Poetry After The Fall

From the archives (November 20, 2016):

Review of Belmont by Stephen Burt (USA: Graywolf Press, 2013)
by Ng Yi-Sheng

It’s thoroughly strange to review a book like this in a world where Donald Trump’s just been elected President. Over the past week, my Facebook friends have shared poems online about grief, trauma and heartbreak; soon I imagine we’ll be seeing rousing works about the need to fight, to defy authority, to rally together and survive.

The book in my hands contains none of these things. Its title is Belmont, and it is the third volume of poetry by Harvard university professor Stephen Burt, a man best known for coining the term “elliptical poetry” in his criticism. Its poems are centred on the autobiographical perspective of a parent of small children in white suburbia—hence the title, referencing the town of Belmont on the outskirts of Boston, where Burt lives.

Yet the book is beautiful, and it is worth reading in these troubled times. Burt is a master of description, able to engrave the strange, crystalline loveliness of the everyday, refusing to take it for granted.

Look at the opening of his first piece, “Poem of Nine A.M.”:

Sing for us whose troubles
are troubles we’re lucky to have:
cold orange juice, and cold coffee,
corridor after corridor as our
circadian rhythms fall into place:
work is a refuge from home, and home from work.
We have task force reports,
but no tasks, and no force,
so far removed from concrete and crisp air
we might be living anywhere,
enjoying each other’s company, within bounds.

Throughout the first of his book’s three sections, Burt continues to document his upper-middle-class landscape, in poems like “To Subarus”, “Exploring the Suburbs” and “Sunday Afternoon”. He also continues to specifically examine morning rituals by the hour, in “Belmont Overture (Poem of Eight A.M.)”, “Poem of Seven A.M.”, “Poem of Six A.M.”.

This isn’t an aggrandisation of the white picket fence, nor is it a manifesto of rage against conformity. Rather, I see it as an admission that none of this is normal, no matter how often it’s been portrayed in films and sitcoms.

There’s also a deep level of warmth that permeates this section, due to the fact that it’s also a chronicle of what it’s like to become the parent of a small child. I use the word “parent” rather than “father” deliberately—there’s a fascinating androgyny to these poems, which are thoroughly domestic, expressing none of the traditional tropes of overprotectiveness, regret for distance, or transmission of male privilege and responsibility that one might expect.

Instead, what comes across is tenderness and surprise at the experience—typified by the odd, fragmented stanzas of “Nathan”—and a respect for a child’s perspective, as seen in “A Sock Is Not a Human Being”, a poem commissioned by and quoting from the poet’s son.

There’s a shift in Section Two, where Burt lets his thoughts run free, taking inspiration from subjects as diverse as pop punk in “For Avril Lavigne” and 19th century photography in “Two Victorian Scenes”, an ekphrasis of the albumen prints of Lady Clementina Hawarden. Again, there’s an undercurrent of androgyny here, as the poet repeatedly explores and identifies himself with female figures—most notably in “So Let Am Not”, in which he adopts the voice of a teenage girl, pondering her own beauty and awkwardness, asserting how “I have never been that flirty girl… Once or twice/I did come close. I was almost a flirty girl.”

My favourite poem here, however, is a prose poem titled “Draft Camp”, dedicated to the WNBA:

We are specialists of sorts, or out of sorts. Too many people care what we are wearing.

One of us could spot a wren on a dare in a darkening glade from sixty yards away. One of us can lift any four others. One of us died. One of us stops conversations with her hawkish malachite-green eyes.

We have had repeatedly to admit that we are individual bodies, roaming through contested, crowded space, and then to believe we are part of one another, enrolled in very temporary combinations, minute-to-minute teams.

And why shouldn’t everyone hope to be selected? Don’t we all wait through life, choose me, choose me?

One of us can snap almost any tree limb. Another can be a tree, hard to get over, almost impossible to see around. Most of us have been called and called again.

One of us can draw blood with a glance. One can steal the sides of a scalene triangle, the green off any leaf, pickpocket the oxygen out of the air. Some of us have worked and traveled past the point of diminishing returns.

One and only one will be remembered in 25 years, her number hoisted up like constellations, winched and fixed in an indoor sky.

And why shouldn’t everyone hope to be selected? Don’t we all wait through life, choose me, choose me?

Here we have a classically feminist affirmation of the strength of young women, ascribed with superhuman powers worthy of Greek myth—snapping a tree, becoming a tree, dying and perhaps returning to life. The descriptions are all the more evocative for their occasional abstraction. (What can it mean to “steal the sides of a scalene triangle, the green off any leaf”? I can only imagine how useful such skills would be on the court.) Then there’s the idea they are both “individual bodies” and “part of one another”, conjuring up an image of a utopian matriarchy, where all are united, but all are also free.

Yet the poem stresses not the greatness of these girls, but their vulnerability: the impermanence of their youth and promise, the cruel truth that glory and fame are apportioned to the few. This gathering of phenomenal women must be stripped down to a single name, as stated in the prophecy, “One and only one will be remembered in 25 years”—the number jotted out in digits like a statistic.

It’s a cruel winnowing. And it strikes a special chord right now, after Hillary Clinton’s been denied the presidency in favour of a man worth less than a paring from her toenail. In her concession speech, she famously proclaimed:

And to all the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.

Like the basketballers of Burt’s poem, she pits hope against desperation and oblivion. We applaud the sentiment, but as adults, we know the truth. Oblivion is winning.

Much of Belmont is in fact devoted to this process of growing up and shedding potential. There are pointedly nostalgic pieces, such “Little Lament for the Legion of Super-Heroes”, “Self-Portrait as a Muppet” and “In Memory of the Rock Band Breaking Circus”, all invoking fading icons of comics, TV and music.

But it’s in Section Three, mostly consisting of meditative, soulful geographies (“Sunday Afternoon in Chapultepec Park”, “Kendall Square in the Rain”) that contains the most poignant of metaphors for adulthood. “An Atlas of the Atlas Moth” is a confession of the hollowness of maturity, using the metaphor of a huge Southeast Asian moth:

Now I am an adult & I will never eat again.
All the weight & elaboration that ever took in
a morsel of anything
save air & sex have fallen away
& remain in my soft cocoon, whose lost array

of silk will last longer than I do…

But there is more to this portrait than gloom. Look at the delicacy of the language employed: how the caterpillar’s fatness is not discarded but has “fallen away/& remain in my soft cocoon”. Later, Burt expounds on the “fleet of sparkles”, how “[t]ransparency/like mica occupies/my awkward fourfold wings”. There is beauty even in the complete sentences of the poem, in the use of ampersands that both mimic the shape of a moth and suggest the sophistication that comes with age.

And though the poem is something of an epitaph—the Atlas moth only lives a few days as an adult—the book offers a mirror and something of a remedy in the last poem of the collection, “Butterfly with Parachute”, which I’ll quote in full:

A real one wouldn’t need one
but the one Nathan draws surely does:
four oblongs the size and color of popsicles,
green apple, toasted coconut and grape,
flanked, two per side, by billowing valentine hearts,
in a frame of Scotch tape.
Alive, it could stay off the floor,
for a few unaerodynamic minutes;
thrown as a paper airplane, for one or two more.

Very sensibly, therefore,
our son gave it something, not to keep it apart
from the ground forever, but rather to make safe its descent.
When we ask that imagination discover the limits
of the real
world only slowly,
maybe this is what we meant.

This is another tale of a doomed insect, but infused with the warmth of family, littered with the domestic bric-a-brac of tape and paper planes. Here also are the vibrant colours and tastes of youth—“popsicles,/green apple, toasted coconut and grape”—all wrapped up in a whimsical vision, sprung from the mind of a child. And as a whole, it’s an affirmation that art—even a clumsy crayon doodle—is a tool that stands against death.

For much of the world, Trump’s election was a death event. What we lost was our faith in an American dream: a conviction that democracy and multiculturalism were going to usher everyone into a state of harmony and prosperity.

But perhaps may we view the disaster not as the end of America, but as a stage in the country’s life cycle. A sign that it must come to terms with its limitations, and accept a new status quo.

The days ahead are dark, but in this new state of defeat, dreams, fancy and beauty may be lifesavers. Urgent battles must be fought, but amidst the fervour, there is still room for reflection and the subtle word.

There is still room for poetry.

And if poetry survives, then it is not yet time to despair.


Ng Yi-Sheng is a Singaporean writer and LGBT activist. In 2008, he won the Singapore Literature Prize for his debut poetry collection last boy. His other books include the novel Eating Air and the recently published Loud Poems for a Very Obliging Audience. He is a founding member of the spoken word troupe Party Action People and an organiser of the annual queer literary reading ContraDiction. He tweets and Instagrams at @yishkabob.