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Home, Where the Art Is

By (August 1, 2013) No Comment


By Stephen Burt
Graywolf Press

“Belmont today… is almost entirely residential and is known as ‘The Town of Homes.’”—from the Belmont, Massachusetts’ town website.

BelmontBurtBelmont: a fictional suburb in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, home of the beautiful and brilliant Portia, who uses music to advise her desired suitor how best to win her, who dresses as a man of the law to exploit her rhetorical skills and save the man to whom her new husband is indebted—proving herself of different (and shrewder) stuff than the life she accepts might indicate.

What is home but heart(h)? Stephen Burt’s Belmont has many arterial paths one might follow from first poem (“Poem of Nine A.M.”) to last (“Butterfly with Parachute”), thoroughfares though fatherhood and the Boston outskirts, through persistent longing and the rejection of regret. Burt has a talent for sonic cataloguing: a musical, list-based analysis of both a specific sort of life and of the accessories of that life “whose troubles//are troubles we’re lucky to have.” But I will not start with these—Belmont’s strongest currents. Instead, I’ll open the book at its center, its fitful heart. It is its arrhythmia that most surely locates me inside this collection, the moments when the steady beat of suburban autobiography slips away and some other music begins to pulse, irregular and thready.

“The Paraphilia Odes” initiates the second of Belmont’s three sections and consists of six segments that fluctuate in form and content—echoing the elliptical desires that animate them. Burt writes in couplets:

…This poem, like all poems,
Takes place entirely in school. It has

Left the sensuous details entirely for the next section
Which cannot assemble them, not even with you.

Burt exhibits a distinct type of literary hyper-awareness that marks him among his contemporaries (beginning his book for example with the imperative Sing, echoing Pindar, borrowing from Sappho, offering up an apostrophe to Pan and gently self-mocking allusions to Greek epics, Shakespearean drama, Keats, etc.). These lines, however, offer a rarer (for him) post-modern or post-avant or post-postmodern meta-gesture. Until I reached this moment of direct address, I was not aware of how much I was longing for the urgency of its invitation, its signal that there was “that within that passeth show.” It feels raw—the odd, aphoristic statement followed by a deferral that is both evasive and intimate. Yet even Burt’s rawness is accurate. As promised, in the tercets that follow, readerly prurience is whetted but not satisfied:

It is the deviations from the script
Of her body and his, the absences and
Mistakes, that excite him most:

The sweat that darkens the crotch
Of her flat, plaid, red-on-green
Underpants whose cotton has worn smooth,

The slack elastic at the waist, through which,
All too gingerly, she leads his palm.
The two of them stop

There. He will always stop there.
He will ask his future lovers for nothing else,
And nothing more, and nothing less.

The image following the colon is so specific that a detailed accounting of the upcoming event seems the likely goal, and yet is not. For the “he” of this poem, the withholding of consummation (the preservation of its promise?) is itself the aspiration. “He will always stop there”: okay, but why? Perhaps because going further would negate the imagined pleasure and replace it with something actual, and thus pedestrian.

The indented, comma-strewn lines lead the reader down through this section cautiously. Sentences gently bleed across each stanza break. Only the word stop forcefully truncates its line, which is still enjambed, its idea completed by the next tercet’s vague but indicative “There.” At the same point, Burt has switched from a singular to plural subject (“The two of them stop/There.”) only to quickly return to he, disappearing the she of the plaid underpants in a sudden bevy of non-specified “future lovers.” The moment has slipped past, elided. Some crucial information remains beyond the readers’ grasp—just there—beneath those first lovers’ consensus to leave their intimacy inchoate.

StephenBurtAs it is for the speaker, so it goes with me and the bodies of these poems: it is precisely their theres—their most un-parse-able peculiarities and omissions—that fascinate. When something so persistent resists straightforward utterance, I tend to lean closer, listen harder.

I have long admired the poet’s critical work, so I expected these poems to construct elegant arguments and to close down with inarguable images like “attempts to recreate/the volume and vibrations of the womb” and “[i]gnorant leaves that might as well be hands” and “shadows dig in, to shut the long gate of the day.” Burt often ends poems with a satisfying rhythm or concept—or an image that encapsulates in microcosm the lines that came before (though none of the poems in this volume are exceedingly long). There is pleasure in a poem ended in confidence, seemingly aware of its own weight and trajectory, a poem that—though it may puzzle and wonder—does not mindlessly stray. But there is a different pleasure in other poems, ones that feel less finished, more wayward. I expected Belmont’s craft and wit and intellect. What I did not expect was Burt’s occasionally lovely and deeply considered strangenesses: shadowy places I needed to dig at, moments in his poems when the gates surrounding more manicured language are left ajar—unfastened, beckoning.

“Rue” begins with a boy incorrectly rebuttoning a girl’s blouse in the back of a bus. The poem jumps between third person and first person (a young voyeur?), singular and plural, between reflections on school gossip, ubiquitous junior-high ballpoint art, and the Ramones’ 1978 release Road to Ruin. The ricocheting details and perspectives sketch the kind of atmospheric memory that resists processing into sense, no matter what later system of analysis is applied. Somewhere between the regretful title, the cynicism of the poem’s epigraph (by T. S. Eliot), and the line “The ruin of boy is man” is the key to this poem, the mistake that excites:

What else I heard I would not say
wishing I were a girl,
or had ever been a girl,
or like a girl had secrets for some body to betray.

Road to Ruin had the Ramones’ first
cover, the Searchers’ yearning “Needles and Pins,”
in which the boy says he “saw the face of love, and I knew
I had to run away.”

We were there, in the bus. I wanted to stay.

Despite the rhyme, the last line comes as a surprise. Sent back to the beginning of the poem, I question my assumptions: the speaker’s position in the memory, the import of it, and where regret might be located in the poem. I remind myself that rue and ruin are not true cognates, noting that the speaker longs to be not elsewhere but else.

Sound in these lines—in many of Burt’s lines—serves sense so densely it can confound it. The pop-style rhyming end words (say, betray, away, stay) convey obsessive return. The segue into the specificity of fan-boy knowledge tries to venture away from a formative memory, a memory the poem does not quite recount, beginning as it does at the end of the scene. But the veering is not long-lived. Burt follows the r-tinged assonances of Road, Ruin, and Ramones with the internal and final r’s of first, cover, Searcher’s and yearning (echoing the thrice-repeated girl in the previous stanza). This intense sonic compression recalls the highly repetitive chords of this most melodic of punk bands if not their lyric simplicity. Still the sound, so approachable, avoids. The girl’s secret is not said, but it is not safe; her perceived capacity for secrets becomes yet another site of longing. An unrequited refrain.

To desire an earlier time of intensity and rebellion is to regret not the confusion of pre-adolescence but its aftermath—the calcification into roles and rules unchosen but waiting at all stops. If only it were possible to wear our rue with a difference. But we know how this ends: Hamlet is a gormless prick and Ophelia drowns. This record will SBurtbe re-covered and replayed, the original artist (Jackie DeShannon) forgotten. To linger on the bus is to hold to the possibility of suspension—between child and adolescent, boy and girl, first love and its inevitable betrayal.

The swerving and halting motion of these middle poems, their adoption of other voices and senses of what a poem (or a person) might be and do, makes the innermost section of Belmont central not only structurally but emotionally. The core of this book is restless; it seeks. It is here the poet tries on fictional masks and photographer’s shrouds, bangles, basketballs, guitars, and sparkles. These costumes and props do not obscure—like the poems they grace, their panoply reveals.

“Two Victorian Scenes” references the enigmatic photographs Lady Clementina Hawarden (1822-65) took of her daughters who “seem to belong to each other, and look/Only inwards, away…” It is impossible not to turn the lens that Burt sets upon this mother making art of her children onto the poems he writes about his own. He describes Lady Hawarden:

…Out of sight among
Black curtains, a mother and
Photographer tries to focus just
On what she sees, and never to see too far.

The line break that insists on the double life of the artist and the verb form that puts her back together exemplify Belmont’s reiterated struggle—how to maneuver through this world in a way that does not simply express identity or artistic ambition but also creates a space for living. The cultivation of select detail is not just an aesthetic choice; this attention creates a haven for the self (and its dependents). But the longing for something other, ungraspable, never vanishes. In an earlier poem, “Belmont Overture (Poem of Eight A.M.),” Burt writes about the retraction of the world occasioned by living with and for small children:

We have learned to carry, everywhere, sunscreen,
and insect repellent, and pretzel sticks, and Aquafor

in case any shrubs scratch the kids. We mean
it when we say we like it; we feel sure

it’s safe around here, and once we feel safe, it’s our nature
to say we’re unsatisfied, and pretend to seek more.

Upon returning to these lines after reading the entire collection, I find its assured tone less strident. The anthropomorphizing of the shrubbery is funnier; the last line’s pretend protests a syllable or two too much. In “We mean/it when we say we like it,” the its jump out like Burt’s theres—markers for the modest unsayable, in this case an honest accounting of what a home is that does not yet encompass all a parent is or wants.

The narrow framing of events to illustrate a certain strain of life (and time of life) is a strategy Burt employs repeatedly. Yet, the varying formal surfaces of his poems (including a near-ghazal, tea-towel doggerel, non-punctuated fragments, a prothalamion with an evolving rhyme-sheme) work against redundancy. There is excess here—the excess of parallelplayrefining and rearranging, and the occasional slip beneath the edge that accompanies these efforts at control: the cutting of the quick, the over-pruning of a hedge, the too-high arch of an eyebrow that calls attention to its artifice. At the end of Lady Hawarden’s poem, Burt imagines her saying to her daughters, “Tonight you may venture out/Of doors, but now there is light/We must not waste.” He then adds, “Please stay just as you are.” This last entreaty feels metrically superfluous and yet utterly necessary to the poet/speaker as I imagine him imagining her. It is the exquisite fault-line that makes the project of the poem (and the book?) briefly transparent, a glimpse of the seeking artist and pleading parent as ultimately inseparable.

Although Burt overtly acknowledges influences from Homer to Frank O’Hara, it is Elizabeth Bishop who came to mind when I read “Flooded Meadow”—and specifically her prosepoetic “12 O’Clock News” in Geography III—a collection also concerned with place and the anxiety of inarticulated loss. In these two poems, what is so common it nearly disappears (for Burt a field at the edge of development, for Bishop her own writing desk) is translated by metaphor into “matters of consequence” (an urban landscape, a war). But while Bishop waxes hyperbolic in her eight paragraphs, Burt’s sci-fi defamiliarization is accomplished with remarkable economy:

Low dandelion leaves are zoned commercial,
with their promise of puffballs to come.

Bits of dew spackle the high grass
asymmetrically; they are sleek apartment windows,
skyscrapers are weeds.

Tall sprigs of goldenrod patrol
the blown-down city line….

There is another world
in this world, but it was not made for you.

Round oniongrass stalks are old monuments
to persistence in hard times.
You could live up inside one
and learn to like it, cramped quarters,
cooking smells and all.

Two bees report on traffic, warning listeners
to the anemophily channel
as the natural disaster
of humanity comes closer
every morning. Work while you can, they say.

The italicized lines acknowledge what is lost when one future is chosen over another—the sense of infinite personal potential. This, the penultimate poem in the book, along with several others in the last section, returns to the suburban landscape with a difference. Here Burt offers up the larger-world specters held at bay throughout the earlier sections, and they are us. “Brussels Sprouts on the Stalk” speaks to global warming. “Over Connecticut” recounts the late twentieth century’s failure to fix endemic problems by reframing them. In “Tarmac with Soundtrack,” Burt writes:

While this world is, in fact, so marvelous
That only works of art approach the praise
Its flavorful, tart intricacies demand,
The truths of our lives within it are so grim
That we tolerate them only if
They come to us in the relatively
Impenetrable fuselages of art.

These more melancholic poems still record Belmont’s residential environment (and Atlantic coast, and personal vacation spots, and a drive-by snapshot of “Lebanon, New Hampshire/which is not an example”). But the end of the collection seems somehow less private than the initial pages. Burt’s approach here is that of a poet becoming aware of himself as historian, by a man becoming—perhaps through fatherhood—aware of the future as endangered.

In “An Atlas of the Atlas Moth,” when Burt writes, “There are parts of me/that anyone can see through,” I think of poetic fear. When, in “Self-portrait as Muppet,” he writes, “harder to be young and green/and try to please children, but hardest of all to learn//how to run the whole show,” I sense parental insecurity. But when, in “Swingline Stapler,” the office tool brags, “I can link any thin thing/to any thin thing,” it is the compensatory power of the poet/parent I see in allegory. Belmont demonstrates not a poetics of creation or salvation but of curation. Burt does not conjure, he juxtaposes—and that, provisionally. It is a mean task, and he scavenges everywhere for resources. He overlays the blueprints of a domestic life, its Subarus and Sunday afternoons, upon the nascent dreams (and old books) of a precocious youth, the complaints and revelations of a thin-shouldered muppet cast as Atlas, the fragile desires of the adult (and thus dying) Atlas moth. He arranges a safe space, for now, from which “[n]obody sensible wants to run away.” He assiduously nests his materials, including among the more common sticks and grasses a few strands of glorious tinsel.

This beautiful mountain is a purposeful palimpsest. Belmont is a domestic refuge from Venice in Shakespeare’s tragicomedy; it is also a sanctuary a few steps away from the marketplace of ideas that is Cambridge/Boston. In Belmont, the speaker is sometimes the pretty, brainy Portia, and sometimes the fierce and calculating one—protecting her own, denying harm entrance, as if it came always and only from the outside. It would be easy to mistake Burt’s exact compiling of observation, allusion, image, and sentiment for a lack of risk, but that would be to miss the reason for his precision—to get as close as possible to there, the keening heart within this anti-epic setting, without dishonoring its role as home. He does not reduce this suburban existence: he refuses the irony and/or angst so often privileged in its portrayals. Burt attempts in these pages what Shylock did not dare… he accepts the terms of the agreement he has made, seeking to artfully embrace a prosaic life. These poems show the poet’s careful work—the carving out of one pound of flesh, “[a]nd nothing more, and nothing less.” It is his own.

Kirsten Kaschock is the author of two books of poetry: Unfathoms (Slope Editions) and A Beautiful Name for a Girl (Ahsahta Press). Her debut novel, Sleight, a work of speculative fiction, was published by Coffee House Press in 2011. A chapbook, WindowBoxing, is forthcoming from Bloof Books. Her most recent manuscript, The Dottery, has won the 2013 Donald Hall Prize for poetry from AWP and will be published by University of Pittsburgh Press.  She has earned a PhD in English from the University of Georgia and a PhD in dance from Temple University.  Kirsten is the Viebranz Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at St. Lawrence University for 2013-14.  She resides in Philadelphia with Dan Marenda and their three children.