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Ashley George Williams reviews
by Stephen Burt


Stephen Burt’s latest collection Belmont displays a style which has evolved seemingly between the boundaries of two critical theories he is famous for.  When reviewing a copy of Susan Wheeler’s book Smokes for the Boston Review in 1998, Burt defined what he believed should be referred to as the ‘elliptical poet’ or ‘elliptical writing’. The ‘elliptical poet’ he writes:

   ‘…manifest[s] a person—who speaks the poem and reflects the poet—while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves’

Burt continued to list Wheeler, Liam Rector, Lucie Brock-Broido and Mark Ford as such writers with Dickinson, Berryman, Ashberry and Auden noted as major influences.

Later in 2009 in an essay entitled “The New Things” he outlined a growing trend of contemporary American poets whereby writers:

‘Eschew sarcasm and tread lightly with ironies, and when they seem hard to pin down, it is because they leave space for interpretations to fit. . .’

 And also

‘... pursue compression, compact description, humility, restricted diction, and—despite their frequent skepticism—fidelity to a material and social world.’

The world described in Belmont is highly material and when pursued as romantic evaporates into the mundane and/or sarcastic. The first section of this three part book, resides around family life and a dull urban existence. Here nature is a clear antagonist of age and the ageing, from the very start Burt writes: 

 ‘Branches trailing at our stop

 are the nature we leave

 behind us gladly’

(from The People on the Bus)

Throughout this section, reflections on flowers, landscapes and sunsets all become a backdrop to the narrator’s apparent lack of dissatisfaction with his own world. Though this is alluded to in a manner which is both self-critical and evasive; it’s rather pensive than it is fatalistic.

‘A sock is not a human being’ echoes one description from “the new poetry” essay as a search for “well-made, unornamented things”.  The attempt is to bring back familiarity to something that is otherwise generic and mass-produced; one thinks of Magritte and that pipe.  In this section the shifts of elliptical poetry between low (or slangy) and high (or naively "poetic") diction is plainly displayed, highlighted in some instances by complete difference of form in single poem. ‘Nathan’ for example, is juxtaposed by two subsections of playful sentence structure, while the rest of the poem follows a fairly regular cadence.

The second section is an exploration of the ‘self’ and the other ‘selves’. Here there are witty remarks concerning Burt’s own identity ‘A pig addicted to lipstick’ (‘Self-portrait as a Muppet’) as well as larger self-flagellations (or are they just a realist’s perspective?)  of poetry ‘this poem like all poems was made entirely in school’ (‘The Paraphilia odes’).

I found this section less engaging than the first and I wasn’t too keen on certain pieces such as For Avril Lavigne’ which seemed a little stale in plot and voice.  There are some fun poems here though, I particularly enjoyed ‘Fictitious girl raised by Cats’ and the before mentioned, ‘The Paraphilia odes’.

The final section has the narrator in a much more settled mood though the themes and images of the previous two are still largely a threat.  In ‘Helplessness’ the “dozens of Canada geese” return to wreak havoc on a school playing field; they previously appeared in the narrators garden in ‘To Autumn’ in the first section of the book. 

Here I feel there is a slight lack of urgency though this may be reflective of the slight change of mood mentioned.  I feel the majority of the poems in this section are much stronger than the previous one; I was instantly drawn in by the final image of the first poem (‘Dulles Access Road’) ‘impregnable metal containers dissolve in the sky’. Though some poems here aren’t without their faults. The ‘what we can’t say openly, we say in poetry, speaking about another as myself’, (‘Kendall Square in the rain’) need not be said at all really and this seems a self-conscious attempt by Burt to register himself with elliptical poetry.

I find this book is at its best when it’s not trying to hard; the poems concerning family life, aging, inanimate objects, and Burt’s fears are the strongest. I wanted to like the poems concerning rock stars, bands, and science journals yet often lost interest when reading them.

Burt is obviously heavily influenced by the two strands of American poetry he has named and I have no quarrel with that.  I find the book at its best when Burt is observing his own world, instead of feeding us second hand information about already well read narratives. 

The poems I’ll come back to in this book are:

-          'The people on the bus'

-          'Nathan'

-          'Reverse Deciduous Existence'

-          'To Autumn'

-          'A sock is not a human being'

-          'The Paraphilia odes'

 -          'Fictitious girl raised by cats'

-          'Self-Portrait as Muppet'

-          'Dulles Access Road'

-         ' Flooded Meadow'

Ashley George Williams.

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