Only Child

By D. Nurkse D. Nurkse

I cradled my newborn daughter
and felt the heartbeat   
pull me out of shock.   
She didn’t know
what her hands were:
she folded them. I asked her
was there a place
where there was no world.
She didn’t know
what a voice was: her lips   
were the shape of a nipple.


In the park the child says:
watch me. It will not count
unless you see. And she shows me
the cartwheel, the skip, the tumble,
the tricks performed at leisure in midair,   
each unknown until it is finished.
At home she orders:
see me eat. I watch her
curl on herself, sleep;
as I try to leave the dark room
her dreaming voice commands me: watch.


Always we passed the seesaw   
on the way to the swings   
but tonight I remember   
the principle of the lever,   
I sit the child at one end,   
I sit near the center,
the fulcrum, at once she has power
to lift me off the earth   
and keep me suspended
by her tiny weight, she laughing,
I stunned at the power of the formula.

D. Nurkse, “Only Child” from The Rules of Paradise (New York: Four Way Books, 2001). Used by permission of Four Way Books.

Source: Poetry (March 1995).


This poem originally appeared in the March 1995 issue of Poetry magazine

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March 1995
 D.  Nurkse


D. Nurkse is the author of numerous collections of poetry, including The Rules of Paradise (2001), The Fall (2003), and The Border Kingdom (2008). His parents escaped Nazi Europe during World War II—his Estonian father worked for the League of Nations in Vienna, his mother was an artist—and moved to New York. Nurkse’s family moved back to live in Europe for a number of years, returning to the United States around the time of the . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Parenthood, Infancy, Living, Relationships, Birth & Birthdays, Family & Ancestors

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

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