The Story of Tristan and Iseult Revisited
D. Nurske is the author of eleven poetry collections, most recently Love in The Last Days from Knopf. He’s the recipient of the Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Whiting Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He’s also taught at Rikers Island, served on the board of Amnesty International USA, and translated medieval poetry. He’s on the faculty at Sarah Lawrence College. Love in The Last Days is a series of poems based on the legend of Tristan and Iseult.
Mary: Welcome to People Who Make Books Happen, Dennis. The legend of Tristan and Iseult reverberated throughout the Middle Ages. It’s one of the most romantic stories ever told. I’ve loved it since I first read Chevrefoil by the medieval poet Marie de France, so I was delighted to discover that it was the subject of your new collection of poetry Love in The Last Days. Before we begin, could you please give us a brief summary of the story of Tristan and Iseult, so people who are not familiar with the legend can understand what we’re talking about .
Dennis: Thanks so much, Mary. There are a thousand versions. Some have a happy ending! Here are the barest bones: Tristan is entrusted to fetch Iseult from Ireland to marry his liege, King Mark of Cornwall. On the boat home they fall in love. They commit adultery at Mark’s court and escape to the wilderness; eventually they separate, Tristan to exile, Iseult to her destiny to be a queen. They are reunited at the point of death.
Mary: The poems in Love in The Last Days are filled with a richness, complexity, depth, and lyricism that is truly extraordinary. What inspired you to write them. Or put another way, what prompted you to do a new version of the legend of Tristan and Iseult?
Dennis: The story of Tristan and Iseult is wildly subversive. At one of the most hierarchical moments in history, the bond between lovers suddenly emerges as a force—stronger than church, state, piety, or public opinion. 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.
Mary: What research did you do for these poems? What sources did you consult?
Dennis: There are lovely books in English: The Romance of Tristan and Iseult as compiled by Joseph Bedier, and Tristan: with the surviving fragment of the “Tristan of Thomas” as compiled by Gottfried von Strassburg. The stories in the Arthurian cycle are bedrock, and there are troubadour versions; René Nelli writes about troubadour eroticism. Jacques le Goff has an essay called “Levi Strauss in Broceliande: Brief Analysis of a Courtly Romance.” Beautifully specific documentation can be found in John Cummin’s The Hawk and the Hound: The Art of Medieval Hunting. Jean Rimmer has researched the Irish harp. The French series Bibliotheque de la Pleiade has a terrific one-volume compilation of sources. My own book is inscribed to the memory of Marc Bloch, an expert on the feudal imagination, who died under torture at the hands of the Gestapo.
Mary: Could you put the legend of Tristan and Iseult in a historical context for us. What did it have to do with Courtly Love. How did the Medieval Church view it? Did it find a popular audience?
Dennis: The legend began before the era of Courtly Love, but it was adapted (or adapted itself? It has a mind of its own.) and became a vehicle for troubadour ideas. The Church hated it. Yes, it found a popular audience—but my own ancestors were peasants a generation or two ago; who knows how deeply into the commons it reached?
Mary: How did you change the legend?
Dennis: I want my version to be psychological—it’s not clear that spells and monsters aren’t just the shadows of desperate love. But I’d better steer clear of hubris. The originals, pre-Freudian though they are, are full of double entendre and the agency of the unconscious. Stories teach that illusion is part of love—you can’t wish it away. When you’re close enough, the other’s face is as invisible as your own. My version has no patience for the values of aristocracy and purity. Sometimes it’s funny.
Mary: How did you change the main characters?
Dennis: Well, Mary, the original characters morph according to who’s telling the tale and when. Tristan and Iseult are open to interpretation. I really just tried to hear in my mind the voices of two young lovers, destined to become old lovers, baffled at any given moment, but who complete each other strangely over the arc of a lifetime.
Mary: You depict Iseult as a woman of great strength. Did you find hints of this in the Medieval versions of the legend, or is her emergence as a powerful woman new to the story?
Dennis: It’s one of the exciting things about the original story. The troubadour versions are strikingly empowering to women characters—and there are women who themselves are poets or troubadours, including Marie de France and the evocatively named Dangereuse de Chastelreaux. There’s a transformation of gender relations. Of course, most it may take place mostly in literature, and be susceptible to the “pedestal” critique. But it’s radical for any time.
Mary: You say in the Preface that your version “takes places in an imaginary past known as The Last Days.” Why did you call this past “imaginary” and why did you name it “The Last Days?” Is this a reference to the Book of Revelation? A veiled warning of the approach of a contemporary apocalypse? Please tell us more about The Last Days.
Dennis: First, it’s a disclaimer. My book is fascinated with the past but it isn’t a documentary. Details are authentic but not accurate—I picked and chose over a vast span of time. But yes, “The Last Days” are apocalyptic. Since I was a toddler, the world has been about to end—crazy kings, floodgates buckling, brimstone. I don’t know if it’s maddening or reassuring that people felt exactly the same pang a thousand years ago—our species seems determined to huddle at the edge of self-inflicted doom, probing its limits. That resonance sparked my interest in the Middle Ages. We seem to be headed there. Perhaps stories have always been a way of holding on to the last wisps of a world that seems to vanish through our fingers.
Mary: The other versions of Tristan and Iseult that I have read have a single narrator. You have multiple narrators who include not only Tristan and Iseult themselves, but also dogs, horses, fires, springs, and swords. Could you describe how all these multiple points of view are woven together to form a lyrical whole?
Dennis: I wanted to demystify—the dog’s concept of love is as valid as Tristan’s. I like the idea of the story being autonomous. Everything speaks, not just the narrator. The fire at which the lovers warm themselves has a voice. The Grail speaks; it’s a radical emptiness. In one poem, the text itself is the protagonist.
Mary: You also use multiple poetic forms. For example “The Grail” is classic Concrete Poetry. What inspired you to do this? Could you list some of the other forms you use in these poems.
Dennis: Yes, the poem in which the fire speaks is shaped like a fire over logs; when the Self speaks, the text imitates the letter I. I’d like the book to be animated—in so far as possible—like the wilderness. Other formal concepts include nods to the ballad and the renga, a Japanese poetic form. The basis is the dramatic monologue.
Mary: Do you have a favorite poem in this collection?
Dennis: Yes. “The Living Spring” is representative of the vocal quality I’m after.
Mary: Please tell us what you like most about “The Living Spring.”
Dennis: The poem draws on some medieval motifs—Saint John of the Cross’ image of the “fuente oscuro,” Meister Eckhart’s idea of a God “helpless not to love.”
Mary: Thank you, Dennis. This has been fascinating. Before you leave, could you please tell us how we can get a copy of Love in The Last Days.
Dennis: Please order Love in The Last Days from your bookstore if they don’t already have it in stock. Or from your favorite online provider. Independent if possible.
“Every great love has an obstacle. Ours was us.”
—Iseult (from Dennis Nurkse’s Love in The Last Days)
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