Review: Sound & Basin. Megan Burns. New Orleans: Lavender Ink, 2013.
Sound & Basin the second full-length collection by poet Megan Burns, explores the waters that surround and pervade New Orleans, as well as its interior infrastructures of ruin and bone. Many of the poems emerge from the intersections of natural and man-made environments that threaten to reciprocally destroy each other, and attempt to preserve that which seems destined for extinction—images arrive out of their original contexts to live on in Burns' meticulous assemblages. In the book's best poems, the result is a charged juxtaposition between the raw and the curated.
From “SOUND: A Refuge.”
cypress trees tearing in the limbs with Spanish moss
root thigh high or knobby knees cap boggy detritus
crenellated petals at sunset, caught reptile’s rough touch
skin sunned against bark, yellow toothed grin paddling
against hours, nearly dead and quaking,
nearby the dead and their trembling, tremulous dead silence
tenacious marsh vanishing
creamed petals of the grandeiflora cupping its yellow hair
extinct lists: speckled trout, flounder, bass, blue crabs
shrimp, catfish, sunfish vanishing
This opening piece, written “for the dead zone of chandeleur sound,” doesn't just describe a physical landscape––it documents an act of conjecture, the reconstruction of a landscape by an organizing intelligence. The reader participates, drawn onward by propulsive gerund rhymes, encountering various doomed phenomena, and entering finally into a union with the dying ecosystem. While its lack of capitalization suggests a continuity between lines, the poem insists on each line as a discrete unit in a kind of index, structured by an ongoing process of sensory reception, if not clear lyrical progression. Enjambment divides and recombines the separate yet related components of the scene, and the resulting fragments remake the scene uniquely. It's a stunning elegy, that, in its effort to revitalize contact with the earth, resists being in terms of ideas in favor of the things themselves; the poem gets at “the truth” of the place without overdeterminingit.
In was in this sort of "determination to find the image, the thing encountered, the thing seen each day whose meaning has become the meaning and the color of our lives" that George Oppen discerned the beginning of modern American poetry. In his essay "The Mind's Own Place," Oppen distinguishes between the poem that "shows confidence in itself and in its materials, and on the other hand a performance, a speech by the poet." Elsewhere in the collection Burns alludes to Louis Zukofsky, whose polemic "Sincerity and Objectification" calls for a "writing which is the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist." These fundamental Objectivist distinctions—between materials and speech, with and of—may be at the heart of Burns' vision, in that most of Sound & Basin hasno persona to express; any "attitude" toward an object, any willed performance, would lack integrity. Her ongoing treatment of the materials at hand usually serves to test the sincerity of structures, not proclaim it. The poems return again and again to questions of form, language, memory. How can one articulate a series of (political, ecological, personal) crises that are always imminent or already occurring?
The purpose of form is to establish distance from any other
grouping. We can say here in this honeybee cell, the hexagonal shape
spells the sanity of the worker. I'm doing what you taught me, and it's
a wound too beautiful to cover up, too generous to call a stranger. You
can put a body in a pine box, but you can't sell a pine box to put a body
in; the removal of the corpse is closely regulated.
Here, form characterized by a division between subject and object––an aesthetic forged in opposition to some thing––is no longer usable. The strategy of the poem, here and elsewhere, is not necessarily reflective or even emotional candor, but an assessment of the poet's materials in terms of immediacy of moment and form.
As Burns rejects any conception of the artist as a consciousness coterminous with the world (“the photo is not a planet”), in favor of a poetry of the particular, the whole of these poems is often determined by occurrence. The materials, the “iron stags/timorous stone/to bend and kneel, alpine/borders of herbaceous negligee/rose bed,” are encountered, at times barely mediated. If, for these reasons, Sound & Basin often feels unresolved or somewhat opaque, it's because the poet is positioned among things as they are, not at a remove. This isn't to say that the book suffers from the extreme impersonality that can sometimes be the hallmark of Objectivist rigor, or should even be considered a quasi-Objectivist work, but rather that it is informed by a sense that what we experience deeply in the first-person in fact arrives from the exterior. In that way,Burns has achieved here a nuanced and alert remapping of her city, in which the daily resonance of nature and disaster, motherhood and memory, accumulates.
James Capozzi is an Assistant Professor of English at Virginia State University. He was born in West Milford, NJ. His first book, Country Album, won the New Measure Poetry Prize and is published by Parlor Press.