New York, NY: Knopf/Random House, 2017. 104 pages. $27.00
I’m a sucker for courtly love motifs—the wounded deer, the unavailable lover paralleled by the untouchable Grail—and I’m especially interested in how contemporary poets change the tradition in their work. Shelley Puhak, for example, puts Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere in a contemporary East Coast city in Guinevere in Baltimore (Waywiser, 2013). In a suite of poems in The Poem She Didn’t Write and Other Poems (Copper Canyon, 2014), Olena Kalytiak Davis gives voice to Francesca, the courtly lover whose adultery and murder is described in Canto V of Dante’s Inferno.
This fall, D. Nurkse’s Love in the Last Days: After Tristan and Iseult adds to that list of contemporary contemplations of courtly love texts. Nurkse, the author of ten previous collections of poetry, said in an interview that the psychological and “subversive” elements of the story of Tristan and Iseult appeal to him: “The plot pokes at the underpinnings of patriarchy—what if love and obedience are radically different? I’ve always been fascinated by the lovers’ escape to the wilderness; as if the impenetrable forest stood for the untamed part of the mind.”
The Tristan and Iseult legends appear first in twelfth-century texts but are perhaps known best by today’s readers because of a section of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (or the 2006 movie with James Franco). As with most courtly stories, there are many versions, but Nurkse sticks with the basic elements: warrior Tristan is tasked with bringing the fair Iseult back to his uncle’s kingdom, but on the way, they drink a potion and fall in love. Adultery and tricks to avoid detection ensue, and when they’re found out, the two escape into the forest of Morois, where they’re eventually discovered.
Nurkse keeps the setting similar to the old tales: a medieval-ish forest (though he describes it as taking place in an apocalyptic “last days”), shepherds, swords, and horseback riding. But one of his improvements on the original is giving the characters awareness that they’re in a legend and familiarity with the psychology behind courtly styles of love. In one of the few poems spoken by Iseult (“Queen of the Land of No Sleep”), for example, she notes that “Every great love has an obstacle. Ours was us. / … The Chronicle tells the rest fairly accurately.”
Tristan recognizes too that courtly love can be narcissistic, as the lover projects his ideal self onto the blankness he sees in the beloved:
She whispered my name, but backwards,
since we were not made for each other,
but to be the other’s obstacle,
cherished and loathed like the self.
In “The Hold” and other poems, Nurkse explores well the psychology of the lovers, Tristan in particular. In “Black Winter Stars,” several birds explain to Tristan that “It’s death you love, not her” and that “You confused Iseult with your mother.”
The other pleasure in reading this project is the range of forms. By structuring the book through the built-in narrative of the legend and taking time to delve into the particular settings (the sea journey, the castle at Logres, the forest of Morois, etc.), Nurkse has space to let the poems find their ideal shape. From long, discursive lines to centered stanzas to concrete and prose poems, the variety of styles keeps the collection lively. Yet the choices never feel gimmicky or forced. One of my favorites is “The Grail,” which enacts the presence of the infamous goblet as an absent space in a field of text made up of the repeated word “Morois,” the name of the forest in which the Grail is hidden. Another (“The King’s Sword”), in thin columns, echoes the bodies of the lovers and the sword King Mark places between them when he finds them in their forest hovel.
Along with the variety of forms comes a variety of speakers—in addition to Tristan (our most frequent speaker), we hear from Iseult’s servant, Tristan’s horse, his dog, a spring of water, the fire, and the Grail itself. My one disappointment with Love in the Last Days, however, is that it fails to challenge the tradition of the medieval courtly texts, which portray the beloved woman as flawless and unapproachable—and almost never give her voice.
Nurkse’s Iseult is well rounded and, in a way, realistic, with sour-smelling armpits and lice. She has a certain amount of power, too; she wields Tristan’s sword “without permission” in the forest, still the “imperious” Queen. Early on, she mocks him, saying he sings “like a girl,” and in “Ceol Sidhe” she plays a harp she makes from a mulberry root and vole intestines. “She was like God, she didn’t want intimacy,” Tristan says, “just to be right, always, right, like the wind and rain.”
But we hear her speak directly to the reader in just two poems. One of those betrays in its title that Nurkse is quite aware of this: “Everyone in This Story Speaks Except Me.” In that poem, we get what I was hoping to hear: Iseult’s interiority. “I miss my father’s Galway house, the crisp bed I made myself,” she says. We learn that she loves Tristan “for no reason, as you might laugh at the pine breeze” and that she wants to learn “how not to have a child,” but otherwise, we see only others’ perceptions of her.
Clearly Nurkse thought carefully about how much speaking power to give Iseult; though I wish he would have challenged the tradition in this regard, I’m still fascinated by the ways he makes the narrative particular, naming the trees of the forest as they burn in the fire or the herbs Iseult uses to heal Tristan’s wound. Even as the singular individual is erased in love (“desire erased my face and etched in a fool’s beseeching gape,” Tristan says in “Moss Court”), Nurkse makes the specific experience of these two lovers new.