We live on two sides of a divide. There are those, the innocent ones, who have never known sickness -- I mean real mortal illness, the kind that threatens to crush and annihilate you. There are others, the experienced ones, who have crossed to the other side, who have heard the diagnosis and felt the terror, staring into the abyss. These initiates of the second kingdom look back at the fortunate ones -- were they really among them once? -- and recognize that paradise is perfect health.
In his fine new book of poems, The Fall, D. Nurkse includes a striking group of poems about confronting serious illness -- and therefore one's own mortality -- in midlife. The prologue poem dramatizes the exact moment in ordinary life when a man finds himself standing on the very threshold of the divide. He enacts the instant of crossing over. I read this poem and feel the dizzying sensation of tottering on the edge of a great cliff.
The Threshold As I waited for the doctor
I realized nothing was wrong with me,
just a voice whispering the word
triage, a few sleepless nights,
a change in the weather, great winds
visible in the crests of trees
I could glimpse through a vent
at the far end of the corridor,
the immense power of dreams
unchecked by waking. . . .
And I prepared to apologize
for presuming on his time -- perhaps
the apology itself would waste
a minute marked for a real patient --
but he arrived from nowhere,
took my hand, and spoke
calmly, consolingly, as to a child,
yes, yes, he'd seen the tests,
in fact he had them on his person,
somewhere in his calfskin briefcase --
and I watched his lips, avid for a pause,
so I could whisper: it's all a mistake.
Nurkse returns to the subject of illness in the third and final section of his book. The most haunting of these poems are set in a hospital and have an almost hallucinatory quality, such as "Music from an Inner Room" ("Once I heard the cry of someone suffering:/ a voice that seemed to listen to itself"); "Tests" ("The light made dreams impossible"); and "Leaving Mary Magdalene," which closes the collection and dramatizes the terror and excitement of leaving the hospital with a reprieve.
Leaving Mary Magdalene As I was signing out
a guard shuffled up to me
and put his frail hand on my sleeve
asking for discharge papers.
I emptied my pockets.
A snapshot of my child,
sweat-stained, curling inwards.
A Victory dime, a Wheatsheaf penny.
A wisp of thread, a die, a comb.
I looked at him in terror.
He stared back baffled,
angry I had no defense.
A radio was piping in Vivaldi.
I wanted to ask, was it arthritis
that gave him that constant mild tremor
and kept the buttons of his tunic open.
Finally he closed his eyes
and breathed: go,
as if my need were a force like time
and had exhausted him.
I swept up the pennies
and lint from the gleaming counter
afraid to say Thank you
and walked through the winking lights,
the heat shield, the self-opening gates,
into those ice-encrusted streets
where I first learned to be no one.
(D. Nurkse's poems "The Threshold" and "Leaving Mary Magdalene" appear in his book "The Fall." Alfred A. Knopf. Copyright © 2002 by D. Nurkse.