Saturday, August 23, 2014

How A Mirage Works - Beverly Burch (Sixteen Rivers Press)

Today's book of poetry:
How a Mirage Works.  Beverly Burch.  Sixteen Rivers Press.  
San Francisco, California.  2014.

In 2004 Beverly Burch published Sweet to Burn (Gival Press), and I wrote about it on this blog and you can see it here:

I thoroughly enjoyed Sweet to Burn or I wouldn't have written about it — but this, How a Mirage Works, is a whole new ball game, this was written by a different woman, a different poet.

In ten years Beverly Burch has turned into an entirely different poet, one who oozes smart confidence but is never overbearing.  She is so sure of her voice that the reader just falls into Burchworld.

Picnic in Stone

We stopped for lunch, a bare schoolyard,
a wooden table exposed to summer sun.
I can't remember where we were going,
the state we were in—just a blank highway,
little insular towns. I can't remember
who was with me. An early lover?

Only how bleak it was beside the stone bleachers
where we held twin halves of a ham sandwhich,
lettuce wilting at the edges. Memory's
an old dog running off-trail. Now it returns
with a torn scarf, one rank sock: ragged pieces—
strained cheer, the taste of peaches,
yellow jackets working crooked little limbs
across a curl of green melon.


"yellow jackets working crooked little limbs
 across a curl of green melon."

That's a wickedly good line of poetry.

Burch is emotionally immediate without cloying over her misfortunes.  These poems are mature when they could be maudlin—and constantly filled with a search for both understanding and joy.

Today's book of poetry was thrilled to death and tickled pink to come across Burch's poem "Reading Ondaatje's Billy the Kid, I Paint My Nails.

Around our office Today's book of poetry is convinced that The Collected Works of Billy the Kid is one of the most important books of poetry ever written by a Canadian.  It is certainly one of the best.

So when an American poet notices and appreciates one of our heroes we notice.

Reading Ondaatje's Billy the Kid, I Paint My Nails

blood red and think of my father:
like Billy, angry weather in his head.
Everyone in our part of Georgia
mixed red dirt and alcohol. I took a few shots
myself, tripped on the back roads, skidded
the line. At six, I prowled the yard
in a sparkly red vest, tasseled boots,
lacquered pistol. My mother stopped me stealing
neighbor's red roses, made me say,
Sorry, ma'am. Billy himself was the pink of politeness.
First summer away, I wore a plaid bikini,
went to the beach with my forty-year-old boss,
his wife out of town. Radios played, "Hey there,
Little Red Ridin' Hood, you sure are lookin' good."
Billy's face was boyish, nothing like
the cyclone cowboy inside. His mind split
like red rock, so much murder he saw wounds in the sky.
in the air. My father blazed trails on skin,
hooked me on fear. Luckier than Billy, he cooled,
turned gray. After my mother died, a cousin
told me straight: when he was young, my father killed a man.
I think I knew, the way I felt born red-handed.


As always, Today's book of poetry is a sucker for a good list poem.  "Twenty Ways" is typical of my impression of Burch, she can have lightning quick, intense bursts of delicate anger and savage insight.

Twenty Ways

A woman sits up straight: she's on edge.
     She leans into the cushions: she's provocative.
She leans over to another woman: she's a gossip.
     She holds the other woman's hand: she's queer.
She holds an apple in her hand, she's a temptress.
     She slices the apple: she's tame. She slices
your heart out: she's a bitch. She wears a heart
     at her throat: she's a beauty. She wears a silk tie
at her throat: she's butch. She wears a silk camisole:
     she's a slut: She's slutty: she's a celebrity.
She celebrates herself: she's got nerve.
     She's celibate: she's pathetic. She's empathetic:
she's a sweet thing. She sweetens the deal:
     she's a honey pot. She hones her tongue:
she's a shrew. She's shrewd: she's deadly.
     She's dead: she's innocent. She's innocent:
she's a virgin. She's a virgin: she's on edge.


Beverly Burch has made a John Coltrane like Giant Step with How a Mirage Works.  This emotionally immediate poetry is full of the wonders of a wise and generous heart.  I'm looking forward to anything with the Burch name on it in the future.

Beverly Burch

BEVERLY BURCH’s  previous poetry collection, Sweet to Burn (Gival Press, 2004, won the Gival Poetry Prize and a Lambda Literary Award. Two non-fiction books on psychoanalytic theory and sexual orientation have also been published: On Intimate Terms (U. of Ill. Press) and Other Women (Columbia University Press). An Atlanta native, she’s lived most of her adult life in the Bay Area and has a psychotherapy practice in Berkeley, CA.

"How A Mirage Works is a powerful collection of poems.  Burch's mastery of the music of words is remarkable, and the poems stay alive long after they have been read. A poet's voice as richly nuanced as hers is a rare and always welcome thing."
     Thomas Ogden, author of The Parts Left Out: A Novel


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