Love in the Last Days: After Tristan and Iseult

D. Nurkse. Knopf, $27 (112p) ISBN 978-0-451-49480-1
Former Brooklyn poet laureate Nurkse (A Night in Brooklyn) transports readers to the “imaginary past known as The Last Days” in his 11th collection, rendering his own haunting version of the story of Tristan and Iseult. The collection follows the narrative of the medieval legend by threading together a mosaic of monologues, most of which belong to Tristan, who talks of his battle wound (“it hurt always, like another soul”) and catalogues strange encounters while hunting. Tristan observes Iseult with wonder and doom: “we were not made for each other,/ but to be the other’s obstacle,/ cherished and loathed like the self.” Nurkse’s Iseult is stoic; her actions prove her to be self-sustaining and magical. Tristan confesses, “I thought we would negotiate/ in the wild, she would be less a Queen./ But no. Each day she wears her robe and crown/ more imperiously, though they are pollen and dew.” Minor players benefit from Nurkse’s crisp attention to detail and knack for contextualization. A character named the chronicler, for example, “chooses fresh pumice and abrades the vellum—/ caul of a stillborn calf—and starts to doodle/ in the soft margin.” Nurkse makes this familiar story something alien, new, and fascinating; like the potion that Tristan and Iseult share, it’s easy to fall under his spell. (Sept.)
Reviewed on: 08/21/2017
Release date: 09/12/2017
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