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Stephen Burt
Parallel Play: Poems
reviewed by Michael Aiken
88pp. Graywolf Press. Paperback original. US$ 14.00. 1—55597—437—6 paper

This review is about 6 printed pages long. It is copyright © Michael Aiken and Jacket magazine 2008.

We Too Will Be Punished


Stephen Burt first made a splash on the collective consciousness with some bold critical observations delivered in talk straighter than most would have believed the discourse provides for, notable in his contribution to the ‘Poetry Criticism — what is it for?’ conference (reproduced in Jacket #11) and his article on ‘The Elliptical Poets’, a piece he himself says generated more attention than all his other critical publications combined. Burt had, however, been actively making such contributions, along with poems and reviews, for years prior, many of which are accessible from, the webblog he co-authors with Jessica Bennett.

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As is evident across his writing — critical and creative — Burt enjoys both questioning and expounding the value not only of poetry criticism, but poetry itself. His reviews and his collections alike dig into the meat of the western poetic tradition, reusing and reworking traditions of form and theme, drawing sources of subject matter from the vastness of culture high and low. Everything from pop music, tv and comic books to pre-twentieth century painting and classical history are treated with a gamut of forms at his hands. He has a well-publicised zeal for both grassroots U.S. politics and the WNBA, recently joined the English faculty at Harvard and appears to be something of a net junkie. From this broad mix Burt produces a range of poems typically one to two pages in length (plus a couple of tight, single-stanza pieces) that alternately seek to reveal the poetic in this world he peruses or else construct a mytho-poetical riddle from some specific of its contents. And sometimes both.


The first of these types features a number of domestic bliss poems and quietly beatific exultations of the urban environment their speaker inhabits. Poems such as Bluebells and Tenth Avenue revel in their own simplicity and contemporaneity, gently distilling for the reader some essence or essence-like distillate of a particular place at a particular time. Bluebells, for example, sketches out the scattered deposits of the titular flowers along a city block


... they sprint up the length of our street
and back down through a pair of bicycle tires,
then run themselves to ground amid the heat
of broken flag and flagstone and cement.


As with other of Burt’s pieces in this vein, the poem brings out the personal attachment and involvement the speaker feels for the places described with a combination of precision and understatement, the final stanza in Bluebells declaring of a pair of squirrels regularly observed in that same street


Now that we’ve spent
a year on Fairmount Avenue, such heady sights remind
me less of balmy days in Central Park


Those of the second type tend to be the more immediately exciting, though their rewards can often derive from successfully reading the tell-tale cultural signposts imbedded in the text rather than from successfully enjoying what purists might regard as the actual poetry of the piece. Scenes from Next Week’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (originally published in Jacket #10), probably the least entertaining along such lines, drops just the right amount of character names and thematic references to indicate commitment as a viewer without the obsessiveness of an idolator, though the poem’s depressing conclusion that the show only really appeals to viewers because it isn’t the same as their own monotonous lives provides a satisfying juxtaposition to the playful immersion in tv fiction with which the poem opens.  


The breadth of scope and the height of the sights Burt sets mean there are both hits and misses aplenty in this collection. Amongst the most enjoyable works are the more intentionally contrived, convoluted puzzles, not only for the tenuous links and leaps of lateral thought, but for the more original and engaging forms that emerge when riddling takes his focus than when he is giving his all to creating a sestina, a villanelle or a rhythmically consistent free-verse.


Disappointingly at times he defeats the puzzles with explication, denuding absolute meaning and excluding plurality. Cleo, for example, ponderously dotes on a cat in a way even sympathetic cat lovers may find pointless. Over Long Island meanwhile engages with a most curious and delighting image, that of the island’s topography as a Buddhist rock garden, but the metaphor is so spoon-fed as to be emetic


The lines of pebbles — roofs — have been made clear:
Their parallels leave rivulets, and bare
Calm soil along one edge, the Sound...


Burt also navigates perilously close to what Milton referred to as ‘the jingling sound of like endings’ in Parallel Play, yet no more than perhaps should be expected in a book offering variations on long standing forms from an author with an avowed interest in assimilating poetic traditions and who cites Lycidas no less as one of his earliest (3rd or 4th grade — he can’t remember) encounters with the thrill of reading poetry.


Like Popular Music, his first collection, Parallel Play treats a range of low and not so low arts to a variety of traditional poetic forms. Burt has gone on the record as saying he does not believe in a high/low distinction, and so we find poems about comic book characters and sci fi pulp alongside ekphrasic treatments of high-brow visual art. Often noted for his use of in-the-know pop culture references, Burt has done this less often in Parallel Play, and less blatantly. His Self-Portrait As Kitty Pryde, for example, does more than just checklist the facts in a bid to prove that he’s hip to the (sub)culture. Lines like


...I will bear
one child, scorn, twenty-five pounds
of technology on my back, & further the weight
of giving orders to a restless band
of misfits who save America from its own rage
but cannot save themselves, and stay up late.


certainly list facts, but the finish of ‘and stay up late’ makes all the difference, worming into the guts of the character’s nuance, recapturing the teen spirit not just of Pryde but of Pryde at this time in her life.


The poem revels in two particular tropes retained from Popular Music — Burt’s fixation on including populist culture in Kulcha and his practice of writing poems spoken by a teenaged confessor, as synthesised in the teen-themed double entendre ‘I am always going through some phase’. There is, however, maturation in such use of pop culture references. Where Popular Music insisted on being of-the-low-culture-for-the-high-culture, most clearly illustrated by its use of extensive notes to explain for the highbrows such low-brow esoterica as what ‘45rpm’ signifies, the only note to Kitty Pryde contents itself with directing the reader to the particular issues of X-men alluded to by the poem.


At times in this collection the impact of the author’s interest in formal traditions of poetics can be an overwhelming presence, no more so than when he consciously attempts to break with such forms yet still comes up direct rhyming. That said, all that mining of tradition and self-conscious exploration of form pays off in poems like Against Fertility, one of the most arresting titles and one of the best poems in Parallel Play. Here Mr Burt strikes brilliant balance between his strengths and interests in rhyme & tradition and experimentation:

17 whose name
was all this settled on us? Can’t we stop

   and take
      good care of what we have? The riotous
French basil Jessie planted still explores

   its own sharp outer reaches; in
      midair, our landlord’s spider-flowers’
lunar-lander platforms lend their bees

   sweet targets for their last
      warm days. That none of them
may come to any harm,

   let school begin today; let everyone pass
      without increase. Let things stay as they are.


With regard to rhythm and rhyme, Burt also performs some admirable feats with potentially unwieldy combinations throughout At the Providence Zoo:


confined if not preserved,
schoolteachers, their charges, vigilant lemurs, wrens
and prestidigitating tamarins,
and dangerous badgers like dignitaries stare
at one another, hot
and concave in their inappropriate coats.


Such Plath-like tumbling echoes of rhymes and rhythms within rhythms furnish the piece with brilliant longevity. Again in this poem he later manages to evoke the poetic of the cumbersome when he describes mating tortoises as ‘a concatenation of anapests’. Such gems are not rare in this collection. Yet on occasion the words can get in the way of the poems:


Nothing is spared.
The prayerful, seemingly rickety high
Radio towers let the wind beseech
Them; their popular waves
Pass through us & do not touch
The prominence of an otherwise-empty
Sky, where they arraign

 — The Road Builders


That load of adjectives — ‘prayerful, seemingly rickety high’ — with the moribund ‘seemingly’ leads this reader away from the image into... nowhere? Obviously such effects can be used for effect, but more than once in Parallel Play the effect detracts from the pleasure of reading.


The best poems of this collection are those from which a definite sense of meaning and tangible object can be made, but which refuse to yield up that meaning too directly, such as Postcard Sent on New Year’s Day: ‘The Ancients remain in our building./ Ash in their air;/ a quota of dead pigeons in our path.’ Conjouring a characterful building in a highly urban space; a paean to a specific residence and its charm that illustrates the experience of encountering the place with sharp, unassuming wit, as when comparing the nature of the brickwork to ‘...a twelve-tone scale: slight/ things, small charms,/ the jagged ones you have to learn to hear.’ There is something of Lorca’s New York poems in such moments, this invigoration and metamorphosis of the urban landscape without resorting to anthropomorphism, complementing pieces like Cathedral Parkway Subway Grate.


In a book containing sonnets, villanelles and other traditional forms (however unconventionally executed), it is exciting to see this experiment in a formal tradition common to the 20th century — spatialised, free-versed urban description highly conscious of rhythm which shirks direct rhyme.


Plurality is rampant in this poem, especially that formalist string of common nouns masquerading as an “objective” location that is the title, the rhythmic resonance of which dominates the entire poem. Much like the Wiggles’ San Francisco Trolley Car, its rhythmic approximation of the subject establishes a driving beat that pushes the body along. Consider the poem’s opening and closing lines:


Like stars      —      like stars
among the shackles and the grid
none of us fit      —      spectacular stars
in the midst of oversized snow
...      —      in the midst
of glint       —      of street above       —       of schedules
...                        — of one night’s
accomplishment —             a train             —            a train      —               a train


Like any good poem and many in this book, Cathedral Parkway Subway Grate rewards repeated reading, the disjoined rhythms resonating more powerfully each time, just as many of the other poems invite, near-incite the repeat-reader to attempt to determine a fixed meaning. Postcard... says


the rewards come slow,/ the difficulties like a spate of glass


an audience aside that readily recalls the most playfully riddle-like poem in Popular Music, Glass, hence all the more acknowledging the game between reader, poem and writer.


we too will be punished


he says, just prior to describing the brickwork you have to learn to appreciate; like a weird scale you have to get into to enjoy, like this poem you have to work at to understand.


We too will be punished, but not yet.

Michael Aiken

Michael Aiken

Michael Aiken is a security professional working in the New South Wales Public Service in Sydney and newly appointed default audio engineer for Darlington primary school’s Parents and Citizens committee. Most recently his writing has appeared in unusual work, Shampoo, Foam:e and snorkel.

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