Friday, July 05, 2013

Belmont Poems by Stephen Burt

Poems by
Stephen Burt
Graywolf Press
Minneapolis MN
Copyright © 2013 by Stephen Burt
96 pages, softbound, $15

Review by Zvi A. Sesling

Stephen Burt is known for his poetry criticism and he is the quintessential poet as this book proves. For the most part readers do not seek information when reading poetry. What they do seek is something deeper – insight into something taken as ordinary or every day.  Sought also is the conversion of the ordinary into the memorable.  The true poet does this.

Then of course, there is the not-so-ordinary and the poet who will title a poem Prothalamion With Laocoӧn Simulacrum, well, he should become a favorite of mine. I read this book of poems and Stephen Burt became one of my favorites.  Not only because of the poem so titled, not only because of his poems of the Boston area, not only because of the sly humor, but because Stephen Burt’s writing has every element that makes poetry a pleasure to read. 

His poems bring fresh approaches to worn subjects, a personal passion that infects the readers with a gasp of recognition as in Poem of Six A.M :

One child wakes up when the other has gone

back to bed, if not to sleep. One more false dawn


Lead, lead on,
fortissimo washer and dryer, mechanical train                 
in our unfinished basement: who else could play for me

your wild snare, your floor tom and your gong,
their rough polyrhythms, subordinate quarter and main
beat? Who keeps the darks from turning gray for me?

and this one:

There is also a song
made of Cheerios, honey nut and multigrain,
oats, rice, wheat, corn;
and barley. Nobody should pay for me

we can afford it. Soon I will enter a zone
of bananas and yogurt and plastic forks, propane
tanks and cheese wheels wrapped and set out on a tray for me.

Burt’s poetry is worth the time for those who are tired of intellectualized
poems with hidden meanings or secret messages, who hunger for more direct communication with which they can associate.

In “when the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees” the final stanza is like a punch to the midsection, hitting us where we recognize ourselves:

you don’t just decide/to become a different person,/but realize that you have become the person you are—/not who you were, not who you want to be,/but something close to them,/in exactly the way/ the new low-intensity streetlights come close to the moon.

It has often been said that poets need be storytellers and Burt’s understanding of that is evident and compelling.  Augmenting the tenderness of his poetry is a degree of irony,  playfulness, sexiness and always devotion to his craft.

To close let us look at the first eight lines of Belmont Overture (Poem of Eight A.M.):

It’s about settling down and settling in
            and trying not to settle for,

about three miles from the urban core,
            where the not-quite-wild bald turkey, looking so lost

and inquisitive next to the stop for the 74,
            peers into the roseless rosebush, up at the pointless or

above one townhouse’s steps, and the US
            and floral and nautical flags flaunt their calm semaphore.

The lines embody the attributes of storytelling, irony and the devotion to the craft of making poetry sing to the reader.  As for the playfulness and sexiness of Burt’s work,
you will have to read the whole book to discover an American author who leads the way in accessible poetry for the thinking person.

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