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Jacket 19 — October 2002   |   # 19  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |
This issue of Jacket is a collaboration with Verse magazine

Ian Tromp reviews

Unsleeping by Michael Burkard. Sarabande Books, $12.95.

This piece is 700 words or about two printed pages long.

Abelardo Morell’s photograph on the cover of Michael Burkard’s Unsleeping is an inspired choice to accompany the poems. Entitled Camera Obscura Image of Houses Across the Street in Our Bedroom (1991), it overlaps two images of domesticity: the rumpled pillows and quilt in the photographed bedroom are patterned with a pinhole-projected image of the world outside, the neighboring  houses inverted, dreamlike, but precise. Shadowy with both the darkness cast by the projected light hitting real objects in the room, and the projected shadows of the real beyond, the scene seems suspended as if in water, as if swimming between darkness and light. This kind of estrangement is a signature of Burkard’s work, which is at once realist and unreal, ordinary and strangely — sometimes very slightly — displaced. In the notes at the back of the book, Burkard writes: ‘Many of these poems owe their existence to stories-in-part from friends, and tones from friends and music and art.’ The poems have a texture that would suggest their origin  in such sidelong sources, a quality of drift and of shimmer, of voices heard or overheard and slipped away, of stories begun but not concluded, of stories entered midway and let fall.  

There is an onward movement of unfolding in Burkard’s poems, though they seldom end with any form of closure — cryptic, they manage yet to be warm in tone, quite feelingful and tender. ‘The writer wrote very clearly, mysteriously, /  — honesty, loneliness, snow, these were almost / virtues underneath the surface of the writer’s writing.’ Though Burkard is here half-parodically describing another writer, a ‘wonderful but awkward poet,’ his words fit his own verse. ‘Loneliness’ and ‘snow’ set side-by-side, as here, evoke a feeling of isolation, of space and distance underneath the surface of the text, and one often senses this feeling within Burkard’s poems, a feeling of the vast distances between people, even between brothers and lovers.

[...] Love you are like
a mile in the day-sky which has
just shut down. Love I bring home
one book to you from a blue car
from somewhere.

Because they move by allusion and hint, and because the facts within his poems are whispered and let slip, their address is intimate and their textual and textural ranges sometimes quite private. Occasionally this gives the poems an air of exclusion, a sense of entering a world in medias res and having no options of explanation or continuity — as if one were told this much you can have access to, but no more of history or what follows. In ‘Face in a Train Window,’ Burkard writes of ‘The refusal to say the definitive, the simple, the brief, the clear,’ and asks: ‘did my difficulty in this derive at all from my mother?’ But then the poem moves from this questioning to say: ‘I want to bring you here in a condition like silence.’ Whether or not this can be taken as a statement of intent for Burkard’s poetry, it does describe the sometimes bewildered quiet that settles in the wake of many of his poems. But his poems are also strongly connected and engaged  with the words and the worlds that have given them body — there is a strong element of compassion within their witnessing and transcription; the poems are ‘window[s] to their/ wounds as well as mine.’ ‘Hat Angel’ speaks of a woman with ‘Little money, / little chance for work, a drunk for / a husband’ who loses her winter hat on a train and sits waiting for her husband’s return, knowing he will be ‘smashed / and angry.’ The poem describes itself as a ‘prayer for the hat to be a puller / for her’ and invokes that other great puller, the moon, seeking to transport her from her difficult life and protect her from her violent man. Repetition gives the closing lines qualities of charm and chant, their long vowel sounds making for a soothing and ultimately devastating quiet.

[...] hat
have an arm to keep her from his fist,
moon and train, moon and train, moon
and train: pull her, pull her, pull her.

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