Recently, after working in various industries over the course of several years, I accepted a job as a high school art teacher. In August, prior to the first day of school, I found myself thinking of D. Nurkse’s poem, “Seniors,” which I had not looked at in several months. It begins:
Deep in August
when the teacher was in Canada
we broke into her house in the forest.
We drank her liquor, swam in her pool,
slept on the patio, woke
after midnight raked again and again
by loneliness like fire.
We swept up the broken glass,
locked up, and slipped
the key back under her door.
A brief word about me: at no point as a teenager did I find the idea of breaking and entering into an unoccupied house exciting. Even the suggestion of a prank phone call usually left me with feelings of dread and the strong impulse to hide in the bathroom until the pranks were over. I have since graduated to calmer, sometimes more adventurous ways, but I still don’t like to “break the rules” and find myself wondering about people who do.
What impresses me about “Seniors” is how much it includes and creates within the space of twenty-five short lines. It peers into a small, American town in summer. It encapsulates a particularly formative time of life, wrought with magic and disappointment. It bears witnesses to crimes of vastly different scale: a misdemeanor and a forthcoming war. The recording of these events, as told by Nurkse, creates an atmosphere of want, transgression and fear. There is a quality of devastation hiding behind these lines, waiting to rush in. Regardless of the supposed happiness of the summer season, and despite their energetic and youthful transgression, the seniors wake afflicted. The seniors don’t walk, but limp, home:
As we limped home the millworkers
stood whistling on corners,
jangling their lunchboxes,
waiting for the lights of their rides,
and their radios spoke of war
about to begin in another country:
As it happens, when I am trying to work out what I think about anything, a seemingly random word will come to mind. In considering “Seniors,” the word that surfaced was “dislocation.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “dislocation” as: “the state of being dislocated; displacement of one or more bones of a joint; a discontinuity in the otherwise normal lattice structure of a crystal; a disruption of an established order.”
I asked a human geographer who happened to be in my kitchen what she thought about the word and the answer was quite a lot. She told me a story about tirelessly reading the dislocated and legal language of rape cases. The stress of this, combined with long periods of sedentary reading, “dislocated” her right shoulder. The shoulder still bothers her now, and she must constantly compensate with her left. The word “compensation” seems relevant to this exploration, too. How do we counterbalance or offset our knowledge of particular crimes, particularly those that are so pervasive? Like rape. Like war.
Explanations or rationalizations for the war about to begin are not the subject of this poem, but an impending sense of violence exists in the spaces between each line, pressurizing them. Whether or not the seniors go on to witness the war, or participate in it, its ramifications are deeply felt.
As the poem concludes, Nurkse’s careful images seem to slow time. He creates a trance-state for the inhabitants of the town, as well as for the reader, and makes common objects appear foreign:
the rest of that summer
the trance of the small town
gripped us like pliers:
the scallops in the wallpaper,
the windows like stagnant pools,
always the hollow thump
of a ball bouncing just around the corner,
each noon the blinded owl crying
in the dusty memorial elm.
Of the many lines I love, I hold a special place for “the scallops in the wallpaper.” It reminds me of bathroom wallpaper I have seen (possibly while other teens were making prank calls) but stranger. Windows are described as stagnant pools. This poem’s landscape is surreal, watery and mutable.
Yet “Seniors” reminds me that the best poems grip to the underlying wallpaper of our biology, so to speak, and scallop there. It is this poem’s clarity of seeing and feeling that allows me to remember it closely without pulling the book down from the shelf, without actually rereading it. And what more might I ask from a poem, but a clarity of seeing and feeling, and also hearing? By the end, always “the hollow thump / of a ball bouncing just around the corner / each noon a blinded owl crying / in the dusty memorial elm.” That elm, commemorating even older losses, is untended to and forgotten.