Then I felt the loneliness of a planet falling into nothing, nothing, nothing.
Both today’s poem and this poem end with a kind of infinite loneliness, a deep separation that feels final the moment it is realized. It’s hard not to be reminded, in that final line of the poem just above, of Macbeth’s soliloquy that begins “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” — how it echoes its way toward a realization of our brevity and our loneliness. Our solitude lingers within us and can appear so quickly and so abruptly, a realization that makes what is intimate feel so wildly distant in the span of less than a second. It can’t even be quantified. We are lonely when we realize it.
Today’s poem, which ends with the word alone, is a careful construction. It is sixteen lines in total, and it is divided neatly into two halves, each consisting of eight lines. The first half is perhaps the reason I was drawn to the poem at first:
The child’s assignment: “What is a city?” All dusk she sucks her pencil while cars swish by like ghosts, neighbors’ radios forecast rain, high clouds, diminishing winds: at last she writes: “The city is everyone.”
There is an immense fullness and breadth of witness to these short eight lines. The poem begins, almost cheekily, with a prompt. It is the kind of prompt you or I might use to write a poem — What is a city? — but here, Nurkse couches it inside the poem, and creates — in some ways — a poem within a poem. Notice the beauty of these lines. The singsongy quality of the phrase All dusk she sucks her pencil. The cars that swish by / like ghosts. Almost immediately, and with tender intimacy, Nurkse places us in the same room as this innocent listening. And that’s what it is, right? Innocent listening? This first half of today’s poem details a child taking a prompt and feeling her way toward a response. Listening. Wondering. Hearing. Being a part, like I said earlier, of this strange and full and beautiful machinery. It is — yes, it is — a poem within a poem. And a reminder. A reminder of what curiosity can offer us before it is limited and rationalized toward something, often at some cost. These lines remind me of the beauty of trying to answer a question by listening and wondering.
They also remind me of another poem of Nurkse’s — “A Night in Brooklyn.” In that poem, Nurkse uses one single, tumbling, beautiful sentence to remind us of the way that we build our world through our noticing, our listening, our sensing and our sense-making — all these things that make up our love and our lives:
We undid a button, turned out the light, and in that narrow bed we built the great city— water towers, cisterns, hot asphalt roofs, parks, septic tanks, arterial roads, Canarsie, the intricate channels, the seacoast, underwater mountains, bluffs, islands, the next continent, using only the palms of our hands and the tips of our tongues, next we made darkness itself, by then it was time for dawn and we closed our eyes and counted to ourselves until the sun rose and we had to take it all to pieces for there could be only one Brooklyn.
Beautiful, right? We make and unmake and remake the world through what we imagine of this life together.
So much of Nurkse’s work revolves around this idea of making and unmaking and remaking. And I think that part of the craft of today’s poem is the way that these opening lines form a seemingly-simple call and response:
“What is a city?”
“The city is everyone.”
But in between this question and this answer is literally everything else. The child’s listening. The city of neighbors. The city of sounds. The city of images sweeping past in delicate plays of light and shadow. We know, as readers, that contained within the child’s answer is all of that. Because we were there. We were given the privilege of listening alongside her. We heard the neighbor’s radios, the cars swishing past. We know that all of that immense and incalculable wholeness is contained within the child’s four words: The city is everyone. It makes me wonder, as a teacher, how often I have neglected the possibility that, within some answer that felt unsatisfactory to me, there might be that same unsayable wholeness, that same degree of listening, that same impossible-to-describe manifesting of the world, as it is and will always be — big, vast, intimate, lovely, terrifying, real, and, for at least a little longer, full of us.
The second half of today’s poem reads as follows:
Now it’s time for math, borrowing and exchanging, the long discipleship to zero, the stranger, the force that makes us what we study: father and child, writing in separate books, infinite and alone.
Almost as if enacting a math problem, Nurkse uses these lines to divide the poem back to zero. In the first eight lines, the poem is grounded in the acts of listening and noticing, and then it moves to the next assignment, which Nurkse relates away from curiosity and toward borrowing and exchanging — making clear the relationship between arithmetic and debt and capital and all such things. I’m struck by something in these lines — Nurkse’s choice of the phrase long discipleship / to zero rather than long division / to zero. It’s an important distinction, I think, as it situates the speaker’s perspective as one that is wary of our allegiance toward division as opposed to our practice of it as a study. The practice of this subject is fine, the speaker seems to be saying, but the discipleship that follows — the way it makes strangers of neighbors, and the overwhelming and snowballing force of it all — is what causes this poem to end with an infinite loneliness.
I don’t think of this poem as some simplistic critique of math at all. I say this as someone who is absolutely smitten by math. Someone who sits in my high school’s calculus class during my free period. Someone who once, in my early days of attempting to publish, sent a wildly long and almost certainly disjointed request to Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series, asking to write a book about asymptotes. I don’t think I’ve ever been rejected more quickly. That no came swift and almost violently. But I tried. Maybe I’ll try again.
But yes, what I see Nurkse illustrating here is less about math and more about how easily we turn to acts of division and diminishment, especially when given the tools to do so. Nurkse enacts it here. He begins the poem with eight lines that could exist alone as a poem — a simple one, curious and wonder-filled and gentle. But then he purposefully diminishes those lines with what follows. He continues the evening. He reminds us that even moments of innocent beauty can become so quickly isolated. He takes us out of the room where we listened to the swishing cars and staticky radios, and he closes the door behind us. In doing so, I think Nurkse reminds us of how often we do this in our own lives. How often we divide and diminish. How often we close the door on wonder — and, especially, wonder experienced among others — and then experience our loneliness alone. Yes. We often experience our loneliness alone. I’d rather, at the very least, experience it with others.
I want to dwell longer in the opening lines of today’s poem, which are lines that remind me about how incomparably wonderful it is just to sit and think, and about how there is something beautiful about curiosity no matter if you are in first grade or if you are deep into adulthood. Recently, whether because of articles that lament the impact of AI chat bots on student writing or others that consider the possibility that the English major is a dying breed, I’ve encountered a near-constant stream of hypothesizing about the death of the humanities — and with it, critical thinking and creative wondering. Usually, these articles are not written by teachers who think about these things all of the time. And, though some of these articles offer salient points and worthwhile considerations, they still sometimes feel so distant from the reality that they are trying to speak to.
So many things, to me, are beside the point. We live in a world that constantly seeks to diminish us while, at the same time, extolling our possibility to be unlimited. When AI chatbot software is released at the same time as enrollment in the humanities is declining, then, yes, it’s just a weird universe in which to be alive. But all of these developments seem to forget something so simple: the idea that, well, some things — like thinking, or watching a beam of light stroll down the avenue, or thinking about a question for a long time, chewing on the end of a pencil as the cars swish away toward wherever they’re going — are good for their own sake.
In all my years of teaching, I’ve learned that it is easier to use the world at large in order to communicate the purpose of something I am trying to teach. As a high school teacher in an area that has historically been marginalized and disenfranchised, I can tell you with certainty that many of our students are guided towards STEM fields, and that many of our corporate partners actively seek students who are interested in STEM. In this sense, it’s easier to link a lesson to some future monetized skill, to remind students that they might need whatever tool of literature or writing in their jobs, to say a phrase like soft skills. What is harder — and, I’d argue, immensely more important — is to communicate how whatever I am teaching is simply good for its own sake, how it might lead to a fuller life, and how it is good — amidst all of this ceaseless and arbitrary distraction — to try to be more wholly here, whatever wholly means for you. I care less about my students becoming English majors or relying in an oddly heavily way on AI software than I do about the danger and deep sadness of them living passive lives. I’d rather my students know — quite simply — that they can make a decision at any moment to pay attention, to notice, to turn their heads, and to remember in such a moment that they have agency to do that one small action. To remember that their curiosity is part of who they are.
My worry is that there is so much more to refuse now. So much more to witness and say no, I don’t need that. So much more that might change the child’s answer in today’s poem from the city is everyone to the city is me, or — even worse — to something like what city or what world? I worry that the first eight lines of today’s poem might not be true anymore, that we might reach a point where we no longer sit in stillness and think about all of us, here together and alive, moving through the world. I believe that you have to practice being active in thought and awareness so that you can know what to turn away from, and, better still, so that you can know that you can turn at all — turn and turn and turn toward the light. It’s less about the poem or the novel or the story for me than it is about this fact of turning. To know that I live in a world that is full of people still trying to turn away from and turn toward, still trying to look and look again, to smile at having seen something, to laugh and to point and to wonder and to notice — to know that this is happening, and that it is happening because of you, and you, and you, and to read it and to see it and to hear it and to love it — that is one of the great joys of life. It is one of the reasons why I love it here, even and especially when it is hard.
A Recurring Note:
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Beautiful, Devin. Thank you for writing it.
Thank you for your writing and for reminding us that writing for writing’s sake is sheer beauty.