Nightboat Books: Callicoon, NY, 2008. 382 pages. $19.95.
In “Renaming My Face,” the preface to his Envelope of Night, Michael Burkard discusses the movement in his writing process from one of extensive rewriting to what we might call “first draft, best draft.” “I could see that in overwriting I had taken the pulse and the face away from my poems,” he writes. “My decision was not to rewrite.” Such a poetics would seemingly place his work within the lineages of Surrealism and The New American Poetry, yet the poetry continually resists—“eludes” may be the better word—such pat designations. In the end, Burkard’s influences are better guessed at than conclusively named, especially because his work diverges from that of the mentors—Duncan, Creeley, Levertov, and the great Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer—toward whom the book gestures.
Like John Ashbery, whose idiosyncrasies and wide range of influences also defy easy categorization, from book to book and from poem to poem Burkard is unmistakably himself. Ostensibly mapping the movement toward regaining that pulse, that face, Envelope of Night shows the particular “Burkard-ness” of the work—the face that remains even as it is renamed again and again. Selecting from In a White Light (1977), None, River (1979), Ruby for Grief (1981), The Fires They Kept (1986), and Fictions from the Self (1988), Envelope also includes “A Thief in the Lamp,” a book-length section of uncollected poems. (All these volumes are themselves out of print.)
Burkard arrived on the late-seventies scene as a poet writing the dream-lives of the narrative autobiographical poem of that moment. The poet documented in Envelope of Night writes works whose insides are caught up in their own quantum-mechanical exchanges, whose apparent narratives continually break down the boundary between subject and object. This is a fractal world, dramatized deftly, if obliquely, in “Wren: Three Mirrors”—a poem I take as an update of Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”:
There, by that water which is also
beyond, two black wings turn in their mirror,
the mirror the tree makes above them, and then
break with the incomplete torture of the shade
In lines like these, Burkard, like Stevens, shows us a world that is relative and multiple; going beyond Stevens, the poet shows us a reality continually changed by the “incomplete torture” of its interconnected, overlapping reflections. Yet in Burkard’s hands these distortions are welcome; they push the prosaic into the poetic, the domestic into dream. To Burkard, we have always been living a life buoyed by the unseen, the uncanny. “‘I’ is empty,” the poet writes in “Railway in a Winter Landscape.” “Like someone drowned with their father on.”
This empty “I” compels the young Burkard to the page. The self here navigates its own self-made, self-mythological narratives. Yet even as the poet seemingly constructs an entire ontology based on such narratives, the extent of the philosophical import remains interior and domestic, like the houses and rooms to which Burkard’s “I” often returns. At times it’s even as if the “I” walks into someone else’s poem, its gravitational force bending the text, disturbing its furnishings—but in muted, meditative tones that invite, and ultimately resist, epiphany:
I will still feel some importance in altering the room,
because there you were, the pastiche of some lovely
distant star as I surrounded only my small self,
—“Study for Orange and Black”
This is the small-e ecstatic, situated in the immanent, “still alive.” The Burkard-ness of these works reminds one how different, however slightly, each of our worlds is. In their unending proliferation these worlds jostle among and within one another; for Burkard this jostling is itself poetry, full of beautiful warps and bends. These poems, like the stories described in the book’s first piece, “The Artist’s Sister,” “are houses, / the interiors of houses. They are not that formal.” “They want to prepare you for the outside,” the poet writes, “sometimes talking like orchids.”