[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”1555976441″ locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51VHqEzgLIL.jpg” width=”222″ alt=”Stephen Burt” ]Anthems, Neighborhoods, and Adulthood.
A Review of
Paperback: Graywolf Press, 2013
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Reviewed by Joel E. Jacobson
Well known for his definition of elliptical poetry and labeling “the new thing” in poetry, critic Stephen Burt adds his own voice to the choir of American poets searching for meaning and identity in a cultural climate intent on crucifying outsiders. Burt is not just a poet and critic, but also a husband, father, professor and cross-dresser. These eclectic details may not directly relate to each other, but they help understand the bared heart of a man searching for a world in which he and his family can exist and thrive.
The opening poems are meditations of a father-to-be as he wonders what type of person his child will become. In the process, the poet begins to evaluate his own life, his own evolution of being, his own place of acceptance in a world that alienates men who wear dresses and makeup. Burt masterfully uses urban imagery to embrace both his personal values and the values of his surrounding community. The tone is pastoral, but the material is urban, which creates a meditative ambivalence of love and hate, materialism and abstemiousness. In “Poem of Seven A.M.”, Burt writes, “The tireless & endless rubbish on & against the curb / looks to have been the product of a bilious regime / unknown to human motives, & too big for human hands.” He continues describing the piles of trash and recycling that “dwarf us, although we have carried them out; they build, indifferently, our tombs . . . all come together in hasty concert / to make their parts a demented harmonium.” These symbols of self-created trash and accumulation of stuff stand for “repeated anthems for our neighborhood, our home.”
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Throughout these surprisingly accessible poems, Burt repeatedly asks in not so many words, “Who am I? How did I become me? Am I an evolution of my own self or am I merely a product of the world around me?” Burt never arrives at definitive answers to his questions, but finds solace in who he has become.
Burt often juxtaposes childhood and adulthood. He is in awe of his child’s imagination, development of language and nomenclature, yet saddened by our cultural demands that prioritize the accumulation of wealth and possessions over relationships, creativity, and individuality. In “Exploring the Suburbs”, Burt concludes “they are us, / that’s what they say.” The “they” here proves ironic because “they” may be either our children or our accumulated junk, which sadly suggests the result–or consequence–of American living.
Burt explores the apparent natural dissatisfaction that adults have with what their lives have become, asserting that “once we feel safe, it’s our nature / to say we’re unsatisfied, and pretend to sell more (“Belmont Overture (Poem of Eight A.M.)”). The poet claims “that to be adult is simply to care less / about doing your own thing on your own, / and more about what other people require” (“To Subarus”). Burt compares our discontented journeys with evolution; “Our pictures of ourselves as animals / Gives pleasure or cuteness / But neither responsibility nor joy (“Reverse Deciduous Existence”). This honest yet convicting motif of disappointing adulthood is apparent without being overbearing. “The person you expect to be next year / Is less heroic than you are, more glum” (“The Task”). It is unclear whether Burt is resigned to his children suffering the same fate of devolving into disgruntled, uninspired grownups, or if he hopes for them to achieve something more valuable, inspiring, and imaginative.
Too often, Christians lose touch with the conversation of life that occurs outside the walls of the church and beyond the reach and attention of the church body. Or we choose to ignore it. Belmont reveals the contemporary American mindset of “Nothing holy is real. / Renunciation is the new appeal” (“The Paraphilia Odes”). Books like Belmont are important reads for Christians, if only to know–in a non-violent, non-confrontational manner–our neighbors who make up and often define our communities. Stephen Burt goes so far to as to say that the only way to understand others and to be understood “is just to put some small part of it into writing / for you: here, then, are these lines” (“El Nido”). The olive branch is being offered. Are we willing to receive it?
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
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