Festival Poet Stephen Burt: Suburbia Seasoned with Unease

by Jacquelyn Malone
This is the fifth in a series of stories on headliners of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival (May 1-3).
Attend Stephen Burt's event at the festival.

If you haven’t read Belmont, a book of poetry by Stephen Burt, you may be surprised – as I was. Perhaps it is because he is a literary critic and a Harvard professor, I expected something esoteric. But here are poems about babies and children, about shopping and Subarus, about the wedding of friends and the occasions of suburbia. The tenderness with which he views life in the town of Belmont, Massachusetts is both unexpected and captivating. And yet these poems about the commonplace of our lives are offset by a deep unease with both what is and the alternatives to what is.   

The initial poem sets the tone: “Sing for us whose troubles//are troubles we’re lucky to have.” With a gentle irony, he goes on to enumerate such horrendous problems as “cold coffee.’ In the second section of the poem, he looks down on earth from flight, seeing houses that are the size of a grain of sugar and thinks, again somewhat ironically: “We should never look down/on what gives strangers comfort//on what we learn too late that we might need.”

Another poem early in the book is “Nathan,” a poem about the birth of his son. A three-pager, the poem is set in six divisions, each with its own look and feel. The first, nine lines in simple free-verse, dwells on anticipation in “our gentle house,” waiting until “We got in the car as if off to search for the sun.” (Note the subtle pun on sun/son.) The next section, in second person plural, has a radically different look and feel. Through the use of superscript the lines imitate the bumpy interruption of contractions and, with use the pronoun “we,” suggest that both father and mother are experiencing them. The subsequent sections follow the exhilaration of birth, the anxiety at the thought of an infant’s growing up, and the baby seeking the breast with “fingers seeking happiness.” In the final section this household has moved from John Keats to Ezra Jack Keats with a sense of belonging to the sweep of time that will land the child in “far more than we can think, or see, or say.”

With birth this “gentle house,” a domicile the adjective makes more Shakespearean than modern, becomes far different, a completely changed place. In this suburban world, to a child, peony buds become “like jesters’ caps with bells.” Burt’s “To Autumn” is filled with a baseball game and a child applauding the absence of geese on a pond. Here in this book are poems whose place names will resonate with any Massachusetts resident: Kendall Square, Wingaersheek Beach, Storrow Drive, Belmont and Ocean State Job Lot.

Yet always this familiar world is a camouflage for “an infinite supply/ of darkness & silence,” a universe with “no sign of human intent.” The silence of night invites “Owl Music.”

At sundown it seems harder     *     to eat the air
            than live the same way every day
so we take flight     *     owl music
            pinions and talons     *     into the harmless night
Who who stays hungry     *    who will scare

Who will resent my camouflage

Here Burt introduces a subject that becomes more evident in the second section of the book: camouflage, or ambivalence with reality. That ambivalence can be about sexual identity or about decisions that have happy endings and yet seem, in solitude, not totally satisfying.

In “Paraphilia Odes” he ponders the pleasure of cross-dressing:

O my companions in microfiber & leather
O my companions in spangle & tulle
O my companions                 cat carriers in hand
Great treasure has been given to you to lose

In one poem he becomes “Stephanie.”  But all these identities come with a danger, which is awareness. “The Fall is not the discovery of sin but the discovery of responsibilities, consequential, open-ended or indefinite.” With awareness come obligations. Better to be the infant “my diaper my     *     rubber pants/ keeping me safe.”

Often in these poems there is a longing for more: ”Who did we love? Not the ones who returned our first calls,” the speaker says in “Paraphilia Odes.” And yet in the final section there is a freedom and joy in the images. As his young son flies a kite over Wingaersheek Beach, both father and son seem to “move spontaneously, by/ accident, up to that easy, cool, breathable air.”

Yet the poems in their style proclaim a restlessness and variety. Here are poems in rhyming quatrains and poems that spread out across the page with large gulps of air between the words, poems with superscript, and prose poems. Yet Stephen Burt always delights his audience with the lyricism and gentle wit that characterizes his voice.

A voice you can hear at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival!