Reviewed by Mike Smith
Writing on Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell observed that “it is impossible to comment on him without the humiliating thought that he himself could do it better.” I feel similarly about reviewing Stephen Burt’s Parallel Play, for I first became aware of Burt through his work as a critic and scholar. But perhaps this is suggestive of the kind of poet Burt reveals himself to be in his second collection. Like Jarrell, Burt the poet shares much with Burt the critic: the speaker in Parallel Play is, with few exceptions, the author; the poems are often in second-person (the reader as conversation partner or eavesdropper); Burt’s voice is discursive, witty, precise. There is a satisfying tension between the topicality (and topical language) of these poems and the subtle use of more conventional devices, not to mention the considerable intelligence evident behind them.
Despite the book’s title, the favored moment of these poems is the twilight of contemporary American adolescence rather than toddler-hood. Often, the poems evoke and comment on instances of stubborn persistence in the face of stubborn persistence, the plans that should not work but do, the imitation product that is “‘funner,’ a customer says / agreeably, ‘than the real thing.’” It’s the formality of the precisely placed “agreeably” that sticks with you, not the young customer’s misuse of language. The characteristic stance is the ironic “Us/Them” of, say, high school theatre groups who watch the spectacle of the Oscars for the camp, not the clothes.
Burt’s connection to Randall Jarrell is stronger than the happenstance that they are known equally as poets and critics. Burt has authored a book on Jarrell and collaborated on another. Aesthetically, they share a great deal, and, in places, Jarrell’s presence becomes almost corporeal, as in “Rachel Newcastle: Diptych: Girl and Diary”:
She balances her journal in one hand:
The trouble is, when you’re not anything
You think you could be all kinds of things
And then you choose. And then you are one thing
And nothing else is you--the other things
You could have been aren’t yours to keep or say.
Is it possible not to perceive “A Girl in the Library” behind the blank-verse (though Burt’s iambic pentameter is much stricter than Jarrell’s) and occasional rhymes, the speaker’s literary voice charmingly sympathetic to its subject “Half-lost in the large world of settled things”? More often, I see this affinity with Jarrell through Burt’s preference for female speakers and subjects, basketball players, and kittens. However, Burt’s female subjects and speakers are all heroes: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, not the unhappy woman of “Next Day”; a professional basketball player so good she plays by her own rules, not an undergraduate sleeping under an official rulebook.
Parallel Play is divided into four sections, and poems of personal history bookend the collection. The second section is devoted to poems about NYC, the poet and his companions as tourists. The third section continues this theme of traveler, but also includes some overtly political poems that are the least achieved in the book. The experiment of these poems is whether or not the poet can master, for his own purposes, the mode of spin practiced by our current administration, in which reasons and justifications do not matter. Or, if they matter, it’s only for their usefulness as catalysts to further action. For the most part, Burt masters this mode of discourse without paying many of the predictable costs. And it’s a brave move, requiring an odd mix of looseness and certainty, though sometimes in these few poems the voice becomes too familiar, the well-meaning friend who repeats the same conversation over and over again, earnestly fighting fire with fire, as in the sestina “Our History,” which begins: “What else can I say about my country / this country where the worst of the evildoers / win popularity contests, and the poor / crowd into the army.” But I’m being unfair. Even within this third section, the successful pieces outnumber the poems I’ve been describing. “The Road Builder” strikes a different note entirely: “Nothing is spared. / The prayerful, seemingly rickety high / Radio towers let the wind beseech / Them.” Such poems recapture the voice of the first two sections of the book and its nearly endless capacity to surprise and to fulfill.
The last poems of Parallel Play recapture this voice as well, and they also return to the territory of the first two sections, further proving Burt’s considerable lyrical gifts. We also get in this fourth section a decent dose of Ekphrastic verse, that well-lit room in the house of poetry in which most contemporary writers spend some time and into which some even move their bureau and bed. I admire Burt’s choices, Gerhard Richter and Franz Kline, but I’m even more impressed by the poems that respond to other literature, such as the expertly rendered, wicked, and funny “Six Kinds of Noodles.”
you, too, been trying to keep up with John Ashbery?
Every time I check there’s another new book,
another entry--entrée--on the menu
from which I seem to have ordered my whole life . . .
The familiar forms present in Parallel Play are structural more often than metrical and achieve their effects through off-rhyme, assonance, and even greater stretches. I suspect that the same aesthetic impulse that lies behind Burt’s preference for non-metrical, historically pseudo-serious forms such as the sestina and villanelle (or his remarkable “Paysage Moralise,” in which the same word ends each of the poem’s thirty lines) lies, also, behind the attempt to recover the possibilities for ironic earnestness buried in the language of American commerce and politics. The villanelle I have in mind is “For Lindsay Whalen,” WNBA basketball player. It’s characteristic of Burt to choose a form of evident strain to convey observations like “You don’t show off. We know you by your moves / A feint, a viewless pass, a perfect tease / Make space for all the skills that you can use.” Then, later: “--Win or lose, // Such small decisions, run together, fuse / In concentration nothing like the ease / We seem to see in all the skills you use, / Till someone wins. Then someone else will lose.” Burt’s not showing off either, since so many of the poems point out the consequences of action and performance. Above all, this book is courageous work.