Wednesday, February 13, 2013


One online reviewer of Christopher Bursk’s books of poetry claims that Bursk’s poems are addictive, and I can attest to that.  Recently I grabbed one of his books off my shelf and headed to a medical appointment.  In the waiting room, I started reading the poems, in order, from the beginning of the book.  I was enjoying them so much that I was disappointed, even miffed, when I was interrupted by the nurse.  Later, impatient, I hurried home and read the rest of the book.  Yes, Christopher Bursk’s poems are addictive.

My favorite of his books is The Improbable Swervings of Atoms, which won the 2004 Donald Hall Prize in Poetry.  Besides his devotion to language, what I appreciate most about the poems is the approach by which he employs history in a personal way to relate how a boy growing up in the 1950s in the US tries to make sense of the world around him.  These poems are humorous while often, and at the same time, poignant, even painful.

“One Nation, Indivisible, Under God” begins:

On the day that the St. Lawrence Seaway opened
for saltwater ships to sail deep into the heart of America,
I was being launched into water too,
my head stuck in the toilet
thanks to the good offices of the student council
vice president, the class treasurer, and the captain
of the volleyball team,….

In “E Pluribus Unum”:

…and what is going through your head
is a locker room full of naked presidents,
all the Jamses and Johns showering together.
When you got on the school bus this morning
you didn’t plan to think about Grover Cleveland
scrubbing Chester Arthur’s back….

“Irreconcilable Differences” starts out:

Khrushchev and Eisenhower, that old married couple,
were bickering again, over how often
each could blow up the other,
but I had more pressing matters to deal with:
exactly when and where I’d have a chance to
get Sally Hamilton’s blouse unbuttoned.

And these are just a few of my favorite poems in this book!

Click here to see this book on Amazon.

The Christopher Bursk book I grabbed and took with me to a medical appointment, and with which I became absorbed/addicted, was The First Inhabitants of Arcadia.  Here, it’s not history but the English language and literature he uses to anchor his narrative poems about growing up.  Early in the book, he explains that in junior high he “invented/ theories about the letters/ of the alphabet/ and the lives they led,…”  Throughout the book, he employs this device to tell stories about different letters.  One example is “Why a Boy Is Drawn to Lowercase p” which begins:

It even looks dirty, dangling
below the line
like a kid taking a leak
while treading water.  For some boys
that’s paradise:
to be able to piss
in public,…

Also included in this book are poems which describe the adolescent male’s encounters with various homework assignments of high-school literature classes.  Here the high-school sophomore tasked to memorize “Dover Beach” churlishly characterizes Matthew Arnold as “a fop with porkchop whiskers” — about and from whom the teenager wishes to learn nothing, declaring with typical adolescent high drama:

If I gave in and felt sorry for all the poets
who didn’t know when to shut up,
let myself worry about the entire nineteenth century
and even the poor teachers who made us read
that panic disguised as elegy,
I’d not make it
to my next class, much less survive one more
day on this planet, its confused alarms,
its ignorant armies, its darkling plain.

Or how, in another poem, after:

One lucky classmate got Ginsberg, another Kerouac.
A third, Hemingway.  I got a woman
with three names.  A whole semester
with the spinster author….

The boy wants to get back at the teacher for this assignment and plans to “dig up dirt, turn bobbins into dildos, a sewing kit/ into a womb” in each essay he writes on this allotted author.  At the end of the poem, in dismay, the teen asks:

Why did the very writer I was determined to despise
have to turn out to be not so different
from me?...
What hope was there for me
if I was going to fall in love
with everyone I read?

Click here to see this book on Amazon.

Bursk’s narrative poems capture not only the sometimes absurd imaginative world of the boy — his fictions about the lives of letters and his perceived maltreatment at the hands of English teachers and their homework assignments — but also the angst of a boy growing up against a backdrop of large world events.  Bursk has an eye for the revealing illustration that is both penetrating and compassionate.  These brilliantly observed moments are truly engrossing because they’re rendered with disciplined musical sense and a true craftsman’s knowledge of his material.  With a seemingly easy, conversational music, formed of one exactly right word after another, Bursk’s poems radiate with grace, energy and understanding.

Christopher Bursk, recipient of NEA, Guggenheim, and Pew Fellowships, is the author of nine books.  In addition to having worked as a volunteer for three decades in the corrections system, with those on probation and parole, he is currently a professor of language and literature at Bucks County Community College.  His work has appeared in magazines such as Paris Review, American Poetry Review, Poetry, Manhattan Review, and The Sun.  His poem, “Ovid at Fifteen,” won the Another Chicago Magazine Award, judged by Robert Dana.  He has been recognized for his work with prisoners, the homeless, food banks and women’s shelters and has won numerous awards for his humanitarian and literary efforts including Bucks County Citizen of the Year and Poet Laureate of Bucks County.  His book, The Infatuations and Infidelities of Pronouns, won the Bright Hill Chapbook competition.

Here are three poems Christopher Bursk sent me to share with our readers:
Why Algebra Ought Not to Be Taught 

When I'm 10, you'll be 70,
and when I'm 20, you'll be 80
and when I'm 30, you'll be 90.
By the time we pull into our driveway I'm older 
than the trees planted by my home’s original owner.
I'll be 40 and you'll be 100.
You'll be 110 and I'll be 50.
My grandson likes how this will always stay the same 
between us. Long before junior high he's fallen in love
with algebra, the equal sign's unrelenting logic.
No matter what the world is like –
what seas shrivel, what cities burn,
plague, conflagration, tidal wave, war – 
when I'm 120 and Jake's 60,  things will continue
to add up. Jake can't get over the power of zero,
the metric system, that act of faith
that lets us put a 1 next to a 0 
and have it mean 10
and add another 0 and it's 100,
the universe infinitely expanding on the paper 
before him. If you're 2000, I'll be 1,940.
You'll be 4,000,080 and I'll be 4,000,020.
School's over for the day but Jake's still doing math
at the kitchen table, increasing his life expectancy 
and mine till we're as ancient 
as Biblical prophets or the ocean or  solar system.
As we wait for his mother to come home
time multiplies before our eyes:
You'll be 5,000,090 
and I'll be 5,000,030.
The unswerving hubris of the exponential, 
the autonomy of zero, 
the impenetrable beauty of all these circles in a row.

A Shower on the Bridge between Trenton and Morrisville

The cops left the rain in charge
of crowd control. We are so drenched now
what’s the point of packing up?
It’s too wet to imagine ourselves
anywhere else. The rain won’t let our minds
wander. It prolongs its interrogation,
wanting answers, but nothing we say
could satisfy it. Honk for peace
we shout like a gaggle of geese
who’ve made themselves so obvious
drivers have to steer around them.
The worst place to stand in such a shower
is on a bridge. Everywhere we turn: weather
with no intention of making this day
any easier for us. Soaked,
there’s no comfort to be had
gazing at a river. Look up
and the sky might as well be a lake.
If only the rain were just an old busybody 
who can’t help repeating himself,
and, if ignored, might go away,
but this muscle-bound, methodical 
downpour, this munitions factory 
assembly-line worker, this assistant 
district attorney? No one knows better than rain
how to reduce everyone to a common
denominator. What are we doing
five or six miles from where Washington crossed
the ice-cold Delaware, forming a human chain
across a bridge whose huge blinking sign
The rain exiles all,
takes a beat-up city, and beats it senseless.
We hold up placards that began bleeding
as the first drops fell, no match 
for the rain, its familiar, relentless,
uncompromising history lesson.

Hulmeville Marine Dies in Car Bomb
    - For Cpr. Robert Parnell 

The kid I taught the difference between affect and effect
is front page news today, only he didn't get there 
by pitching his Babe Ruth team to the playoffs.
At the breakfast tables of 33,500 newspaper readers 
he gives up his life for his country. 
Soon I'll get paper and pen and write a note 
to his mother whom I met at graduation
or maybe type a letter to the editor or my congressman.
Certainly I'll make a donation in Rob's memory.
That's how we humans fool ourselves: we act
as if there's always something we can do.
I turn to the place I look
when things stop making sense,
and out the window is the neighbor's kid
who seems to be growing muscles in the process
of jumpstarting his dad's mower. Often
cutting lawns is a suburban kid's first chance 
to feel anything come alive in his hand, 
spark plugs igniting, sheer urge bucking under his fingers.
He's not pushing as much as taming the mower, 
that id with blades, all that combustion his 
to do with as he wishes. 
At his age, tired by the day's fourth lawn, 
I'd be tempted not to stop the mower from its destiny: 
cutting down everything in its path 
till nothing fragrant remains
standing, every rose reminded of just how irrelevant 
beauty is to a blade. 
The boy takes no prisoners,
waging battle against infidels
sprouting back almost as soon as they're cut down.
Like many kids his age this boy seems to have no time 
for belts, their outdated strictures, 
his pants already slipped past his waist 
and riding his hips. Any minute 
they may slide all the way down
and he'll step out of them. The small of his back – 
wars could be fought over a thing that innocent.

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