Saturday, July 4, 2009

Michael Burkard--An Appreciation

One of our most admired poets here at YM is Michael Burkard. Burkard’s award-winning work has influenced many. His writing over the course of the years spans an arc from an almost language poetry suggestiveness to a time-and-place grounded-ness. Throughout, the self is a key issue, and in the earlier work it is represented by a subliminal verbal structuring, the kind of pre-logic you apprehend when the mind freed from the requirements of wakefulness is looking inward. Form, certainly traditional form, never seems important; his work has great lyrical power and beauty, the music not deriving from arrangements of well-known emotion as consciously experienced, but from the more profound, unsettling cadence of pre logic.

As in The Wharf, which appeared originally in None, River (1979) and which is re-printed in the excellent Envelope of Night, Selected and Uncollected Poems 1966-1990, from Nightboat Books, Cold Spring, New York, 2008:

When it’s Sunday I read to him. I do this every Sunday.
A ruby hangs in the middle of my room. It’s
A planetary ruby. First of all you envision
nothing but their voices, and a linear train,
looking for spiders. I’ve read to him twice:
“When was it when I first imagined the wharf, this
untouchable center.” Like an admiration: it’s a breath
and a jar. In the jar a shot to the head
is like the veil of the dead aunt. Paper
measuring breath. I told no one of the soft kerosene
lamps on the boat when I was five. When I was.
The wharf.

Among other things, Burkard’s work raises the question of literal representation, especially as his later work embraces it in the spirit of personal narrative. In the early work, as in The Wharf above, much is extra-literal. But the extra-literal (“a linear train,/looking for spiders”) imagery exerts a kind of gravity in the community of poems in Envelope of Night, pulling toward it and making resonate literal images. And of course this gravity works in single poems as well.

The Passerby

Now that you’re dead
I can’t ask you for a recommendation,
my possible employment at the pharmacy
is kaput.

Now that you’re dead
I’ve developed a slight stutter—
I hope you’re proud of yourself
in your snowless light.

Ah—this isn’t fair,
How that I’m alive
are you bored with my enthusiasm
already?, do you want to play

Mine, mine—
Harbor in a name.
Dead passerby, dead name,

You’re not listed in my address book,
I’m on a bridge,
out of matches.

Now that you’re dead
surrender is a forgiven sound—
the end of smoke,
the beginning of smoke

when you memory
temporarily returns.

(From Envelope)

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