Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Shore Lines: Poems from the Water’s Edge by Philip Burnham, Jr.

Ibbetson Street Press


Somerville, MA


73 Pages


Review by Dennis Daly

Philip Burnham murmurs his subdued poems to us as if they were delicate miracles of nature or intricate tidal secrets. And many of them are. His poetic techniques, although traditional, are never overbearing and Burnham’s rhymes, off-rhymes, and near rhymes flow easily and unforced. The poet’s persona captures you with his likeability and does a masterful job conveying love, loss, and mortality through images of the natural world and an extraordinary perception of the ordinary and touchable implements of time and place.

The sonnet, Fog at Round Pond, Maine, fittingly introduces this collection. Boats become personified vessels of dreams, which either strain at life’s moorings or lay low in hibernation. Burnham begins this way,

See how the boats are compass to the wind,

Bows pointed east toward Muscongus Bay,

Taut on their moorings, slipped against the play

Of tides, their line as of a single mind…

A bit of color can change everything. So the poet seems to suggest in his poem, Waiting for the Red-winged Blackbirds. We leave the dark and passive monotony of winter and enter into the staccato of rebirth. And with this rebirth comes a subtle intimation of danger. Burnham describes the commotion,

…returning birds flashing their

Red shoulders in the cane, staccato cries

Of greeting and of warning cross the air

When dark arrival, ritual mating

Signify an end to winter waiting.

The blood of imagination and romance can infuse the most remote and windswept geography with passion and mystery. The poem Nohaval Cove, County Cork does exactly that, not with full blown stories, but with pointed suggestions—a neat artifice that Burnham accomplishes with great effect. Following an unmarked and overgrown path down a precarious cliff, the poet discovers his singular metaphor. He describes it thusly,

… a narrow

Cove slid under brae and bluff, a shallow

Treacherous peat black water’s waves to wear

Round sharp-shinned shards of blunt Irish coast sheared

Off into a secret landfall for boats

Of rebels, smugglers, lovers, come about

Conspiracy, so willing to risk all

To be ashore, or gone…

Burnham uses the technique of suggestion in his anti-war poem entitled On Pemaquid Beach: The Lost Soldier. He demands that his readers conjure up the battles of Anzio and Normandy and the emotion and drama of those two debarkations. I go him one further and think of Gallipoli. Then he changes the context of this unknown soldier, or does he. Here is the last stanza,

Then as the dunes were cleared, the armies’ heated joust

Come to an end, brave talk of battles went among

His comrades when he unnoticeably fell, lost

In the gathering of toys children carried home.

War does at a distance seem to be little more than a gathering of God’s children and their curious toys.

Many of Burnham’s nature poems emit an impressionistic, almost a Monet-like shimmer of light. In A Dream of Fishes the surface sparkles with treasure emanating from a deeper place. The poet says it is,

…as if someone had ploughed

Dark fields and turned up diamonds or a horde

Of hidden coins, a miser treasury

From some forgotten king whose wealth was stored

Too deep for public generosity..

Obviously a royal member of the 1%!

The poem Beach Stones also uses this impressionistic angle to observe nature and then adds a bit of alchemy to the mix. The piece begins this way,

Like jewels in an ancient kingdom’s crown

Half-buried under sand small smooth stones lie

Sea-washed brilliant to catch a wander eye

At the retreat of tides lovers come down

To walk along the silvered water’s edge

In broken repetitions whispering

“Again,” “again,” imagining a ring…

Burnham’s love poems in this collection are well done on multiple levels. In the poem 1960 Wedding Photograph the poet describes a momentary Eden of happiness, almost a childhood game of pretend that was, of course, not pretend, but very real and very lovely. The poet meditates on this moment of light and shadow decades later with updated information and an exposed sadness. He laments,

… the bride

Two of her bridesmaids and a groomsman die,

Two maids and two men are divorced, the groom,

His best man widowed…

The Companion piece of the previous poem is Anniversary 1961. It interests me for a couple of reasons. First of all it is beautifully done with an affecting metaphor of two doves and two ways of seeing things. The second thing is the technique. If this regularly metered poem had been perfectly rhymed it would not have worked. So Burnham seems to have disguised his rhymes ever so slightly; and, just like that, the tone rings true. Listen,

A twelve-month passage from our wedding day

We sailed aboard a queen to England bound,

A gift of doves for anniversary,

One looked to sea, the other back to land.

Gold-eyed, sienna figures smooth as love

For two score years and more they were displayed

On mantles in the houses where we lived,

One saw the hearth, the other looked away.

A poem Burnham wrote for his daughter entitled Departure’s Space has at its heart almost a metaphysical section recalling the mental constructions of 16th century Jesuit Matteo Ricci—his memory palaces. Burnham explains,

Our Pacific to Atlantic Oceans’

Continental separation distance

Enough to raise over the weathered face

Of earth a memory palace from times

Of meeting, conversation, embrace,

A breeze-borne architecture, love’s design

Where we may turn to return to repose

At days’ end…

These and the other well-wrought poems of Burnham’s are best read on a wild and deserted spur of stone separated from shore by the tidal powers. Recite them aloud; then savor their elegance for years to come.

*****  Dennis Daly is the author of The Custom House.

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