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David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee is the author of The Red Tower: New and Selected Poems (NewSout, 2010) and The Pilot House (Black Lawrence Press, 2011). His new collection, School of the Americas is due out in 2012, also from Black Lawrence Press. He is a Pushcart Prize winner for 2012.

David Rigsbee reviews "Lucky Coat Anywhere" By Michael Burkard

Lucky Coat Anywhere
by Michael Burkard

176 pages
Nightboat Books

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You know what they used to say about prepositions, rabbits, and logs. It's about all the words available to describe how the first get around the second. Of course, there are both finite and unlimited ways of doing this. The finite are attached to the prepositions that give us the GPS information: they are about precision. But we also know—or if you are a skeptic suspect—there are other ways. We are taught (if we are taught) to approach art the first way—prepositionally, and the methods that inhere in this approach become crochets over time. For what art teaches, if it teaches anything, is not to trust the prepositions to have the whole truth about those wily rabbits. Michael Burkard's poems make the same point, but because there seems no way around the impasse created by poems so resistant to paraphrase, his has often been confused with other kinds of poetry. Nowadays, poetry readers are old hands at reading "discontinuous" or "indeterminate" poetry. We are taught that the cloud-chamber effect of the mind's sloppy unspooling chimes nicely with reality: it is, in effect, the new realism. However, it would be misleading to lump all paraphrase-resistant poets together, if for no other reason than the fact that lineages matter.

I have been reading Michael Burkard's poems since the 1970s when they were received with much more chin-stroking than now. Back then he was variously thought to be a) an imitator of Ashbery; b) a language poet, or c) the loopiest avatar of Iowa expressionist aesthetics—with perhaps an overlay of French and/or Eastern European surrealism, perhaps with a sprinkling of Russian, à la Pasternak or Chekhov. I remember going to hear him read with a poet who has since surpassed both Burkard and me, certainly in name recognition. After the reading she turned to me and said, "I think he may be more important than any of us." She meant, presumably, poets of our generation. The remark struck home: we were all in our ways, ambitious. What she heard in that reading was not the puzzling loose ends and obsessively picked-over curlicues, which often boiled down to merely a fascination with words in their naked strangeness. Rather, she heard beneath the language-y heaving of the surface the ease that Burkard felt with that language. It was all the more impressive in that language was, to us, so problematic, and would continue to be so, as the subsequent years forced us to confront the bad news of endless theorists punching holes in our vaunted subjectivity and demanding that we justify our endeavors in ways we had never contemplated before. Burkard seemed to write blissfully apart from those concerns. He seemed to feel comfortable coming and going among his chosen registers, pausing here and there to linger over a bit of language, not alienated in its triviality (or, for that matter, its majesty, if such were still possible), but it was masterful, and that same quality has been on display throughout Burkard's career.

A quick look, by way of contrast, with the poet to whom he is most often compared—Ashbery—shows that the latter, whose alienated language and ironic stance are pro forma postmodernist yoga poses—often embarks upon poetic projects, true experiments of language, and just as often with experiments, the results are sometimes puzzling (think The Tennis Court Oath or Flowchart), although the hits are as triumphant as the misses are palpably bummers. Burkard's career doesn't chart the same kinds of peaks and valleys, nor does it exhibit the kind of progression we recognize and look for in other poets, thanks to our training. Nor does Burkard subscribe to the school of proven ways. In fact, his disinclination to do so could lead you to surmise that here is a poet whose ambition, because it doesn't arc into a familiar career, also doesn't take the shape of an oeuvre. Yet, you would be wrong, and as if to preempt that thought, NightBoat Books recently published Envelope of Night: Selected and Uncollected Poems, 1966-1990, a black, square stepping-stone of a book that invites you to look back over three decades of work, beginning with In a White Light (1977).

The new work bears out the suspicion that he is a fine, if odd, poet. One of the many dimensions of his fineness is the possibility that he is something more than fine and it is we who are odd. Lucky Coat Anywhere is all by itself an ample volume. If no traditional progression marks the distance from there to here, still one finds what the Burkardian universe has always been comprised of: dreams, travel, streams (of water, of conversations), geographical nodes and depots, friends, family. The poems record what it's like just to go down the stream, but they also want you to feel that stream too, both of consciousness and subconsciousness: the boats and secrets, the distances and voices, the devices and accessories of transport are all here. I suspect that Burkard's work is in some way an extended essay on transport, particularly in that secondary sense of ecstatic movement where consciousness doubles back and looks in on itself (though closer to what the French after Baudelaire meant than to the blossoming of conscience in the act of auto-surveillance, which is the province of moralists, not aesthetes like him).

Discontinuous or indeterminate poetry, of which Burkard's poems provide exemplary texts, also provide an instance of limited aesthetic wholes, although—and here is the rub—they also do the contrary thing: they don't meet up with familiar integrity and closure standards. The ambivalence is not a posture. As a result, readers and reviews have had a hard time pigeon-holing his work. None of the identities mentioned above seems to fit just right. He is far from the theoretical poetry left, whose diffidence toward significance and the benighted disciples of transcendence are the hallmarks of American poetomachia. I remember a former colleague of Burkard's once losing his tolerance for too much of that spiritualist talk—which must have reminded professors of his generation of the table-thumpers in Yeats, Madame Blavatsky, the '60s, and all that) and responding with a rousing, "You can take your transcendence and stick it up your ass!"). While casting a Gioconda smile at the material side of words, Burkard is fond of stories and self-mythology. The narrative or submerged narrative of the poem often straddles the line between reality and dream for its source: the poet doesn't seem to find the distinctions all that meaningful. He's also fond of language's ability to become dream-like and haunting when it becomes quotational, and he often will pause to rehearse a word or phrase in quotation, as if considering a rare specimen or revisiting a phrase for its dreamlike quality. Here is a passage from the poem "anger" that shows many of Burkard's felicities on display: the theme-and-variation, the ease of subjective discourse, the after-Kafka feeling of menace mixed with absurd humor, the use of quotational inspection, and the final, emergent tone of tenderness:

       the next day and the day after that I was forced to read interview in which
             i said I loved myself—I was talking in the interview about myself by
             name—in the third person—my voice was described by investigators as
            " pinned to the fills of a fish"
      " if you must know" they said—"don't stop reading aloud until we tell
             you to" was another thing said as a reminder
       my voice wanted to see you darling but you were nowhere to be found
       i was glad for that—I would not have wanted you to be found
       still I missed you like today—and I tried to hear you in the words
             between the words I had to read—sometimes I pretended you must
             have written these words for me—as a major joke
             I would eventually get

While the distance between them is not inconsiderable, Burkard does sometimes favor Ashbery, but without the elder poet's tony urban eclecticism and in-the-knowness. Where Ashbery is centrifugal, Burkard is centripedal. It is closer to the truth to see Burkard's styleset as rooted in Iowa (where Middle America, also, hatches its avant garde) and its aesthetic reach, with a dose of Tate and Knott to raise the decibel level. Yet Burkard is not everyone's cup of tea. In truth, in spite of my friend's prediction, Burkard has, over the years, turned into something of a coterie act, although his readers were and are devoted. The times have caught up with him, and while his poetry may not have brought him the sober attention of a Harold Bloom, it doesn't inspire the puzzlement of editors or reviewers anymore, either. And yet my friend was right in sensing something about Burkard's importance, although it has taken me several decades to realize what that is.

Words are public tools. Their application in matters of privacy (the matter of lyric poetry, for instance) has always been problematic and, so to speak, unnatural. Poets have ever resorted to tricks to force language to cohere as closely as possible to experience and called it authenticity. More recently, poets have noted the widening distance between the plane of language and that of experience, with the result that the tools of language become ironic, and language itself in the course of its descriptions and expressions, becomes eventually—sometimes completely—quarantined within quotation marks. Burkard's work seeks neither the license for authenticity, nor the estrangements of form. His great talent is to write as if he thought words, thoughts and feelings were interchangeable, and thus he almost exhibits a sense of serenity with his linguistic circumstance. For others making (or writing) poems is at best a game of approximations and educated guesses, in spite of endless workshops and the flogging of craft. Because ease is omnipresent, you can point your finger anywhere in Burkard's poems and find the poet signifying there as truly as the conventional poet does when forced, in escalating stages of suspence, to show you the reveal, as magicians say. Burkard's work is a kind of sortes Virgilianae, the old practice of opening to a random passage in Virgil to find one's fortune. For instance:

       When talking about black horses
       in white envelopes we are obviously
       talking about very small horses.
       It is important to tell just how,
       if at all, the horses died, and to
       be precise as to whether the horses
       are figuratively dead or really dead.
       The envelopes become less and less

       But days later the envelopes
       become more important in unexpected
       ways. You realize very deeply
       they are white, not off-white
       or almost-white or anything-else-
       white but white. They are also
       very small, not much larger
       than the small black horses.

 ( "Black Horses in White Envelopes")

As is evident here, Burkard also flattens the emotional range, ledge-walking next to a drop into yadda-yadda that he consistently avoids. It is an impressive performance. It is as if he were comparing himself to a parody of himself, but showing that imagined parody to be untrue to the nature of conversation's aims, which are to have no aim, other than the to-ing and fro-ing of existence itself.

Several of the longer sectioned poems here remind me of the cadenza-filled jazz compositions of someone like Tim Berne, whose improvisational spaces add up to a cacophony of energetic vibrations, to theme-and-variations with a vengeance, as if to suggest that no theme can stand without its variation—often escalating variations, and no semblance can emerge without a resemblance. After a while, you may be led to feel that the original formula has been lost, but it hasn't. It just takes its position as a seeding mechanism from which other versions arise as the mind works forward, as the emotions move through their metamorphoses. The whole then coalesces around the guiding voice to form a larger aesthetic whole, though without the falsely reassuring click of closure, such as characterizes—or should I say besets—more conventional lyric set pieces.

"A Retreat of Chairs" is such a set of poems (there are four). The first poem begins with the kind of noodling familiar to musicians:

       some of my favorite handwriting isn't there
      — that should be no surprise
       you want to ve a shore to a wounded boy

       in one sketchbook some pages are kept there
       to keep the safe and flat—how can i talk about this?—

       and on/within one early page is apiece of writing,
       and a piece of drawing—the drawing is ver heavy ink—

And so forth. The second poem still seems unwilling to reveal the meaning of the cryptic title ("old wood, an eater late at night when (where?) no one/can watch what his mouth swallows—"). The third poem, however, introduces a Kafkaesque note that approaches this eponymous chair:

      at one university you can request, on your birthday,
      and you have to provide proof it is your birthday
      beyond the records and university currently keeps,
      and you may be called upon to do this in front of
      a strange panel, and then you will exchange places
      with one member of the panel, for a few minutes, to
      see what you yourself would have thought of this
      additional birthday "evidence,"...

 ("retreat of chairs (3)")

Notice how Burkard moves in and out of quotational space, dandling the word "evidence," which takes on all the believeability of a John Boehner tan when uttered by the "strange panel." The fourth poem finally delivers the goods, as if no delay or alternative had been in the way:

      at this one university you can request to go on
      a retreat of chairs, you have to be a chair, you
      cannot be the chair of a suicide, nor can there be
      a suicide's chair within three generations of your
      family or any of your last family.

With their recursive images and rhetorical loops, Burkard's poems reload all the old questions that cluster around the problem of a private language. Is it desirable or even possible to write in such a way that you privatize discourse and so deprive it of its conventional job of communicating content? The answer, in a nutshell, is no. A so-called private language presents a contradiction on its face: loses its "privacy" by virtue of the premise of communication itself, which is its social nature. Yet how does one experience the most intimate, profound, or for that matter, ordinary dreams of others? How does one escape the lyric poem's endless demonstrations of solipsism? Burkard's poems answer by not paying you back for coming at them by conventional readings. And that, reader, is a good thing.

Because language is also omnidirectional, it lends itself to perspectives and the only bird's-eye view is the imagined one. It's also Stevensian, and a number of the poems in Lucky Coat Anywhere seem riffs on "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," which is, you might say, the ultimate poem because it concedes everything while refusing to give up giving up. I have been reading Burkard's poetry for a long time, and his work has been important to me: in my own instance, my friend's pronouncement on hearing him read has proved true. He is one of the poets I turn to when I need to be reminded how poetry improves upon reality, and I always find there that trope of surprise that Emerson promised us, if only we would cleave to the homemade, not the handed-down. For surprise calls upon our capacity for wonder, which is the stance of the lover, not the manipulator, the analyst, or the power-freak.