Belmont by Stephen Burt

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In Belmont, Stephen Burt’s stunning third book of poems, readers will encounter “suburbs,” “Subarus,” and “a baby bottle packed with Scrabble tiles.” The artifacts of contemporary childhood serve as a point of entry to compelling philosophical questions: Why do children choose to construct imaginary worlds? Is there actually an advantage to choosing the real world over the imagined one? How does the role of the imagination in everyday life change as one grows older? As Burt explores possible answers, his finely crafted poems offer a wonderful balance of image and abstraction. The book’s profound discussions of innocence, experience, and the role of art in mediating the two, are carefully grounded in the tangible details of everyday life.

With that in mind, Burt’s ability to shift between various speakers proves especially remarkable as the book unfolds. At turns narrated by a father, various figures in the arts, and a newborn baby, the book’s poly-vocal quality prompts us to consider the ways in which these perspectives are complimentary. For Burt, the arts serve to remind us of the wonder, appreciation, and awe inherent in the child’s point of view, even as we grow older and begin to accumulate responsibility after responsibility. Consider “The Paraphilia Odes,” in which he writes,

And so we take greater pleasure, for much of our lives, in helping our friends or partners get what they want than we do in taking what we want for ourselves. (37)

Written in the voice of an embittered husband, this passage hints at the disillusionments inherent in adult life. I find Burt’s choice to present his thoughts in prose especially noteworthy, as the poet situates these revelations in the realm of textbooks, newspaper articles, and other types of writing devoid of wonder or awe. In another part of the poem sequence, Burt turns to verse,

He follows the tiny bones
At the beloved’s wrist,
Their workings as she writes on posterboard. (35)

Although narrated from the perspective of a similar type of adult character, this excerpt forms a stark contrast with the one cited previously. Passages like this one exhibit a tone of wonderment not present in the prose sections of the piece. Burt hints that poetry, as well as other art forms, help us to see the world anew, to retain some of the innocence inherent in a child’s point of view. Burt allows us to see into this perspective later in the poem,

make me sleepy again make *
me into your tiny
Possession * make me * someone new (38)

Stephen BurtIn many ways, Burt draws a parallel between the child’s perspective and the mindset needed to write poetry. Both require the individual to constantly see the world anew, to forget some of the hardships to which they have been subjected. It is Burt’s remarkable ability to shift between very different types of speakers that makes this assertion so compelling.

Along these lines, Burt frequently uses everyday items as emblems for these more abstract ideas, thus helping the reader see how these thoughtful discussions relate to the world around them. For example, Burt writes,

So tired of shining, glowing sparkling things,
leaves, grass and moons in moonlight—so many queries,
so much starlit punctuation, so many
tiny theodicies, wishful thoughts,
like sprinkles on a spoiled cake. (23)

What’s fascinating about this passage is Burt’s ability to ground his discussion of responsibility, academia, and adult life in tangible details. The “spoiled cake,” and its array of “sprinkles,” help convey the idea of a ruined system that people still buy into, and seek to appease—a complex set of observations that Burt encapsulates in a single image. Belmont is filled with poems like this one, which maintain a delicate balance between image and abstraction, dazzling the reader with their formal virtuosity all the while. In short, Burt’s latest poetry collection is a very accomplished one, and a fine addition to this poet’s excellent body of work.

Kristina Marie Darling is the author of nine books, which include Melancholia (An Essay) (Ravenna Press, 2012), Petrarchan (BlazeVOX Books, forthcoming in 2013), and (with Carol Guess) X Marks the Dress: A Registry (Gold Wake Press, forthcoming in 2014). More from this author →