Reading a poetry collection is always an adventure in cosmology. If the poem is a world, as I have long believed, then what is the book of poems but a series of worlds-within-worlds, a whole literary solar system the poet has set in motion?
Kimberly Burwick’s Good Night Brother is a volume of tremendous gravity and elegant design. It revolves around a dangerous sun whose intensity threatens to obliterate its source. This sun—or son—is also a mortal brother about whom the speaker-sister writes, “I am afraid again to get not far/enough from you.” Consider the heartbreaking syntax of these lines.
Why would the sister say this, we wonder, and why later in the book, this—“There was an art to/ getting away/ from you”? Perhaps because she has “see[n] [him] always thieving/ on humid roads/ with the scent of/ some desiccated badger,/ [his] planet-red eyes/ and thick arms petting/ every dumb virgin/ from here to Boston.” The brother is only posing as a planet among planets. His bright light burns everyone and everything it touches. In other words, he is born of this family, but has fallen from it, has gone the way of supernova.
I tell my students, “The most compelling and enigmatic collections revolve around questions, implicit and otherwise.” Good Night Brother summons an unrelenting curiosity. Who is this family, the reader wants to know, caught in the brother-son’s destructive orbit (“all who hate/ you joined to you”)? The members come into view slowly, ushered along on the “godfather moan of wind.” First, there is the “mother’s tan neck” and “nightgown,” both thick with the brother’s scent. Then, there is the brother himself, smug in his great mass, “making fun of moonlight” and all that is weaker than he is. We glimpse his “grand,/overweened fists” and “the foolish virgins who take [him] in.” We can’t help ourselves. We are reading soon with an eye to excoriation. We are reading with a longing to avenge.
There is also the sister, our guide on this pilgrimage through grief and grievance. She is filled with an eloquent rage and a gift for bearing witness to sorrow. Perhaps she is “the moon breathing hard come morning” and also “the flood of a heavy/patience misnamed grace.” She is the child who confides in her father: “It’s only natural, I tell [him],/ that the perverted starlings/ go after other birds,” just as the brother preys upon innocent girls, deceives all who succumb to his magnetism. In this collection, the reader too bears witness— to a family reckoning with a blight, a betrayer in their midst, while they “watch other families grow/temple blue, downy and not deformed.”
I tell my students, “All poems are love poems. All poets are in love with language.” But there is still this need to name and understand by name the way each poet demonstrates this love of language on the page. When poets sing praises, we call these poems “odes.” When poets mourn great loss, we call these poems “elegies.” But what do we call songs of “the fury you wild upon us,” rendered here by Burwick with such galactic strength? They are not manifesto, and they are not rant, and I have never read anything like them. They are soft and sharp, quiet and unflinching, intimate and elusive at the same time. Might we call them “umbrage poems”?
Take, for example, this poem, “Being in the Family”:
What should come from
the red hawk lives on the limbs
of mother, the homeless lot
of stolen lilies, April and
the sway of creatures failing
on a windy night, the way waterflowers
damn us with their green apple
smells and brother rivers
himself toward you, and the only
way to close his mouth
is to plug the throat with lilacs.
It is the sound of a question at first—“what should come”? But then we see that “what should come from/ the red hawk” is the unnamable subject of the poem, understood only by its relation to other things: “the limbs/of mother,” “stolen lilies,” “creatures failing,” “waterflowers.” The brother is here as always, antagonist embedded in the landscape, so sly he “rivers/himself toward you,” never moving in a straight, predictable line. He will not be praised, and he will not be mourned. He will not be victorious either. The speaker contemplates nature with clear eyes, the human inseparable from other failing creatures. And when the predator comes, cloaked as kin, this does not make him family. These poems symbolize what it takes to survive. They give reason to suspect and evade. They probe harsh truths by handsome light: “the only/way to close his mouth/ is to plug the throat with lilacs.” Umbrage poems, yes, shall we say?
Early in the collection, Burwick’s speaker pronounces, “Every sentence is really a question of harvests.” Through the words themselves, experience is parsed, separating wheat from chaff, the sweet apples from that which threatens the whole barrel. This parsing is a phenomenon both aesthetic and ideological. Our speaker seems to be pondering, What can be said? How can the unspoken, even the unspeakable, be named and ultimately claimed by language? She seems also to be wondering, What will the reader glean from these “fields of straw” and “wayside seeds”? What harvest will my language yield? Perhaps all is as she fears, and “[e]verything blessed with utterance [is] either felled or falling.” (After all, if a poem falls in a forest, does it make a sound?) Perhaps, in the end, “[i]t doesn’t matter what the sentences know,” only what the speaker has endeavored to say—what the speaker has risked by saying.
Good Night Brother doesn’t croon like a lullaby. It won’t soothe you to sleep or ease you into the bath. Rather, you will sit on the edge of your bed, unsettled, enthralled, longing for a resolution you cannot name. The speaker’s voice grows deep and guttural through successive illocutions until at last she can profess: “It’s good to imagine your body blued and salted in earth,/ glass-dead as blown marbles in hanging plants.” The title now conjures her irreparable umbrage, the “empty space of home” set against an “unplanned landscape.” It will be a good night, we realize, when the brother’s scourge upon the family has ended, when the “green and sour sun” has slipped behind the clouds forever. Then, “[i]f there is a song left on this earth/ with [his] name in it,” this speaker “will raise it/high into every strict void.”